Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pfeifferiana

When I think about Michelle Pfeiffer, I think about Nathaniel, and when I think about Nathaniel, I think about how much he hates it when actresses muffle their natural beauty or, worse, actively dowd themselves down in order to chase an Oscar. I don't know whether he already harbored such animus toward this practice when Pfeiffer, his favorite actress, scored her first two Oscar nominations for two of her most radiant, self-consciously sexy turns in Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys, or whether it was thus Pfeiffer herself who instilled in his mind that one can be preternaturally exquisite and act terrifically and find a berth on Oscar's ballot... even if, you know, you maybe can't actually win. I'm sure Nathaniel hates it that Michelle lost to Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy, but if, on either occasion, Michelle had lost to, say, Charlize Theron in North Country or Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, I'm sure we would all still be breathing the ash from his own spontaneous combustion.

Those two performances as well as Michelle's nominated work in the somewhat underrated Love Field are all wonderful, but at risk of prompting Nathaniel's ire, my two favorite Pfeiffer performances both sort of wander down that garden path of cosmetic humility that customarily drives him a little crazy. Then again, when Michelle dresses down or slings hash or wears flannels or lets the tresses go unwashed, she never does it in a way that betrays any false exhibitionism (not to mention that she is never less than ravishing). She never chases Oscar, even when she's cast in a part that invites some showboating; she's too ego-less of a performer to take that approach, and beyond that, for me, her calling card as an actress is a laser-beam commitment to the severity and hard truths of her characters. No wig or costume, either frilly or frumpy, is ever going to get in the way of an emotional lucidity and an integrity like Pfeiffer's. She isn't, to me, the world's rangiest actress, or at least she doesn't seem so: some of her tics and inflections, especially that hard quality of her voice in extreme states of emotion, are a little predictable from role to role. And yet, when I sometimes get too comfortable with my assumption that Pfeiffer, however capable, works best in a confined register of parts—maybe because of her weird, recent predilection for undemanding soft-genre pics helmed by undistinguished directors—I look back over her filmography (often at some prompting on Nathaniel's site) and realize how unexpectedly she has popped up in some very disparate projects, and what new facets she has revealed in both her talent and her movies whenever she has traveled like that.

I'm staying mum about my favorite Pfeiffer performance, even though it's by many leagues my favorite, because it'll be coming up later—a good deal later—on my countdown of favorite films, and I don't want to spoil that fun. But my second favorite Pfeiffer performance is in A Thousand Acres, a movie that engendered little affection or admiration upon its 1997 release, partly because Touchstone Pictures had no idea how to sell it, and partly because, sad to say, director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, How To Make an American Quilt) had next to no idea how to make it. Working from Jane Smiley's terrific but tonally delicate novel, as loamy and tough and deceptively complex as the Iowan soil, the film version of A Thousand Acres makes almost every conceivable mistake of packing in too much incident, editing according to inherited sequence rather than any specifically filmic vision, shamelessly intercutting very different takes within scenes (a true nightmare of anti-continuity), and letting a lot of well-cast actors either flail about (Lange, Robards) or dully congeal (Anderson, Leigh) because they don't seem to be getting any direction.

But then there's Pfeiffer, cast as the watchful and vengeful sister Rose, the Regan to Lange's Goneril, except that the movie's forcing of perspective through Lange (aka Ginny) and the sisters' crucial imbalances of knowledge and motivation basically shift all the nervy but righteous vindictiveness onto Pfeiffer. She can handle it. Boy, can she. From the moment you meet her, whipping up Salisbury steak in a casserole dish and un-self-consciously inhabiting a farm kitchen, Pfeiffer's eyes have got a mean tint of steel, and they seem even wider and more dilated than usual. Her character has just survived a bout with breast cancer, and is still getting acclimated to her mastectomy. She bears an uncertain relation to a handsome prodigal son (Colin Firth's Jess Cagle) who has just returned to Zebulon County, and she seems to bristle around her father (Robards), even when she's superficially making nice, even before the Shit Hits The Fan. Just watching Pfeiffer sitting in a lawn chair at the potluck dinner in the opening scene—legs splayed, elbows and neckline precipitously angled, dry ice in her eyes, while Lange perches with birdlike decorum by her side—it's clear that all the energy and friction in the film is gestating inside her body, her inner abacus of justice and, mostly, injustice.

As the revelations unfold, Pfeiffer stays within her simmering glory, even as the ramshackle editing and august but ill-situated photography show no real knack for capitalizing on the performance. The convolutions of Smiley's plotline, which feel so lean and hewn in the context of her prose, find their equivalent in Pfeiffer's taut but unembellished delivery. A lot of the biggest secrets are hers to reveal, but they're terrible secrets, and Pfeiffer's Rose takes an almost unseemly pleasure in bringing them forward. Even as the pendulum of moral right keeps swinging her way, we feel less and less comfortable with her, and we wonder how much we should trust her; Lange, usually so good at watercolor gradations and coiled psychologies, doesn't come anywhere near to where Pfeiffer does with a much less intricate approach. Wondrously, when Rose actually starts to break all kinds of ethical pacts, even those with her sister, we start to like her more: the actress's ironic management of empathy and outrage far exceeds what script-writer Laura Jones has achieved. All of this comes together in Rose's climactic monologue, delievered from a cot in a cancer ward, beneath an awful "cancer patient" wig, and amidst a chapter of the film that, even by its own poorly managed standards, feels listless, unformed. Pfeiffer's Rose has to list all the ways in which she has failed at life, but she preserves an enormous and wounding pride at her categorical refusal to gloss or deny: "I saw," she says, and it's the kind of pared-down screenwriting phrase that usually dies up there on the screen, but Pfeiffer brings it fully across. You wish there were more than half a movie around her, but there's certainly a whole movie in her, and it's the one you wind up remembering.

Farm wife? Cancer patient? Gingham? Dust of the plains? Big closing speech? Yep, all that, and still no Oscar nod for Pfeiffer, or even a whisper of a chance, even in the bum year for lead actresses that was 1997. Even at the Golden Globes, where the reaching to fill the category was an audible moan in the ballroom, it was Lange who scored what Holly Hunter so memorably described as a "Hamburger Helper nomination." I didn't get it then, and I don't now, but you never get the sense that Pfeiffer cares about these sorts of things. And why should she, with her work so amply and deftly behind her? She grasped the role. She co-produced the film. She held fast under poor stewardship and among struggling colleagues. She put it over. She saw. Now you go see. (And go here for more posts in Nathaniel's Pfeiffer Blog-a-thon, on this, the eve of her 48th birthday. That's eleven years older than Gillian, and she's still a vision!)

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2 Comments:

Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i've never much liked this film but this description makes me want to race to do so again. Perhaps I was distracted by the farm-wife cosmetic dullness ;) but for the record your favorite performance of hers I also quite enjoy, de-glamming be damned.

N

1:44 PM, April 28, 2006  
Blogger Marcelo said...

Dear Mr. Davis,

I have always enjoyed your site. After reading about one of my Pfeiffer's favorite performances I love your site.

Great writing.

6:39 PM, April 29, 2006  

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