CINEMA / More than we'll ever know: The check-out girl from Santa Ana is now the most sought-after actress in Hollywood. But where does Michelle Pfeiffer go from here? And what's behind those smog-laden eyes?

YOU WOULD hardly be surprised if, in a movie called Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson, the leading actress had little more to do than stand back and look fearful, or fascinated. But the actress cast in that role is Michelle Pfeiffer - so there is more to be said, as well as stray, warning apprehensions that go unuttered but which linger in our mind, like the calm grief in her smog-laden eyes. Wolf is a silly picture (though it doesn't quite bury an intriguing idea), and Pfeiffer might have regarded it as just a photo-opportunity with a famous co-star and some cool clothes. (Her character also sleeps beneath a Velasquez Infanta - which begins to explain such ancient, experienced eyes. And she snores a little - when did a beautiful actress ever snore?) But she makes so much of the slight role, we want to know more about her character, the subversive loner daughter of a plutocrat publisher.

She seems to know so much - that's often the case with Michelle Pfeiffer. From the moment she appears in Wolf, a bitter omniscience affects her; she does not like life or trust anyone. She may look like a princess, but she is as neurotic as Snow White's stepmother. She rather resents the way she has to help Nicholson's character with his odd problem - the creeping hair of a dog that bit him. Yet a moment will come in the daft movie when she finds Jack handcuffed to a radiator in a room in New York's Mayflower Hotel - don't ask why - and wearily seeks to free him.

She takes a paperclip to pick the lock. 'When you're a druggie,' she sighs, 'you pick up shit.' It's up to us to wonder whether she ever took a cure. Or is the monkey still on her back, along with the spider tattoo? She sits on the floor, leaning against the wall, her head tipped over, feeling for the lock's mystery - she is always so beautiful, it is still a surprise to see how lustrous she is in big shots. As she works, she talks, murmuring, reflective, unpicking his middle-aged attitudes. She has realised something about him - 'You're a good man, and that's very exotic to me.' His virtue touches her; she is like a mother wolf with a cub: doesn't he know 'the worst things happen to the best people'? These are literary lines that could ring false. But when Pfeiffer says them, with gentle daring, we know she is the wisest, saddest person in the film - if only it would go with her and just let her strange witch talk.

Watching Wolf, you could believe that Pfeiffer is from that old Manhattan stock that has one paw still in Transylvania. There's a shot of her waiting in the Mayflower lobby, watching Nicholson row with his wife, that catches the lofty, poisoned grace of those Upper East Side beauties who have little to do all day but wait for dark and some dangerous liaison to hold off boredom. But Michelle Pfeiffer came from a very different world, one she has used on some screen occasions - she was born in 1957, in Santa Ana, a neighbourhood on the edges of greater Los Angeles and Orange County: Nixon country, safe, hard-core right- wing California, where respectability sometimes adopts a voice, dress code and attitude that could easily pass for hotel hooker. Santa Ana is also the name of the hot, dry desert wind from the east that starts fires in LA and drives people crazy - Pfeiffer's father was in the air-conditioning business.

When Pfeiffer was in her early twenties, she looked like the ideal southern Californian girl. She had piles of Farrah hair, and a wipe-on, wipe-off smile. She was briefly at college; she studied as a court reporter and she was a check-out clerk at a Vons supermarket. This is, classically, the drab urban obscurity from which future stars are rescued. It is also a world that can leave you jaded for life, and determined never to go back. So Michelle Pfeiffer was and can be still a California blonde - but one raised on lemon juice, not orange.

Still, it was a beauty contest - Miss Orange County - that got her into pictures. Around 1980, she did some television, and some small parts in wretched movies: Falling in Love Again, The Hollywood Knights, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. She waspromoted as a star of the future in Grease 2 (in which she sang), but it was most to her credit that she survived that travesty of sequelitis.

She has never been asked to play a mere smiling sweetheart again. Nor has she threatened to be an ingratiating interviewee. She always warned the press that she didn't give feelgood chat, and when a few years ago she at last did a big TV show, with Barbara Walters on Oscars' night, there was no denying she was edgy, curt, ungenerous, suspicious and irritable, rather like a grown-up asked to believe there's worth or decency in a 15-minute soul- baring for strangers.

