Part 7: Dangerous Liaisons
Michelle had been elevated to leading lady status. She said of her new powers and freedom, 'For a long while I didn't think I could take care of myself. I felt I was going to destroy my life, I wasn't capable of taking care of my life. I've found that not only is that not true but I can do a damn good job of it. Being an actor it is very difficult to separate yourself: you are 'you,' yourself; and you are also a 'product.' It can be very difficult to separate them... knowing that when you are reading a bad review it's not you. And it's hard to separate them when you read a great review, and it says you're the Second Coming or something, that it's not you.' She added, 'For the first time I'm getting comfortable with being alone and actually really liking my life. I'm taking more control over other things.'
Michelle with Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell. Trivia: Between takes Michelle and Mel would play Scrabble in their trailers.
|Her work was still a priority in her life. She was offered and took the role of tough restauranteer Jo Anne Vallenari, opposite Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell in Tequila Sunrise. Writer and director Robert Towne had seen Sweet Liberty and seen that Michelle would perfectly capture the duality of a woman forced to keep her public and personal faces separate. He said, 'She gave a very witty performance, one in which she displayed an ability to have a surface persona and then break into a whole other character. And someone who owns and runs a restaurant has to have those two speeds, this surface persona as a hostess, dealing with people regardless of what's going on, gracious even in the face of crisis, which has its own kind of comedy. And then there's intrigue to it. "What's that woman like when she's not being so fucking gracious that she drives you nuts?" Her sang-froid and beauty became a challenge and a kind of rebuke.'|
|The film was in essence a study
of how friendship deteriorates over time, with two
childhood friends by adulthood having ended up on either
side of the law, and a love-triangle. Kurt Russell played
smooth-talking cop Nick Frescia, and Mel Gibson, a
paranoid drug-dealer trying to go straight, Dale 'Mac'
McKussic. Michelle's character was the third side of the
triangle. Towne said, 'I think she is kind of the moral
centre of the film. I think we as the audience have to
believe that she is principled, decent, tough, and the
choice she makes is to some extent a moral choice. She
falls in love with the man she senses has the greatest
purity, the greatest decency.
Michelle enjoyed working with Russell and Gibson, who said of her, 'She was someone who always seemed very sure. She was very firm about what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it.' But everything else she did not enjoy, and has since avoided ever seeing the film, saying, 'What I look for in a director is freedom, and that's not what I got from Bob.' She added, 'I had a hard time playing the part. It was very limited as far as what I could do. She was a very controlled sort of person- I don't find those roles fun to play.' One could see her point when watching the film, but nevertheless, her performance in Tequila Sunrise remains among the most popular with her fans. And it can also be noted that this film, along with Into The Night, contain probably Michelle's only 2 notable moments of nudity.
When released, the film was not the hit it could have been, but Michelle was distracted with other concerns. She was 30 and single. Some rumours had surfaced suggesting that she and Alec Baldwin had taken their roles as husband and wife in Married To the Mob a little too seriously, but this was merely fiction and even if anything had happened between them, it was over by the time that film wrapped production. Her rumoured link to Val Kilmer was much the same, but it was obvious Michelle had left some imprint on Kilmer when in his poetry anthology he dedicated to her the poem, 'The Pfeiffer Howls at the Moon.'
What was more significant was her relationship with the other and first Batman, Michael Keaton, who she met, of all places, at a supermarket. She said, 'I met Michael Keaton at Fireside, my local grocery store. I guess that's my love life- I just have to meet people at the market. I don't have many friends for a start. But, you know, the people we meet, the people we end up associating with, we usually meet through our work. Many times through social interest with other people and, you know, mine happens to be in the film business.' She added with a laugh, 'Dating is a disaster for me. I don't know how to, and I don't get the point. You're not really friends, and you're not really lovers. Besides, I never go anywhere.' She and Keaton spent time together, enjoying each other's company, but ultimately it was to be work that pulled them apart. Keaton was to be the title character of Tim Burton's Batman, and Michelle, after her attempts to lobby herself for the part of Catwoman in 1988 failed, headed off to France to film Dangerous Liaisons.
|Based on Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and the adaptation for the theatre by playwright, Christopher Hampton, the cinematic version was retitled Dangerous Liaisons because of the general concensus film-goers were less likely to see a film with a foreign title. The film, like its sources, was to focus in on the sexual antics of two French nobles in the latter half of the 18th Century, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont. With nothing else to do, they play sex games and lay bets as to who can seduce and destroy whom. They live for the power and the cruelty. And they were played by Glenn Close and John Malkovich.|
Michelle was to be one of their victims, virtuous Madame de Tourvel, a woman devouted to God and faithful to her husband serving abroad. As part of a wager laid down by the Marquis, Valmont has to bed her, and in turn, shatter her convictions.
