SINGING THE PRAISES OF MICHELLE PFEIFFER
By Paul Freeman [1989 Interview, as she promoted her film “The Fabulous Baker Boys”]
Susie Diamond, the character Michelle Pfeiffer plays in the new film “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” has a hard edge. Off camera, Pfeiffer emanates an endearing vulnerability. Her dazzling eyes dart downward defensively. The corners of her sensuous mouth flick nervously into and out of a smile.
“The Fabulous Baker Boys” concerns two brothers (Jeff and Beau Bridges), struggling lounge pianists whose lives are altered drastically, when they hire a female vocalist (Pfeiffer). The atmospheric movie, rich in characterization, neatly juggles elements of comedy, drama and music. It relies heavily on Pfeiffer’s ability to be a believable torch singer. She effectively handles a wide range of tunes, including “Ten Cents a Dance,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Feelings.”
“I tend to react emotionally and then, afterward, think about my decision,” Pfeiffer said. “I committed to this movie and then it suddenly dawned on me that I had to sing all these songs. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I got pretty panicked about it.”
Pfeiffer has a newfound appreciation for classic pop. “I grew up on rock and roll, stuff like ‘Deep Purple.’ This is a vastly different way of singing,” she said. “It’s much more vulnerable. You’re really out there. I had to develop a whole different ear, a different way of phrasing.
“I didn’t want to emulate anyone, but I listened to a lot of Billie Holiday, as well as contemporary people like Anita Baker, who still sort of sings in that style, and even Rickie Lee Jones, where the voice is really showcased and the singer tells a story with the song.”
Vocal coach Sally Stevens worked with Pfeiffer for two months before filming began, drawing the maximum impact from the actress’ soft, sultry voice. “I was walking a delicate line. As a beginning singer, I couldn’t really grasp the techniques,” Pfeiffer said. “The slightest comment or suggestion from someone on the set could interfere. Then I couldn’t sing, because I was thinking about it too much.
“I’d put what they said out of my mind and Sally would say something like, ‘OK, you’re Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart is telling you that he’s leaving you and you’re never going to see him again.’ Approaching it from an acting point of view worked for me.
“It’s like beginning actors. When they’re running purely on instinct, they can be fabulous. But the minute they become intellectually conscious of what they’re doing, it can interfere with the instinctual mechanism and it can take years to understand the work on an intellectual plane.”
For Pfeiffer to put herself in such a risky position, in the singing spotlight, she had to feel a powerful attraction to the role. “Susie is so brave. She doesn’t apologize for who she is,” she said of her character. “She’s brutally honest about herself and others. She lives her life truthfully and really celebrates life.
“I’d like to be more like her. I’m pretty courageous in my career, but I tend to take the safe route with my personal life. I wanted to bring the daring side of myself out more and I thought I could do it through her.
“I’m not the kind of person who is going to walk into a room and take charge of it as Susie would. It was really difficult to find that place in myself and bring it out. I’m the kind of person who’d walk into the room, find the nearest corner and hope that nobody would notice me, so I could just wait it out until it was time to go home.”
Pfeiffer’s elegant beauty has always made her a center of attention. As a child, the Orange County native became fascinated with acting while watching old movies on TV. She took theater classes in high school, later entered a beauty pageant and found an agent.
“I had been working at odd jobs since I was 14. I tried junior college and stenography school. I was working in Von’s market at the checkout stand and some lady started bitching about her cantaloupes. I was really frustrated,” Pfeiffer recalled. “I asked myself, ‘What do you want to do with your life?,’ not ‘What do you think you could do or should do?,’ but ‘What do you really want to do?’ The only answer was acting. I was 19 and I had no idea what was involved.”
She played bits on TV in “Delta House” and such films as “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.” She shocked herself by winning a national talent hunt, capturing the lead in “Grease 2.” The movie slid into oblivion, however.
“When I started, I was just petrified. I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Pfeiffer said. “I learned my craft while I was appearing on-screen.”
Pfeiffer was taking acting classes, but it was her striking beauty that grabbed the attention of casting directors. “I realize that I was hired because of my looks in the beginning. I considered that an obstacle to overcome. People’s perceptions shifted gradually. I never got obsessed with the way I looked. If anything, it made me go to the opposite extreme. I tended to walk around in men’s clothes and no makeup and purposely make myself look a little ratty.”
Filmgoers and critics soon learned that there was far more to Pfeiffer than her exquisite features. She turned in memorable performances in “Scarface,” “Ladyhawke,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Married to the Mob” and “Tequila Sunrise.” For her portrayal of the saintly Madame de Tourvel in “Dangerous Liaisons,” she earned an Oscar nomination.
The acclaim was appreciated; the resultant loss of privacy was not. “You can’t walk out your door without being recognized,” Pfeiffer said. “The paparazzi descend on me like piranha on fresh meat. I usually try to accommodate them, but there are times when I simply do not want to be photographed. Then they shower me with insults and obscenities.”
The tabloids are another source of irritation, reporting Pfeiffer’s supposed romantic links with a variety of celebrities, such as Michael Keaton and John Malkovich. “You just have to cope and separate yourself from it and protect yourself as best you can. I can’t ignore it. It bothers me,” she said. “But I have to accept that it’s part of the reality of this world I’ve chosen.”
The rewards of acting make the tribulations worth enduring. “I love the process of acting. I must, to put up with all the craziness surrounding it,” Pfeiffer said. “To become someone else for a few months is a wonderful escape. There is both safety and freedom in expressing yourself while hiding behind a character. That’s a very seductive aspect of the profession.”
Fluttering through the movie industry, Pfeiffer seems like a butterfly trapped in a toxic waste dump. Nevertheless, she’s confident she can survive. “I’m real strong, but sometimes I think I’m not tough enough. But I have no desire to be too tough or jaded. In this business, it’s hard to stay open and be touched by life, while still guarding against the hurtful elements. So far, I think I’ve done a good job of it.”