Michelle's Biography

Part 9: Tequila Sunrise

After completing Frankie & Johnny, Michelle began scouring scripts for something different. One called Basic Instinct caught her eye, but after her requests for the sex scenes to be toned down were ignored, she decided to take a break. Of course the role of bisexual author, Catherine Trammel, went to then-almost-unknown actress Sharon Stone, whose apparent lack of inhibitions propelled the thriller into huge success, and made Stone a star overnight. Not that it bothered Michelle. She was too busy touring Europe with Fisher Stevens.

In the meantime, Hollywood was abuzz with gossip as to who would be playing the role of Catwoman in the eagerly-anticipated Batman sequel, Batman Returns. Director Tim Burton, the other producers and even Batman himself, Michael Keaton, looked at the endless list of possibilities; basically every actress in Hollywood. Michelle was apparently somewhere there. As producer Denise Di Novi put it, ‘Every major movie star from aged seventeen through age late forties we heard from.’ Eventually the filmmakers decided on Annette Bening, who had proven in her body of work that she was more than capable of playing sultry. But just as her casting was decided on, the news came though the Bening was pregnant with Warren Beatty’s child. It put her
well and truly out of the running. Di Novi recalled, ‘Michelle was the only other natural choice.’

Michelle was back home when she received the news of her casting. She laughed later, ‘ I was sort of giddy, like a kid. There weren’t any characters quite like her, any female characters who were allowed to be bad.' She explained, ‘Catwoman was a childhood heroine of mine. She’s good, bad, evil, dangerous, vulnerable and sexual. She’s allowed to be all of those things and we are still allowed to care for her. I used to watch the television series just waiting for her to come on. She just broke all of the stereotypes of what it meant to be a woman. I found that shocking. She was just such a forbidding kind of heroine for so many little girls. Also, I was probably at the age where I was just coming into my sexuality, and I just found Catwoman thrilling.’

Michelle’s casting meant that she couldn’t sit back and rest on her laurels. She had to get into shape and learn plenty of new tricks if she was to convince as the slinky, and at times, gymnastic, Catwoman. While the Gotham City sets were being built at the Warner lot in Los Angeles, she worked out, took up kick-boxing, yoga and weightlifting. Whipmaster Anthony De Longis taught her how to handle Catwoman’s whip. Every stunt involving a whip in the film was done by Michelle, with a standout being the decapitation of several mannequins in a department store. Tim Burton said, ‘She was better than the stunt people. She made the whip beautiful, like an art form.’
Michelle said herself, ‘Whips have a beauty, an elegance and a sexuality to them. There is almost a graceful, dance-like quality to them, which at any moment could turn violent. I got a little wild the first day with my whipmaster- I slashed his face and drew blood. I even hurt myself a few times. But he was an amazing teacher; there is an actual beauty to the way he taught me.’

Trivia: Michelle was doubled in some scenes by 5 times world kick-boxing champion, Kathy Long.
Cristi Conway (Ice Princess) spoke of Michelle's enthusiam: ‘Michelle was sweating profusely and looked like she was enjoying inflicting pain.. None of the whipping was meant to connect, but it did sometimes. Michelle had four stunt doubles- but she did all her own whippin.’
A whip was not the only thing to which Michelle had to get accustomed. There was the question of Catwoman’s costume- her catsuit. For the film there were sixty three of them made, and all skin-tight. Michelle said, ‘I was miserable wearing it. The mask and skin were rubber- so tight and thin it was like a second skin. Because it made me sweat, it gave me a bad rash, and then when it started to deteriorate and get holes in it, the edges would cut into my skin. It was so tight around my throat the straps were cutting off my vocal cords, and I ended up speaking in a high-pitched, strangled voice.’ When asked a few years later if she would ever consider a Catwoman film, she replied that she was game, but added, ‘I don’t want to put on that suit again. Playing Catwoman was a little like giving birth; you forget how painful it was.’

Wearing the outfit may have been a miserable experience for Michelle but could undeniably be said that it was effective. Tim Burton said, ‘You put a woman in a tight black suit and give her a whip and all of a sudden WOW... the rest is up to people’s filthy imaginations.’
Producer Di Novi was willing to share an anecdote: 'The first time Michelle put on her catsuit we did a camera test. No one had ever seen her in costume before, and when she walked out of her dressing-room you could hear a pin drop. Time stood still. It was a mostly male crew but even the women were stunned.’