Director Stephan Frears had to be convinced by Married to the Mob director, Jonathan Demme that Michelle was perfect for the role. Demme said, 'I showed Stephen a couple of reels of Married when he was considering Michelle for Liaisons. And he was clearly under her spell. But maybe he hesitated for an instant. He said, "'You know, she's going to be out there with John Malkovich and Glenn Close." And I thought but didn't say: "They better watch out."'
So it was that Michelle joined an all-star cast: Close, Malkovich, Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves, Swoozie Kurtz & Mildred Natwick. She was only avaliable for three of the ten weeks filming and Frears made full use of the time. He said, 'Michelle Pfeiffer I chose because she seemed to be from another world, a Hollywood actress from California, whereas the others are stage actors. the difference underlined the difference between the characters. The virtuous character, Madame de Tourvel, is also an outsider. Michelle is truly a fine woman who looked after her younger sisters while growing up. But astoundingly beautiful at the same time- which is a truly shocking combination. Very upsetting.'
|Michelle spoke of her character: 'The lasting appeal is the fear-of-loving theme. And my character as much as John's or Glenn's is very controlled and has that fear. Unlike Tourvel I'm not a real religious person. But I try to be moral. And, like Tourvel, I do not think my need to try to do what's right interferes a lot with my ability to just... live.'||
Off-camera, Michelle was involved in her own 'dangerous liaison' with then-married John Malkovich. It was a stressful situation, and the tabloids, finally finding something juicy on the up and coming star, pounced. Neither Michelle nor Malkovich ever commented directly on the affair but Michelle was willing to talk about just how draining the making of the film was. 'It was a very short schedule with an enormous amount of work crammed into a very short period of time and playing the part of Madame de Tourvel was emotionally demanding and very draining. I remember sometimes sitting in my trailer as they were setting up for a scene and knowing I had to go in there and cry again and just not wanting to do it, just sitting there and saying: "I don't want to do this."' She added, 'Because my work was condensed into a short time, every scene was some kind of heavy scene. There were no light days and doing a period film is very difficult. You're corseted for twelve hours and some days longer than that. You can't ever just relax and it's really draining. Usually you do a movie and you have one or two scenes that scare you, and you're not looking forward to doing. But in this script I had quite a few of them.'
Nonetheless, Michelle has since admitted that Dangerous Liaisons is one of the films of which she is most proud. And rightly. Out of all her films it is the one that works best as a cohesive whole, where her performance and that of the other actors are equaled by the resonance of the plot. Although not a commercial success in the United States, the film did very well overseas and critics worldwide praised it. When it came to awards season it was just as well received, and Michelle was in the running for the biggest accolade; An Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. On the night, neither she or Glenn Close (in the category Best Actress) won, but out of 7 nominations, Dangerous Liaisons won 3, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design. Although Michelle was not nominated for her two other 1988 films, Married To the Mob and Tequila Sunrise, they were also represented in several categories.
In the meantime Michelle tried to regain some order in her life. The publicity she had done for Dangerous Liaisons had been a solo effort, avoiding presumably Malkovich, with whom the liaison had ended. The press were still on her case, and the tabloids inventing more scandal. She didn't like any of it, and with her frustration levels rising, work once again seemed to be a suitable escape. So 'in a haze' she started filming what was to become one of her career highlights: The Fabulous Baker Boys.
