Aging Gracefully with Michelle Pfeiffer
By Russell Brown
Sep 12, 2007
Even watching it today, there's something forbidden about The Fabulous Baker Boys. I can't remember why it happened, but when I was a teenager, it somehow was planted in my mind that this movie was too racy for my eyes. I was thirteen when it came out, and I still remember that distinct sensation -- the mixture of embarrassment and intrigue -- that the grown-ups know I know what it's about, but still want to deny me the experience. How did this happen? Did my parents catch me watching it late at night on HBO? Was I denied entrance at the theater? Were my eyes covered by an adult during the naughty parts? Sadly, I honestly can't remember, but I know it had to do with those images of Michelle Pfeiffer slinking around the piano while singing "Making Whoppee". Apparently that scene held such an eroticism and sophistication that someone felt it was beyond my comprehension. And so, while watching it just a moment ago on YouTube, I was transported back to my adolscence, and I couldn't wait for the clip to be over -- lest someone catch me in the act -- watching something "illegal."
It may be because of her appearance in that film that Michelle Pfeiffer is so closely linked to my memories of watching films as a young adult. Perhaps more than any other actress, her performances are somehow indelibly linked to my teenage years. I guess it makes sense: She hit her stride right around the late '80s in a series of roles that mixed all the elements that I loved in film -- humor, sophistication, intelligence, sex appeal. And her recognition as a great talent somehow paralleled my coming of age. She was an actress I could root for because she hadn't been identified by my parents in the way that they recognized, say, Meryl Streep. It's not that I "owned" Michelle in the way some teenagers glom on to and fetishize certain directors, as if their films were made "only for them". But rather, Michelle was new and so was I, and we seemed to have our tastes in common. We were kind of on the same team. Right around the time she was becoming famous, someone told me that she had been discovered working at Raging Waters. (Or was it Vons?) I'm not sure if this rumor is true, but it helped solidify the idea in my mind that she was cool and that we could relate to each other.
I hadn't thought about Michelle Pfeiffer for a few years. As has been well reported, she kind of disappeared, took a break to raise her kids, was doing her own thing. It didn't really bother me, because my interest in her was never really conscious -- only in retrospect does it seem kind of poignant that she was connected to my youth. And so, it didn't really cross my mind that going to see Stardust would conjure any special emotion. But to my surprise, more than the film itself (which I didn't really care for) the thrill of the movie came from seeing her again and just being really happy that she is doing well. Everyone knows she looks great -- but it was both inspiring and nostalgic to see Pfeiffer onscreen, owning the role, stealing the movie. Suddenly, all those memories of seeing her other films for the first time flooded through my mind. Dangerous Liaisons was similar to Baker Boys in that I somehow managed to see it despite the fact that my parents probably wouldn't have approved. My friends and I loved this film, and quoted it to each other throughout high school -- it romanticized a certain brash sexuality that, at that age, is really enticing. With The Witches of Eastwick, I remember staring at the one-sheet, mesmerized by the gothic typeface. I had heard of Susan Sarandon, but who was this "Cher"? And why did she only have one name? She must be some new up-and-comer, I remember thinking, who believes that only having one name is, like, cool or something. It would be a few years before I fully understood the cultural significance of "Cher". Watching Married to the Mob, I remember not quite understanding what the "mob" was, but also thinking that the trick of sliding away the eyes of a painting to watch a woman change into a restaurant uniform was a pretty clever idea. (I also remember thinking that Mercedes Ruehl was going to be a huge star. Oh well.) As I mused back on all these moments, it suddenly occurred to me that Michelle Pfeiffer no longer really had to try to please the way she did in her early career -- she had reached a comfort in her craft, and a confidence that comes with having a body of indisputable quality work. She was always good, of course, but it now seemed to me that she was impenetrable in a way that she couldn't have been earlier in life. And it made me wonder: Have I become more impenetrable too, as I've grown older?
There's something beautiful about the connection between us and the actors who find success during our teenage years. I'm sure it's true for the other stars of Stardust -- Claire Danes and Robert DeNiro -- that there are people out there who remember seeing Taxi Driver or Romeo + Juliet when they were thirteen, and recognizing that something special was happening in real life for that actor up on the big silver. It's a different type of bond than seeing an artist peak when you are further along in life. There's something inherently more exciting about it -- more visceral, more authentic and indelible. It can't be planned or marketed to, and it's a very personal thing. It's different than just being a fan. It's really about experiencing movies at a very specific moment, when possibilities for the future and the notion of love are just starting to become reality in a different, mature way. Movie stars connect us to moments in our lives that sometimes have nothing to do with them or the movies they are in, but just in the time they exist and the time you exist. And somehow, their star rises while yours does too.
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