There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.
It was only a week ago that I found cause to revive the “Bait Taken” feature, and now here I am, all roiled up over another Vulture list. In my meek defense, the creative team behind New York magazine’s culture blog went ahead and crafted a list that is right in my proverbial wheelhouse. And then got it only about half-right.
To put my admiration for Pfeiffer’s acting in perspective, I’ll note that my yearly habit of scrawling out my preferred acting nominees for the Academy Awards has been going on for a long, long time. And I even extended the practice backwards a little bit, at one point making my choices for every film year back to 1980. In the alternate universe where I set the Oscar nominees, Pfeiffer was the equivalent of Meryl Streep through the nineteen-eighties and -nineties. Basically I agreed with the assessment Martin Scorsese offered when he cast her in The Age of Innocence: in those days, she was flatly the best actress out there.
So when Vulture headlines a piece “The 10 Essential Roles of Michelle Pfeiffer,” I find myself a little helpless. I need to chime in.
As a preface, I will note that I take the “Essential” in that prompt seriously. Were I to go with “Best,” I would undoubtedly end up with a slightly different list. Even so, this represents, I think, an accurate journey through Pfeiffer’s career, illustrating precisely how and why her talents were wondrous and rare.
Presented in chronological order:
Into the Night (John Landis, 1985). John Landis’s combination of a screwball comedy and a old-time crime thriller that’s been alternately shaded in with nineteen-seventies grit and nineteen-eighties gloss is as discombobulated as that pile-up of descriptors implies. It is, however, a stellar showcase for Pfeiffer, who shows her first true flashes of star quality. In an even more impressive forecast of things to come, she also finds the glimmers of humanity in the jewel smuggler character that, on paper, is more of a narrative contrivance than a full-fledged person.
Sweet Liberty (Alan Alda, 1986). Here’s where the complexities of Pfeiffer’s acting emerge, thanks to a part that calls attention to the fictional building blocks of that very craft. As Hollywood star Faith Healy, Pfeiffer plays both the kind-hearted fabrication Healy brings to her starring turn in a Revolutionary War drama and the harder edge of the real women underneath. It’s a neat trick that Pfeiffer plays with insight and quiet cunning.
Married to the Mob (Jonathan Demme, 1988). The comedy is deliberately frothy, all the better to soften the abusiveness of the modern mobster culture that drives the plot. Pfeiffer charms as Angela de Marco, a woman escaping her place as an ornament in the underworld. But the performance is grounded in pathos, a longing for a better, safer place. Jonathan Demme’s natural affinity for humanist storytelling feeds into the first Pfeiffer performance that unequivocally deserves to be called great.
The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves, 1989). And here’s the one that will forever be held up as the pinnacle, arguably no matter what else may come. This is a true star performance, from the moment she literally tumbles into the film. As singer Susie Diamond, Pfeiffer does just about everything an actor can be asked to do, nailing every last task. Frame by frame, the film offers the enviable, enlivening sight of performer in complete command.
Frankie and Johnny (Garry Marshall, 1991). I will forever argue that this adaptation of Terrence McNally’s two-hander stage play is foolishly undervalued. It is wise and wryly funny, offering up an examination of romantic ache that is deeply, resonantly true. Pfeiffer was dismissed by many for supposedly not disappearing enough into the drabness of her character, a New York waitress gun-shy about love. That complaint entirely misses the point of the film, the story, and the acting. Pfeiffer plays Frankie’s pain, anger, and slow emergence into a feeling of possibility with grace and heart.
Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992). When the modern superhero movie was in its infancy, most performers who slipped into costume were just getting by on being big and colorful. As Selina Kyle — who becomes Catwoman — Pfeiffer indulges in some of that emotive inflation, but she girds it with a inner life coming to fruition in hyper-charged fashion. It’s delirious villainy as empowerment.
The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993). Piercing and exquisite, Pfeiffer simultaneously works with the strongest director (Martin Scorsese) and the strongest co-star (Daniel Day-Lewis) of her career. And she prospers, pushing into areas of internalized emotion with astounding authenticity. I remain stunned that this wasn’t the performance that nabbed her an Oscar. Indeed, she wasn’t even nominated.
Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995). The teacher drama wasn’t good upon its release and it’s aged particularly poorly, becoming the quintessential example of condescending white savior teacher taming the angry youth who roam the blackboard jungles of inner city schools. Pfeiffer, though, doesn’t give up, ably demonstrating how a strong actor can add dignity to a misguided role. More than that, this film offers one of the clearest examples of Pfeiffer’s singular talent for taking a character through a dramatic transformation yet maintaining an unmistakable thread of identity. LouAnne Johnson is very different at the end of the movie than she was at the beginning, but Pfeiffer shows how it’s fundamentally the same person throughout.
White Oleander (Peter Kominsky, 2002). I’ve already written about her work in this film at length, so I’ll use the hyperlink to submit those older words as evidence here. I’ll only add that this increasingly looks like it will stand as one of Pfeiffer two or three best performances.
Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2007). This — along with a couple other films released the same year — represented Pfeiffer’s return to the screen after a half-decade off. She’s fun in the role of a former beauty queen turned evil stage mother, but it’s mostly essential because it offers a case study in the dwindling options available to the actress as she pushed toward her fourth decade in show business. There were indications that she tried to follow Bette Davis’s oft-quoted advice to turn to character roles early. Just as she was unfairly said to be miscast in Frankie and Johnny, the entertainment overlords seem uncertain about what to do with her now that she’s a beauty who’s, as they say, “of a certain age.” There are hopeful signs that things could yet turn around and a late-career revival remains possible. (A role in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! at least pairs her with a more complex director than she’s worked with in years.) Pfeiffer’s many exceptional performances make it clear that she deserves a better fate than Velma Van Tussle, singing about past beauty queen glories. Her talent is too formidable. Given the chance, she can bring something great to life.