Here’s to You, Michelle Pfeiffer

In honor of the actress’s 65th birthday, we take a look back at some of her biggest career milestones.

Michelle Pfeiffer marks her 65th birthday today. The three-time Oscar nominee seems to be at the top of her game with a successful fragrance line and a collection of recent projects that have garnered some of the best reviews in her career. Her latest big-screen outing, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania saw her in full action-heroine mode as founding Avenger Janet Van Dyne; a role for which most everyone agreed made her the movie’s MVP. It’s the latest in a long line of characters that have included a Russian spy, a diamond smuggler, a courtesan, a TV producer, a gothic matriarch, a fading socialite, a worldly countess, a torch singer, and a Shakespearean queen, among many others.

The reason for Pfeiffer’s varied assortment of characters and unquestionable longevity lies simply in her approach to the work. The way she lets whatever role she’s tackling take her over and her knack for going beyond the page to find humanity in each character she plays shows that Pfeiffer has always been an actress trapped in a movie star. Her commitment is unwavering. Directors have commented that they often awake at 5 am to multiple messages from Pfeiffer regarding that day’s shooting and the actress has been known to have multiple copies of the same script, each one containing different sets of notes with her at all times. That, coupled with the way she’s famously kept the media and the business side of the industry at arm’s length has allowed her to focus solely on the acting while adding to her already natural allure.

Pfeiffer has played the Hollywood game and proven herself good at it. She’s won by playing the game her way and not conforming to the standards set by an industry that largely values image over substance. Whether it be for the roles she took, the roles she didn’t take, or the way she’s lived her life off the screen, the actress’s instincts have given her a career that has flourished over those of some of her contemporaries.

In honor of the actress’s 65th birthday, here are 15 times Pfeiffer went with her gut and defied expectations in the process.

1. Don’t Call Her Baby (Scarface)

Landing the lead role in Grease 2 should have been a triumph, but the film was a bomb and Pfeiffer soon found herself as another hopeful starlet back on the audition circuit. Determined to land the part of the 80s cocaine moll Elvira opposite Al Pacino in Brian DePalma’s remake of Scarface, the actress flew herself out for audition after audition, culminating in an infamous final one where she accidentally cut Pacino with a broken dish while acting out her character’s explosive restaurant scene. This proved her commitment to the part in everyone’s eyes. Gone was the novice blonde from Grease 2 and in her place was an actress diving headfirst into what would be one of the most iconic performances of her career.

2. The Other Corset (Dangerous Liaisons)

Winning the lead role in Milos Foreman’s Valmont would have been a great calling card for any up-and-coming actress. The film was to be a lavish adaptation of a celebrated novel and was being helmed by a well-respected director. Although Pfeiffer won the lead in Valmont, she surprised many by opting to take on the supporting role in Dangerous Liaisons, the rival production of the same material that was being shot by Stephen Frears. The move turned out to be a wise one. Where Valmont came and went, Dangerous Liaisons was a financial success, not to mention an Oscar darling that gave Pfeiffer her first of three nominations and a new respect within the industry.

3. Not Just a Pretty Face (Frankie & Johnny)

Many balked when Pfeiffer was cast as the plain dowdy waitress in Garry Marshall’s movie adaptation of Terrence McNally’s acclaimed play, Frankie & Johnny. The story of two lonely ordinary diner workers had originally been brought to life on the stage by Kathy Bates. Trade papers criticized Pfeiffer’s casting by saying she was simply too beautiful to be believable as the character. Yet not only did the actress wow the naysayers with one of her deepest performances, but she also inadvertently turned the tables on her detractors by dispelling the myth that pretty people are incapable of being hurt, damaged, or bruised.

4. Cracking the Whip (Batman Returns)

Already having accepted her mantle as “the queen of subtlety,” Pfeiffer went after her most ambitious and flamboyant role to date as Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. A surprise pregnancy meant that Annette Bening had to drop out and Pfeiffer soon found herself donning the mask for the role which would help make her immortal. The shoot was an arduous one with freezing sets, a multitude of stunts, and a costume that impacted her ability to move, hear, and at times, even speak. Pfeiffer couldn’t even stay in her iconic suit for very long without getting lightheaded. All of it was worth it, however. To this day, fans unanimously agree that Pfeiffer’s psychological slant and anti-hero view on Catwoman remains the ultimate interpretation.

