There are actors and actresses whose work tends to get overlooked. Michelle Pfeiffer, who has consistently turned in brilliant performances throughout her career, is one of those. Although nominated three times without winning, Pfeiffer’s best work has mostly gone unrecognized. She famously turned down Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs because she deemed it too dark. Now, though, she probably couldn’t get any darker than Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. Pfeiffer will once again be in consideration for an Oscar, but this time in supporting.
A self-described Southern California surfer girl turned actress whose claim to fame at the time was her beauty, Pfeiffer was always smarter than she got credit for, and set out to prove she could be more than pretty. Although it’s possible that her beauty was the reason she never really got taken seriously as an artist. She launched her career singing in Grease 2 as the lip-smacking “bad girl” Stephanie and followed it up with an astonishing turn in Scarface, as Elvira Hancock.
No nomination for that though she was brilliant. An ice queen with a poker face, Pfeiffer stood out in a completely against-type role. That alone should have been enough to put her in line for better parts, but with the exception of Into the Night the good roles wouldn’t come until Married to the Mob in 1988. Again, no nomination for her work in Mob, even though she was completely deserving.
The nominees that year were:
The Accused: Jodie Foster (WINNER)
Dangerous Liaisons: Glenn Close
Working Girl: Melanie Griffith
A Cry in the Dark: Meryl Streep
Gorillas in the Mist: Sigourney Weaver
With Griffith in for the comedy role, Pfeiffer didn’t stand a chance. The 1980s were a strange period for leading actresses. They would probably be defined by Meryl Streep on one hand and Julia Roberts on the other. Young, vivacious, beautiful, and appealing to both men and women, Roberts set the bar to what Hollywood would be looking for. But Streep would set the bar for actresses on how to immerse themselves in acting – to speak in accents, to transform themselves in order to win. Other than Melanie Griffith, the actresses above were all transformed into real people or extreme characters. Pfeiffer would follow more in the Streep tradition, but because she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time she would not quite be let into that club. She also couldn’t really be Julia Roberts. She just wasn’t built that way as an actress. She was and is more inclined towards dark, brooding characters.
Pfeiffer’s work in Married to the Mob would cultivate a growing base of fans who thought she was being unfairly ignored for her work, maybe because of her looks. After Married to the Mob, she would make one of my personal favorite guilty pleasure movies, Tequila Sunrise. This was meant to be a big splashy A-list starring role, but the movie did not quite land the way it was intended. It’s great, though, if you haven’t seen it. One person at the time aptly described it as “attack of the killer blue eyes.” It is more than that, although it is also that.
Pfeiffer next landed a supporting turn in Dangerous Liaisons and received her first Oscar nomination. Was there talk of an affair on the set and could that have impacted her chances at winning? Possibly.
Winner: The Accidental Tourist: Geena Davis
Working Girl: Joan Cusack
Mississippi Burning: Frances McDormand
Dangerous Liaisons: Michelle Pfeiffer
Working Girl: Sigourney Weaver
After Dangerous Liaisons, Pfieffer would get as close to winning an Oscar as she would ever get in The Fabulous Baker Boys where she played a jazz singer (and stole many hearts with her electrifying rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee”). Many believed she would win the Oscar because it seemed like it was finally the perfect role for a promising actress. But 1989 was the Driving Miss Daisy year, and Driving Miss Daisy swept its way to Best Picture, while carrying along the great Jessica Tandy to the Best Actress trophy as well.
Winner: Driving Miss Daisy: Jessica Tandy
Camille Claudel: Isabelle Adjani
Shirley Valentine: Pauline Collins
Music Box: Jessica Lange
The Fabulous Baker Boys: Michelle Pfeiffer
Back then, actresses built up stock in their potential awards win. You can see here that Jessica Lange was busily building up that stock and would eventually cash it in with Blue Sky, after winning a supporting Oscar for Tootsie (but really because she made Frances the same year). Tandy had built up about as much awards cred as any actress, so it’s not surprising she would win for Daisy, making history by becoming the oldest Best Actress winner ever.
After The Fabulous Baker Boys, Pfeiffer would do a lot of great work but she would never get to another tempest in a teapot moment like she did in 1988-1989. She would do The Russia House, Frankie and Johnnie (though she way too pretty to have been cast in that role and she was not in consideration because of that casting choice – Kathy Bates was the inspiration for the part). In 1992, she would make Love Field and Batman Returns. She was nominated for the former, and was very good in that film, but should have been nominated for and won for Batman Returns – her darkly sublime Selina Kyle/Catwoman is still one of the best performances ever in any superhero movie.
Her work in the Age of Innocence, which was not nominated, is among her best. The film has been mostly overlooked and remains one of Martin Scorsese’s unsung gems. Pfeiffer is great as a woman outcast from society who must have a secret, unspoken affair with Daniel Day Lewis. It is a performance weighted with subtext and masterfully done. After that she would go on to do formidable work in films, but for some reason she would not get near an Oscar nomination for any of them. Not for White Oleander, for which she was deserving, not for The Deep End of the Ocean where she plays a grieving mother, not for my own personal favorites, What Lies Beneath, not for Hairspray – which is kind of a joke that she was overlooked. Not for Cheri. It’s getting a little absurd, right? What did she ever do to Hollywood?
Now we get to mother! where Pfeiffer will likely show yet another incarnation that bests many of her contemporaries. Will she again be overlooked?