Suppose I asked, do you want to meet “Michelle," what would you expect? You might wonder, “Does he mean the first lady?” But the more you think about “Michelle,” the younger the name seems. If I had to take a guess, I’d say “Michelle” would be closer to a Beatle-like 25. That’s the age Michelle Pfeiffer was in Scarface, when her character, Elvira, in an aqua-colored sheath and straight blonde hair, got in the glass elevator to go to dinner with her guy, Frank, and the guy who straightaway reckoned to be her guy, Tony Montana. She was spitting boredom, insolence and contempt. She arrived.
Director Brian De Palma hadn’t wanted Pfeiffer in the picture at first, but by the time he came to shoot this scene it was in the star-is-born class. Not that Pfeiffer was Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly or Julia Roberts. There was nothing about this woman that said, Look, isn’t she lovely! She was in her own world, hardly noticing the men staring at her. Maybe she was stoned, or just shut off in her own glass elevator of sourness and ennui. It seemed as if she didn’t want to be in the film, or its boring Miami.
It’s hard to think of a big-scene debut that was so unpromising. Elvira was signaling that there was no pleasure to be found in her. She was a pain in the neck or a very pretty woman curled up to protect her own unreachable inner pain. In a lot of movies there would have been the hint that she and Tony Montana were going to save each other. And you can believe that Al Pacino’s Tony is half-entertained by that stupid thought. But Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elvira was a goner.
Of course, there was a period when Michelle Pfeiffer was a star. Some people said she was the most beautiful woman they’d ever seen. Not that they’d seen her anywhere but on a screen. She was a claw-bright Catwoman in Batman Returns. She was so gorgeous you felt you could smell her summery fragrance in The Witches of Eastwick. And then she was Susie Diamond in a red dress stretched out on a piano singing torch songs in The Fabulous Baker Boys, for which she learned to sing, and in which she is one of the authentic hard cases in American film. Not that I can remember her smiling in that film. Susie Diamond was like broken glass. If you reached out for her you’d likely cut your hand.
These thoughts are provoked because Pfeiffer has a new film, The Family, about a Mafia family that goes into the witness protection program (in rural Normandy!), except that old habits die hard. Pfeiffer is mom, and Robert De Niro is dad. He’s Giovanni and she’s Maggie. They were the Manzonis and now they’re the Blakes. Tommy Lee Jones is the FBI man who is supposed to look after them. Has there ever been a movie with three grumpier stars? Pfeiffer rolls her eyes and shrugs with her mouth, enough to suggest it might be a black comedy, and in the long ago, merry Married to the Mob, she was a sweet kid mixed up with the wrong people. But in The Family, her illusions have gone, and there’s a daughter in the film, Dianna Agron, to do the looking cute stuff.
There was a time when Michelle Pfeiffer was getting $10 million a picture and I suppose one of those paydays, What Lies Beneath, counted as a hit. That’s the one where her husband, Harrison Ford, is out to get her, but Ford does villainy with about as much heart as Pfeiffer does, “Aren’t I great—come and get me.” I don’t know where the line is drawn that made it clear Michelle didn’t want to have to seem great or gettable. She looked as if she’d been crying all night. She seemed gloomy and broody, and even in the alleged love stories, you never felt that she was being moved by what was going on. The last time I felt that being in love meant anything to her was Love Field, The Age of Innocence, and The Russia House (she had a bit of Garbo in that one).
In the years since then, the list of work gets increasingly dank: Wolf (that was Jack Nicholson’s film); Dangerous Minds (she was teaching rough kids); Up Close and Personal—that was the one about television, with Robert Redford, and it was terrible; To Gillian on her 37th Birthday; One Fine Day; A Thousand Acres; The Deep End of the Ocean; The Story of Us; What Lies Beneath; I Am Sam; White Oleander; I Could Never Be Your Woman (straight to DVD); Hairspray; Stardust; Cheri; Personal Effects; New Year’s Eve; Dark Shadows; People Like Us (as Chris Pine’s mother). Some of those aren’t as bad as others. But some are far worse. Dark Shadows is lamentable, and Pfeiffer looks wretched about being in it.
What happened? She has been married for decades to David Kelley, the very successful television producer (“LA Law”; “Chicago Hope”; “The Practice”; “Ally McBeal”). They have two children. For all I know it’s a happy home where no one takes her films seriously. But they would seem to be prosperous enough that she doesn’t need to go on being unhappy. Take Cheri. It’s a classic older woman–younger man story, taken from Colette. Christopher Hampton wrote the script and Stephen Frears directed—some 20 years earlier they had worked with Pfeiffer on Dangerous Liaisons, where her character had a lot to cry about. The role of the woman in Cheri runs over with opportunity. It ought to work. But the film was a failure, and it seemed as if something Michelle was reluctant to look old enough, or even to be there.
If you hoped The Family might be funny, think of the last time an actress had a good time with De Niro. Michelle Pfeiffer has had three Oscar nominations in her time, and she made a handful of very entertaining pictures as well as The Fabulous Baker Boys which is in the highest rank. But for years now, she has not seemed to be enjoying her work. There’s a simple rule about movies, and it applies to other things—if you want the world to have a good time, start with yourself. As it is, being on screen just seems to rub salt in Michelle’s wound: She was pretty once and insolent toward pushy guys. Nowadays, she ought to be called Maud or Magda. Michelle is a dog that don’t hunt.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.