5. No Damsel in Distress (Wolf)

Not a lot of people remember (or even know of) this 1994 thriller from director Mike Nichols, but they should. Jack Nicholson stars as an over-the-hill publisher who begins a strange transformation after being bitten by a wolf in this intriguing, sexy, and somewhat telling, film. Pfeiffer plays the love interest, a part which, on paper seemed like nothing more than that. In actuality, it’s Pfeiffer’s role that is the most interesting. The actress plays her character as a wounded soul with baggage and secrets who comes into the movie with her own agency and resourcefulness so much so that (SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT) she ends up saving the leading man by the movie’s end.

6. Top Female Star (Dangerous Minds)

As long as Hollywood is around, there will always be those in power who believe that women are incapable of opening a successful movie on their own. In 1995 Pfeiffer helped prove them wrong (again) when she starred as a real-life ex-marine turned inner-city English teacher in Dangerous Minds. The success of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” definitely played a part in getting people into the theater to see the movie, but it was Pfeiffer who kept them glued to the screen and coming back, and come back they certainly did. The movie (which she also produced) was a huge late summer monster hit and eventually emerged as the top female-led grosser of the year.

7. Scream Queen (What Lies Beneath)

In the late 90s/early 00s, the horror genre was one that a lot of A-listers stayed away from. Those who did embrace such roles were more often than not rewarded with a flop on their resume (a la Mary Reilly). None of this prevented Pfeiffer from taking on the lead role in director Robert Zemeckis’ haunted house tale, What Lies Beneath. As the wife of a college professor who begins to experience strange occurrences in their palatial waterfront home, Pfeiffer equipped herself well in this entertaining ghost story, balancing fear with the struggle of a woman battling her own subconscious. It’s popcorn, for sure, but it’s also one of her most underrated and surprisingly poignant performances.

8. Mommie Dearest (White Oleander)

Pfeiffer began the 2000s with two hits under her belt (the aforementioned What Lies Beneath and the surprise hit follow-up I Am Sam). Rather than capitalize on this hot streak, however, the actress took the supporting role of a dangerous, manipulative mother in the dark drama White Oleander. The role is a tough one; that of an almost impenetrable, possessive woman who borders on psychotic. Pfeiffer makes such an impression in the part, she actually ends up dominating scenes she’s not even in. The actress has commented how White Oleander was such a daunting task, she found it hard to shake off the character once filming ended. But it’s also one which allowed her to venture into fresh and exciting territory as an actress.

9. The Return of La Pfeiffer (Hairspray and Stardust)

If there’s one thing that can kill an actress’s momentum, it’s taking too much time off. If there’s another, it’s getting older. Pfeiffer was in a precarious position when she found herself absent from the big screen for a handful of years in the mid-00s, a decision due to both family and a lack of interesting material. She hadn’t appeared on screen in five years and was on the cusp of turning 50 when she defied the Hollywood odds and came back in a big way. First, she camped it up as a malicious TV station manager in the musical Hairspray and then went full evil as a powerful witch in the fantasy/adventure Stardust. While each film enjoyed different levels of success, they both gave Pfeiffer two of her most audience-favorite roles of the decade.

10. Cougar Town (I Could Never Be Your Woman, Personal Effects and Cheri)

In Hollywood, the older leading men get, the younger their leading ladies become, leaving the space for older female romantic leads embarrassingly slim. Not so for Pfeiffer. Between 2007 and 2009, the actress found herself playing the love interest to a trio of the industry’s most handsome young actors. She found herself wooed by Paul Rudd in the comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman, romantically consoled by Ashton Kutcher in the drama Personal Effects, and in a passionate love affair with Rupert Friend in the period love story Cheri. Pfeiffer made it clear during publicity rounds for Cheri that she was not a fan of the term “cougar” as reviews tossed the label on her. Still, each project and role was yet another example of the actress once again rising above the confines of the Hollywood system.