Pfeiffer has a smile; it looks out of her face as warily as a fox sniffing the air. It can be enchanting if lured into the open - by Nicholson in Wolf, say, or Sean Connery in The Russia House - and it isa smile in the eyes more than the teeth. But you don't get the smile straightaway. There are actresses who smile before they've been asked: Goldie Hawn, Geena Davis and, above all, Julia Roberts, whose mouth is so much her erogenous zone she could wear her underpants there. Pfeiffer's smile is a counter-punch: it gets you when you've given up, and it needs stealthy wooing. I doubt the movies have ever had another great beauty who gives so much of her screentime to being grim, angry, disbelieving or don't-mess-with-me.

That's how she really got noticed, in 1983, when she played Elvira, the ashen blonde gangster's mistress who is taken by Al Pacino's Tony Montana as wife, trophy and baleful goddess of the big rock-cocaine mountain. From the moment she appeared in Scarface - in a blue sheath and a glass elevator - she was the bleakest spirit in that violent film. She seemed dangerously depressed, as unromantic as drug dependency, and so far gone she needed dental work around her eyes. And as in Wolf, a decade later, she made the big man seem nave. Pacino's Tony Montana believed the crooked world was worth winning. Elvira knew that everything was shit. She was barren - not just from drugs - but from hard-earned hopelessness. It was a brilliant performance, and it came out of nowhere, catching director Brian De Palma by surprise. In the years since,

there has not been so arresting a woman in any of his films.

Pfeiffer has been a star ever since. She has had some lightweight roles along the way - the pretty, pursued doll in Into the Night; medieval in Ladyhawke; a movie star in Lady Liberty. But by the late Eighties, she had impressed herself as one of the most striking and intelligent young actresses in Hollywood. She had surpassed such contemporaries as Debra Winger, Geena Davis and Melanie Griffith in terms of box-office appeal. And she had supplanted that slightly older group that includes Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close and Anjelica Huston. For the last few years, most of the best female roles in town (this is not unqualified treasure) have been offered to Pfeiffer, no matter that the nearest she has come to an unqualified hit is Batman Returns. That movie was actually regarded as a disappointment (after the booty of Batman), and some blame that on Pfeiffer's freaky and very adult Catwoman - the kids who had loved the original didn't know enough to keep up with her writhing and miaowing in a tight black skin, showing what a prude Batman was.

Her work has sometimes been dutiful. In The Witches of Eastwick, she is just one of the trio put in a spin by Nicholson's devil. She was sensual and likeable, and she captured the near-stupor that hits even young flesh in the humidity of East Coast summers. Yet it was routine work and Jack's picture. In Tequila Sunrise, she was the smart woman pursued by two men, and good enough, even if her eyes had never seemed more hazy or bloodshot. (For a time, fond audiences wanted to send Pfeiffer eye-drops rather than flowers.) She was plausibly Italian and the motor for the plot in Married to the Mob, and very adept at letting us see the natural vulgarity of the woman. For an actress who can turn on class, Pfeiffer remains loyal to the customers at a Vons supermarket. She won a supporting-actress nomination (and a turbulent affair with John Malkovich) from Dangerous Liaisons in the least vivid of the three leading roles.

By the late 1980s, she added something. It began with the clatter of a broken heel and a bad cab trip, as she arrived as the 38th singer to audition for The Fabulous Baker Boys. She came in like an untidy young Lauren Bacall,

all gum, cigarette, straggly hair and a history of being on call for the Triple A Escort Service. The brothers were weary from testing dreadful singers. They wanted to go home. But she dared them, nagged and insulted, until they let her change their lives with 'More Than You Know'.

She sang herself; the film would have been absurd if the actress playing Susy Diamond hadn't done her own singing, because so much of its dark glamour depended on the sheer insolence of her act. You can argue that Pfeiffer was so good she threw the film off balance. Anyone who can sing like that would be in Las Vegas, not holding together a piano act in the bars and clubs of Seattle, or doing jingles for canned peas. Once Steve Kloves's rhapsodic camera had tracked around a grand piano with Pfeiffer strutting and slinking over the lid, 'Makin' Whoopee', we were in A Star is Born territory, not the melancholy provincial showbiz of this movie. (And Pfeiffer is the designated casting for Evita - if that project ever gets made.)

The Fabulous Baker Boys is as believable as Casablanca, and not much less enjoyable. It is, finally, a movie about terrific performers slumming, and it can be re-viewed in the way one replays a favourite record. It's not just the songs, but the way Pfeiffer smokes, walks and looks at Jeff Bridges: they are hot enough together to melt away story problems. What gives the film to Pfeiffer is her effortless re-creation of noir- ish fatalism - her only rival at husky chanteuse-ing is Ida Lupino in Road House. She acts as tough as enamel, yet she turns into flesh when Bridges gives her a back-rub. The hard-soft tension is daydream, but Pfeiffer has an assurance that allowed first-time director Kloves to get away with it. Baker Boys wasn't a hit, but anyone who loved songs, old movies and babes who talked rough but sang sweet was hooked.