Michelle did not simply stun in appearance, but in action as well. Tim Burton was ‘amazed at her ability to do those karate fights on curved roofs wearing four-inch high heels.’
Michelle explained, ‘I did a lot of my own fighting. I did have a woman doubling me, but we both would do the fighting, and then they’d kind of cut in and out of the two of us. I didn’t do the flips, and I didn’t do scaling of the walls. I did a lot of fighting! Once I saw the script, I was hooked. I knew it would involve a lot of physical exercise to get fit, but I know what my capabilities are. If I commit myself to something, than I have enough physical co-ordination to excel.’

While all this was going on, the tabloids having a field day printing stories about how Michelle was involved in a love triangle, with Fisher Stevens, and Batman (and ex-beau) Michael Keaton. Keaton, ever-private put the story straight: ‘The truth of the matter is that we just dated for a while. It probably enriched things in the movie. I think it was just enough history to help us and not enough of a history to get in our way. She’s good to work with. I’m such a fan. In a way, I think she has more range than anybody.’ He added, ‘People asked if I was excited that Michelle Pfeiffer was Catwoman. I said I’d work with her if she was playing a CAT scan.’
Michelle said, ‘I think that the fact we’d had a relationship helped. I trust him. We both feel really comfortable with each other.’ Their onscreen chemistry can arguably be called the most potent in the entire Bat series.

Above: As frumpy secretary, Selina Kyle.
Trivia: Michelle once called Batman Returns, the ‘Most sophisticated and inspirational movie I have ever done.’
Michelle received $3 million as well as a percentage of the box office to
play Catwoman. Since the film made over $180 million it wasn’t that bad a deal.
In a way, the complexity of the Catwoman character came as a surprise to Michelle: ‘I really didn’t anticipate it being an acting challenge. At first I figured I’d stand around in a few scenes in some black suit not really doing much.’ After talks with director Burton she changed her mind. Her portrayal of dowdy and insecure secretary, Selina Kyle, who after an act of violence, is reborn as Catwoman, laid focus on the concept of Selina’s repressed sexuality coming to the fore in the Catwoman persona. Michelle perfectly captured the unbalanced duality of her character, and her relationship with that other masked occupant of Gotham, Batman/Bruce Wayne.

She said: ‘For the role I tapped into the general reservoir of rage that I have- that we all have. I don’t think it was specifically aimed at a man or that Catwoman’s was aimed at men either. I think it’s against whatever injustice is happening. Catwoman is pretty severe on women, too- she sees her own victimisation in these other women.’ She also added, ‘It felt like I was just getting up to speed with Catwoman when the movie ended. I would very much like to see how much further I could take the character.’

When Batman Returns premiered in the June 1992, Michelle’s presence made the dark fantasy the huge hit it was. It also became the most successful film in her career. Typically of Michelle, she downplayed the extravaganza: ‘It’ s not my most subtle work. I think the more confident I’ve become over the years, the more I’ve been able to venture into these territories. I’m not so afraid to make a fool out of myself anymore. It was hard work, but I really had fun.’

As a result of Batman Returns, Michelle was transformed from a respected actress into an international star. The downside of her sudden adoration, was the invasion of privacy and the fact that she was recognised almost everywhere she went. Michelle said: ‘It takes a little adjusting to. Having children point and scream at you in the street is a little unnerving at times if you are not in the mood for it. It takes some getting used to and I think... well, it’s not exactly normal. There’s not much in life that prepares you for that.’ But there had been a transition in her attitude.

A few years previously she had spoken of the effect of fame on her: ‘I think the loss of privacy, that’s the most painful. In Los Angeles, even though it’s such a business city, everywhere I go people stare at me, and it ’s really strange. Some days you just want to be alone. Well, every day, but I’d settle for just a few days. I say it could end, but that’s not really going to happen.’ She added, ‘The simple things I miss- I miss reading a novel. I miss listening to music. I miss painting. They’re just the very, very simple things. That’s what I want to do.’ She didn’t like the feeling of being backed into a corner: ‘I sometimes feel like I’m hanging on by my fingernails. I don’t fall over the edge, but there’s a lot happening very quickly, and there’s a lot of noise, and at times it is very difficult to stay focused and make decisions, to live your life clearly and not out of chaos and panic.’