11. Based on the True Story (The Wizard of Lies)

The Bernie Madoff scandal was ripe for cinematic retelling, playing out like a Greek tragedy of crime and greed that spanned decades. However, because a good number of Madoff’s real-life victims were members of Hollywood’s elite (including Pfeiffer’s neighbor Steven Spielberg), most studios were too scared to touch the project. Eventually, HBO Films picked up the script with Robert DeNiro starring as an uncanny Madoff and Pfeiffer as his wife, Ruth. The role was fraught with challenges. Besides being a risky property, the film required the actress to adopt a thick Queens accent, age up 10 years, and accurately portray a woman that the media had vilified heavily. The risk was rewarded with both audience and critical acclaim, as well as Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for Pfeiffer.

12. Into the Fever Dream (mother!)

One can only imagine what it must have been like as an actor to read Darren Aronofsky’s script for mother! for the first time. The director’s impassioned cry about the state of…well, everything, divided audiences as no other film did in 2017 with its religious allegories and nightmarish qualities. The one factor everyone could agree on, however, was Pfeiffer’s brilliance as the mischievous houseguest with no boundaries and a knack for making her reluctant hostess (Jennifer Lawrence) squirm. It was a part and a project that would have intimidated most actresses, but Pfeiffer threw herself wholeheartedly into the director’s vision, giving her character such life and zeal, that she became the only element that one could picture existing outside of the maddening world Aronofsky had created.

13. Indie Michelle (Where is Kyra?)

Although Pfeiffer is closely associated with studio films, she can’t resist a good part. It’s why she eagerly signed up to star in Andrew Dosunmu’s micro-budget drama Where is Kyra?, the story of a divorced woman who goes to risky lengths to survive following her mother’s death. Where is Kyra? is indie arthouse all the way, boasting an unconventional score and avant-garde camera angles. At the core of the film is Pfeiffer giving one of the rawest turns of her career, exhibiting desperation, fear, and her character’s mortality in the most magnetic of ways. Dosunmu commented at the film’s Sundance premiere that he could have gone “the Tilda Swinton route” when it came it came to casting, but felt that there was nothing that drove the story home more than showing Catwoman in such a devastating light.

14. The First Lady of The First Lady (The First Lady)

Today, most movie stars have happily made the leap from the big screen to the small/streaming one by headlining series which they feel offer up better parts than most feature films. Pfeiffer certainly found such a part when she was cast as former First Lady Betty Ford in Showtime’s The First Lady, which traced a trio of First Ladies throughout their respective tenures in the White House. Critics found much to dislike about the series, including the jumbled timelines, the episode structure, a Wikipedia-level approach to the three women, and especially Viola Davis’s take on Michelle Obama. What they did like was Pfeiffer, whose performance was able to transcend the series’ various problems thanks to the honesty and vulnerability she conveyed playing one of the most famous women who had ever lived.

15. Marvel Michelle (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania)

When Jamie Lee Curtis was asked if she’d ever join the MCU, she replied: “I would find it hard to imagine that Marvel’s going to figure out something to do with a 64-year-old woman.” Pfeiffer’s turn as Janet Van Dyne in Quantumania says otherwise. After being relegated to a supporting role in the first sequel, this time the actress finds herself being a co-lead, even driving the story more than the titular character. Janet gives Pfeiffer plenty to work with, namely a dark past that she has yet to recover from and which she must face. Response to the movie was…rather mixed. Yet there was much to applaud when it came to Janet, who was Quantumania’s greatest strength and proved that not only does the MCU know what to do with a woman in her 60s, they know what to do with one like Pfeiffer.

So what’s next for Michelle Pfeiffer? Considering she’s pretty much done it all, and done it well, it’s possible there might not be too many more acting hills to climb. Then again, maybe there are. As of right now, she’s set to star as a woman whose three grandchildren are thrust into her care when her estranged son is sent to prison in Wild Four ‘O Clocks, the directorial debut from The Batman writer Peter Craig. The actress is also attached to a comedy called Sylvia’s Second Act, playing a recent divorcee who heads to New York City to reinvent herself following the end of her marriage. It’s been a career filled with spectacular performances and subverted expectations. And for an actress who believes her greatest performance is still in her, the best may indeed be yet to come.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is out on Blu-Ray and DVD on May 16th from Marvel Studios.

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