Pfeiffer won a Best Actress nomination, and she must have come close - Jessica Tandy won for Driving Miss Daisy. The next year saw another extension of her range: her Russian woman in Fred Schepisi's The Russia House took on accent and foreignness such as Meryl Streep was known for. But Streep's Sophie was hard to watch as a living reality: she felt like virtuoso acting. In Russia House, though, Pfeiffer was so altered - wan and shabby in jumble-sale clothes, a guarded, secret romantic, and still privy to layers of knowledge beyond the ken of Connery's boozy publisher. There are a couple of moments when men tell her she must smile, and she does her best,

as if trying to be a spy. But when Connery coaxes one shy slice of inner life from her - laughing at the word 'blurb' - she's like Garbo. Once again, she stirred her co-star: Connery is not known for tenderness, but he grabbed at it here.

Such skill may haveprompted the nearly camp casting for Frankie and Johnny in which Pfeiffer and Al Pacino were reunited as a waitress and a short-order cook who fall in love. Some howled at the distortion of playwright Terence McNally's humble and unlovely characters - yet McNally scripted the enormously entertaining exercise in star acting. Pfeiffer made herself becomingly tired and greasy. But don't tell an actress that waitresses can't be beautiful and passionate - nearly every actress there ever was has waited table. Here again, one could see Pfeiffer's uncommon rapport with working-class roles. Of course, she's sensational beneath the lack of make-up - but so was Grace Kelly in The Country Girl and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca. Frankie and Johnny was hokum, and Pfeiffer knew enough not to be patronising or self-pitying with it.

Batman Returns followed, and then, as if feeling her need to dominate a picture, Pfeiffer made Love Field. This picture was held up for over a year: Orion was in trouble, and no one felt hopeful about the story of a Texas woman who is obsessed with the idea of Jacqueline Kennedy and gets involved with a black man on a long journey. Few people ever saw Love Field, but anyone who believes in Pfeiffer should seek it out. This is her fullest immersion in another character - a none too bright but achingly sincere Southerner. That she was Oscar-nominated again for the performance was a measure of its depth and conviction (she lost once more, to Emma Thompson in Howards End). I have some reservations about Love Field: Pfeiffer was not always at ease playing someone with less than her own quick instincts. There are moments when she seems mannered, and there are big problems elsewhere in the script. But in years to come Love Field may be reassessed as the moment when Michelle Pfeiffer signalled her lack of interest in being just a looker.

But there you reach thequestion-mark in any Hollywood actress's career. Michelle Pfeiffer is 37, and there are people five or 10 years younger than she is who may be competing for the few worthwhile parts - Jodie Foster, Demi Moore, Juliette Lewis, Winona Ryder, Madeleine Stowe. What does an actress do as she reaches 40 or so? To my mind, Pfeiffer was the only leading player who understood the tone and style of Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. Yet some critics said she was miscast, and the film never found a large audience. Then there is Wolf where, whatever her cunning with moments, she hasn't won much attention in America.

She has talked about playing thephoto- journalist Margaret Bourke-White; she bought the rights to a Louise Erdrich novel. Her next film, My Posse Don't Do Homework, has her playing a schoolteacher. If Oliver Stone ever manages to make Evita that could be an apotheosis for Pfeiffer: after all, Eva Peron was a movie actress, and I'm sure Pfeiffer could be Latin, charismatic and dictatorial. As for the songs, they are in a bigger voice than she ever dared in Baker Boys. But I trust Michelle Pfeiffer to find a way of making Evita a little surly and withdrawn - a moody singer. A tougher test, and more rewarding, might be a comedy of manners and feeling, something like a Philadelphia Story, if anyone knows how to do those pictures today.

Pfeiffer does not like to lay herself open. Her true nature lies in that reticence, the way in which she prefers to wait and pounce, the skill she has at only looking at someone in unguarded moments. That isn't likely to procure the lead parts she needs in her forties, and maybe Pfeiffer has insufficient inclination to be her own producer, the boss of her pictures. In which case, the glories may be fleeting compared with her talents. Nothing she's ever done has been so knowing, so authoritative, as the way in Baker Boys she slides out of her knockout audition, 'More Than You Know', and demands of the two boys, without quite looking at them, 'Well?', half startled, half begging. It's a question that hangs over her.

'Wolf' (15) opens on 26 Aug.

(Photograph omitted)

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