In 1992 her opinion had changed somewhat: ‘It was hard for me to be famous initially. But then I got older and more famous. It wasn’t going to go away. Unless I came to terms with it, I knew I was going to have a miserable life. I chose not to have a miserable life.’ She said of fame on another occasion, ‘I just think that it’s innately unnatural, but I’m coping with it better. On one hand it makes it more difficult to make choices because more is being thrown at you. On the other hand, it’s a wonderful position to be in because I have more things to choose from and better things to choose from. But I think I will always be shy.’

On the question of obsessive fans she remained realistic: ‘You could have the best security in the world but if someone wants to get you they can get you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions but many things happen beyond a person’s control. There are a lot of obsessive fans out there, but I don’t really worry about it because it’s not going to do me any good. I look at it this way- you have to be smart and realistic about these situations.’ She did however change homes around this time, seeking a place that offered greater privacy and better security. She said, ‘I always wanted my life to be my own. I just had a cleaning lady who came in once a week- and I even had a hard time accepting that. Unfortunately life is not allowed to stand still. Some
people have got carried away, and I have been forced to make big changes as a result. I find that very sad. I have tried to hang on to my privacy by keeping a low profile and not allowing myself to become public property. I have avoided picture sessions and have never allowed anyone to photograph me at home. There are some weird people out there.’

Batman Returns had strengthened the interest of the tabloids in Michelle. She was so popular they had no qualms in making up stories. It put pressure on Michelle’s relationship with Fisher Stevens. In the previous few months with all the spotlight on Michelle he seemed a bit lost in the background. The fact that he was still based in New York and her in Los Angeles didn’t help matters. Eventually they split, but not before the tabloids could concoct a story that had Michelle visiting Fisher on the set of one of his films and finding him with a teenage extra. This wasn’t the case. Lois Smith, Michelle’s publicist came out and said, ‘Michelle never opened a trailer door and saw them together. She didn’t know a thing about this girl. They both just decided to move on.’ Michelle said, ‘Fisher and I had a wonderful three years, and he’s an extraordinary human being. However, all relationships are not meant to last. There was no terrible deed done, contrary to what was reported. It just ran its course.’ She added at a later date: ‘With Fisher, I just felt comfortable, someone I could hang out with and not have to go through a lot of the neurotic hassles about the meaning of life. That is, I guess something very California in me. It’s so much simpler just staring out at the waves and watching the sunset.’
Fisher said of Michelle: ‘I think she is one of the greatest actresses and people in the world- seriously, I still love her. She’s an amazing woman.’

Michelle kept herself busy with work. She finally achieved her dream of working with director Martin Scorsese when she was offered the role of Countess Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence, based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Edith Wharton. The fact that Scorses wanted her for his film, did more than simply surprise Michelle. ‘I was shocked.’ She explained, ‘I really thought he (Scorsese) didn’t like my work because in the past there had been quite a few films that I had wanted to meet with him on, and he just would have nothing to do with me. Well, this just went on. It happened a few times and I thought, ‘He just doesn’t like my work.’ So, fine, there are other people who do. So then when The Age of Innocence came up and he was so decided, committed, it surprised me because it appeared he didn’t really like me.’

Scorsese admitted in interviews that he had been a fan of Michelle’s work ever since Married to the Mob: ‘Even though it was a comedy she did it with such truth to her character. I thought she was really someone from Queens.’ He had simply been waiting for the right role to offer her.

Michelle was full of praise for Scorsese: ‘He really is, to use an overused word, a genius film-maker. He is such fun to work with, he is really light-hearted. Given the kind of movies he makes, I expected him to be angrier and more brooding, and I didn’t find that.’

A famous mistake surrounding the advertising of this film involved the above picture of Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in a passionate embrace. It , was published in several American magazines, before the Promotion team noticed the packet of gum sticking out of Michelle’s pocket. (Bottom left) The irony was that Columbia had spent millions in perfectly capturing the life of the upper classes in the 1870s, and here was something very 20th Century..

