Up close with Michelle Pfeiffer -- The actress struggles to balance her search for the perfect movie role with being a major movie star

By James Kaplan
Updated January 27, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

Michelle Pfeiffer is telling a story on herself, doing a pitch-perfect imitation of her agent, the mellifluous, legendary Ed Limato of ICM: ”He says, ‘Michelle, darling. If you think the public wants to see you in another wig, doing another accent, you’re mistaken. That’s not what they want.”’

”What do you think?” I ask. We’re ensconced in the back back room of a French/Southwestern ladies-who-lunch restaurant near Pfeiffer’s West Los Angeles house. It’s a couple of weeks before Christmas; a fire crackles in the fireplace.

”Well,” she says, ”he’s probably right. The things that interest me are not usually easy sells. But they keep letting me make movies, so that’s all that really matters to me. Basically, for the last five or six years, I’ve done movies because I like them. Some have been successful, and some haven’t. Some I wear a wig, and some I don’t. Some I have an accent, and some I don’t. And I’d like to keep making choices in the same way. He was very relieved when I did Batman Returns, though,” she adds, with a laugh.

It’s a serious laugh. At 35, Michelle Pfeiffer is at the zenith of her career. Yet there were three years between her Best Actress nomination for The Fabulous Baker Boys and the release of the fabulously successful Batman Returns, and they were a commercial minefield for her. There are those who maintain she has sold short her greatest success by choosing character roles that emphasized her extravagant acting talent over her extravagant good looks. While she’s universally admired, even revered, for her acting, she is by no means above Hollywood’s harsh calculus. ”Look,” says one insider, ”the jury’s still out on whether Michelle Pfeiffer can open a movie.” Yet, if such assessments bother her, she gives no sign. She knows as well as anyone that nobody — certainly no woman — is given tenure in Hollywood.

Last June, Pfeiffer finished shooting Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about upper-class mores in 1870s New York City. She plays Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman liberated before her time and ostracized for her nonconformity. The picture was to have come out last fall, but it was pushed back a year to accommodate Scorsese’s intensive editing process. The result has been one of those odd lacunae that becalm even the most productive careers now and then. On the one hand, it’s been nice (”I think I sufficiently burnt myself out to where I could plan to relax,” Pfeiffer says); on the other hand, heat — which the world cares about, even if the actress doesn’t — cools.

Into this gap fall the problems of another wig-and-accent Pfeiffer picture, Love Field, a small road movie about an interracial love affair, set in the South at the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was finished in November 1991, but then the bankruptcy of Orion put it in cold storage. Now the reorganized studio is hoping Love Field will spearhead its return to the business. It seems a fragile spearhead, and Pfeiffer is having a hard time hiding her ambivalence about it.

”I like the movie very much,” she says, her flat voice belying her words. ”I think that its message, if it has one, is one of hope and crossing boundaries — of sex, of race, of class.” Her voice trails off.