|In it she played Susie Diamond, a former escort turned singer, who joins the piano-playing brothers, Jack and Frank Baker, in an attempt to spice up their lounge-singing act. She does, but her presence leads to a new tension between the brothers. The film is in essence a character-study, with Frank Baker (played by Beau Bridges), the dependable family man, Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges), the jaded brother wrapped up in his failed dreams, and Susie, the fiesty wild card looking for something more from her life.|
Michelle had read the script by writer-director Steven Kloves, several years previously, and said, 'I had read the script in 1984, and Steve at that point wasn't directing, but I loved it. But there was no way it was going to be made at that point. You know, there weren't any buildings blowing up or any car chases or anything like that. And the studios, if they can't sell it in three minutes, they get nervous.' She added, 'I was really tired, and strangely enough those are the times when the best parts come along. It's like when you're out shopping, and you know you're meant to be buying things for yourself. I've decided that's really the best way to choose projects. The the choice is usually right.' As for Michelle taking the role in 1989 when she was so exhausted she said, 'What happens is that I keep saying, "I don't want to work, I don't want to work. I'm not going to work. Don't call me. I don't want to read anything." And\ then this one part will come up and I'll have to do it. With Dangerous Liaisons it was just like that. The same with The Fabulous Baker Boys. They were just so special that I had to do them.'
|She talked indepth about the appeal of Susie Diamond to her. 'I reacted very emotionally to the script and the character and committed to doing it. She's a hero. She's a wonderful representative of women. She's independent, she makes no apologies for who she is. She's honest, she's strong, she lives every moment of life with relish. She's a real straight-shooter, the kind of character you don't see real often in films, and I would like to see more of in my life. Certainly, I'd like to see more of that in myself. That kind of quality was the big challenge in playing the character. If I walk into a room, I sort of find the nearest corner and hope that nobody sees me. She walks in a room and takes possession of it, just like she takes possession of life. The first scene in the movie was the most difficult; she walks into this audition and takes over. It was very hard to find that place in myself to do it.'||
As for what Susie did for in her personal life, Michelle said that playing her helped 'untap that [courageous] side of [herself].' More importantly, 'Playing Susie gave me a sort of sexual release. Up until 1988, I would never have been able to put on those kind of clothes and play such a\sizzling part. It has made me finally come to terms with my own sexuality. I feel I no longer have to wrap it up and pretend it is not there. I have never been truly confident about my looks. But playing Susie really affected me. I suddenly realised it was time for a change, and I am enjoying it.'
She had however in her excitement forgotten one crucial thing. She had to sing. After not having had a voice lesson in seven years she hurriedly, mere months before filming started, began training her voice. She took lessons, studied the style she would be performing in, travelled aroundlounges in Los Angeles, listening to all the she could find. After her initial concern that she 'was going to make an ass of [herself],' she didn't. She said later, 'I didn't embarrass myself. I think it's acceptable. But it's not Barbra Streisand, that's for sure.'
|As for making the film, she said, 'It was a wonderful working experience. The process was just wonderful, and I just felt that when the movie was finished I liked it so much, and I was so proud of it, and I was so proud of everybody's work in it that it didn't really matter to me what anybody else thought of it- and that's kind of rare.' She added that it was 'a joy' working with the Bridges brothers, and that she 'never felt excluded at all.' Specifically of Jeff Bridges she said, 'Jeff's not one of those tomented actors who create darkness on the set. When you're doing love scenes with actors it's important to have a trust with them. And we had that.'||Michelle & the fabulous Bridges brothers|
She admitted that Susie Diamond is one of the characters she most enjoyed playing, along with Angela from Married ToThe Mob. 'Usually at the end of a film, after you've done a character for about three months you're kind of ready to shed it. Those are 2 characters that I really felt like I was sorry to let go of and that I liked better than myself and were a lot more fun than I am.'
Director-writer Steven Kloves had a lot to say about Michelle and her dedication: ''Michelle has something very rare on the screen and that's mystery. She's a dark soul. She questions everything but I think she's happy now. You shouldn't underestimate this girl. There's a raw quality that comes through in every performance. She's someone who constantly wants to improve herself and widen her appreciation of the world.'
The film opened to rave reviews, with Michelle's performance as becoming recognised as one of the most powerful and sexy of the decade. Her rendition of 'Makin' Whoopee' has since been proclaimed a minor classic in modern cinema. But instead of simply resting on her laurels and waiting for awards season, Michelle decided to do something a little different: a foray into theatre and Shakespeare.
To Part 8...