The Age of Innocence placed Michelle in an all-star cast. The two other leads in the film, Newland Archer and May Welland, were played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Ryder would go on to become friends with Michelle, saying.'While we were filming The Age of Innocence, I was breaking up with Johnny Depp & having a rough time. She really took me under her wing & took care of me. It did take a while to get to know her but I respect that. I've had actresses call me & say, "We're both famous, let's hang out." Michelle isn't like that.' In the film however the two were to compete for the affections of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character in the high society of 1870’s New York. Michelle’s portrayal of Ellen Olenska perfectly captured the sadness of a woman with a scandalous reputation isolated from those around her because of society’s moral code. She provided the film with a heart; a real person in a landscape devoid of passion, where propriety has robbed people of their humanity. Michelle, like the film, seemed to have ‘Award’ written all over it.

But it would only be in the latter half of 1993 that The Age of Innocence was to be released. In the meantime Michelle decided to take a little time off, and concentrate on fulfilment in her personal life. She was spotted with Eric Clapton on several occasions, but when asked about their relationship, claimed that they were ‘just friends.’ What the press didn’t realise at the time was that Michelle had her mind not on love but on something else: becoming a mother.

When Michelle and Fisher had been an item, the tabloids were looking for every opportunity to claim that the two were expecting a child or at least on the way to the altar. Once she was single they seemed to drop the issue, but Michelle was to surprise everyone. She decided to adopt. She said years later about her decision: ‘All of a sudden a lightbulb went off and I thought, Oh, I can reverse the order. I’m not saying I’ll never meet a man, I’m not saying I’ll never give birth to a child. I’m saying I want to be a parent, and I want to be a parent now, period.’ Through a lawyer she made plans for a private adoption. ‘I thought, this will separate the boys from the men. And literally two weeks later I met David.’

Trivia: In an episode of Season 2 of Ally McBeal (created and written by David E. Kelley), called ‘You Never Can Tell’, Ally McBeal finds herself on a blind date at a bowling alley. Her words in one scene are, ‘Nobody ever met anyone good bowling.’
The David in question was television producer and writer David E. Kelley, who, after leaving a career as a lawyer in Boston, scripted some of the most famous episodes of LA Law. In 1992 he had broken away to work on his own show, Picket Fences. The story goes that Kate Guinzberg set Michelle up on a blind date with him. Michelle said, ‘A close friend kept on about David and how we were made for each other, so I finally agreed to meet him, much against my better judgement. Then, just before we were going out, she calmly announced that she had never actually met David- She’d just heard how he would be absolutely right for me.’ Both shy, they ended up going bowling, with friends. Michelle said, ‘Here we were, a successful couple in our mid-thirties, behaving like teenagers on a first date. It really was pathetic.’

As it turned out, the two liked each other enough to continue dating; this time without friends. One of their first ever public dates was at the much postponed premiere of Love Field in Westwood, LA in December 1992. Michelle smiled the whole evening, and uncharacteristically of her, even attended the post-premiere party with David.

Michelle with newborn Claudia Rose (snapped of course by a paparazzi photographer lying in wait).
It was during the course of their relationship that the adoption proceedings picked up speed. Michelle spoke of the rather unusual way she found to break the news to David: ‘When he started dating me, that wasn’t part of the deal. All of a sudden we’re in bed one night and I say, ‘Oh, by the way...’ He was a bit stunned, a bit awed. It took a little getting used to. But he respected what I was doing. Any man who couldn’t deal with it wouldn’t be the right man for me anyway.’

On the 5 March 1993, Michelle was in New York for the birth of her daughter, Claudia Rose. Although Michelle never actually came out and spoke of it, the generally accepted situation was that Claudia’s biological mother was a nurse with four children who could not afford another. Michelle finally had a child. An airhostess on the flight Michelle took back to Los Angeles said of Michelle: ‘She didn’t take her eyes off the baby once during the entire 5000km journey. She held her the whole time and you could almost feel the love and warmth she has for her daughter.’

The adoption was certainly a surprise for a lot of people, but Michelle said, ‘I really did feel that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation. I underwent a fertility test to make sure I could have children of my own before going ahead. But I didn’t know whether it was going to be possible, as there was not even a man in my life at the time.’ In interviews that she made around this time, she spoke of her decision and motherhood in general: 'Adoption was the most important thing I’ll ever do in my life, and I wanted time by myself to get used to it. I had been ready to be a mother for a very long time. I’m 35 and I was just ready for a change. I always wanted to adopt- always. I want to have my own children, too. When I made the decision, I didn’t sleep for 2 weeks.’ She added, ‘Motherhood has changed my life but it has moved me in a direction that’s more natural to
me. Certainly there was fear and trepidation over my decision to adopt. It ’s not like I accidentally got pregnant and thought, “Well, I’ll have the baby and I’ll have 9 months to get used to the idea.” I was ready for it. Claudia has changed my life and my priorities.’

‘I’ve never felt as close to anyone as I do to Claudia. I can’t express what she means to me. I just wish I could find a decent man to share our life together’ It was these type of remarks made Michelle’s relationship with David E Kelley seem casual. The press stressed how they kept separate homes.

But they were together. Love Field had won Michelle the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as her third Academy award nomination. On Oscar night Michelle managed to pry herself away from her daughter and attend the show with David. Emma Thompson won, but it is interesting to note that Susan Sarandon was also nominated in the category for Lorenzo’s Oil, a film Michelle almost committed to.

Above: Michelle and Jack Nicholson in a scene from Wolf.
Even with her longed-for child, it wasn’t long before Michelle was back at work, this time reuniting with Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols’s Wolf. In it, Michelle played Laura Alden, the rebellious daughter of a billionaire, who becomes entangled with a book editor (played by Nicholson) who is becoming a werewolf. The film played less like horror; rather it took the form of a romantic thriller, and perhaps even satire, given strength by the well-developed characters. Jack Nicholson said, ‘It was easy for me, I had hair and huge teeth. The thing about Michelle is that she makes the movie credible. The audience believes what she believes.’ He added, ‘Michelle and I are very close, like brother and sister, believe it or not.’

Michelle had other concerns while shooting the film; the primary one being that it was her first time caring for a child while working. She explained, ‘I was so tired that I couldn’t learn my lines. But I could go into my trailer and see Claudia between shots. I could get my “baby fix.”’

Meanwhile in her personal life, things were still changing. She had her single-parent family but with David, there was the possibility of something more: ‘I had gotten to the point in my life where you wonder if you’ll ever meet the right person. I just never wanted to get married for the sake of getting married. Then I met David, and we went out for a very simple dinner. I’m very quiet. He was quiet. I didn’t even think he liked me. Still, I had a feeling right away about him.’

In 1999 she spoke of her first impression and then later events which altered her opinion: ‘We got off to a rocky start. I thought he was attractive but that was almost a detriment at that point. I wasn’t into cute. Fortunately, he had a couple of good scars on his face and he had broken his nose once, from playing hockey; so that got me through. He was so quiet. We were both real quiet. We really had to work hard at making conversation. Because we’re so much alike that way. In fact, when his agent heard we were dating, he asked David, “What’s she like?” And when he said, “She’s real quiet,” his agent said, “Then who talks?”’ She recalled an incident a month into their relationship: ‘We were talking about nothing, really. I can’t even remember the conversation, but I looked at the clock and we’d been talking for an hour. I didn’t realise we’d been on that long. Maybe we felt safer with this instrument between us but I thought, this is interesting. And pretty soon after that I became VERY interested.’

Michelle and David at an awards show
David must have felt the same way because it wasn’t long before the question of marriage came up. Michelle said, ‘When I knew I wanted to adopt there was no changing my mind- and it was the same with my marriage. I was ready to make a commitment.’

On 13 November 1993 the couple were married by a Presbyterian minister at a secretive ceremony that also doubled as Claudia Rose’s christening. Of the 50 people in attendance, the majority were family, with some of the exclusions being the likes of actress Lois Chiles, director Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Michelle’s agent, Ed Limato, and her best friend, Kate Guinzberg. According to a report at the time Michelle wore a long gown of ivory antique lace and a veil falling from four white silk roses, and that her wedding ring matched the 1920s diamond-set platinum band she received as an engagement ring. Claudia wore a white dress and a wreath of roses on her head. David was in black and apparently at the reception enjoyed trying out his new status by repeatedly asking, ‘Where's my wife?’

In two years Michelle Pfeiffer’s life had changed drastically. For the first time she felt fulfilled in her personal life. But there was still one other thing that would seal her happiness...

To Part 10...