Michelle Pfeiffer has been dreading this moment. A couple of years ago, when she first read the script for Chéri, the romantic drama opening next Friday, she immediately recognized parallels between herself and the main character. Based on a novel by Colette, the film centres on Lea de Lonval, a 49-year-old belle époque courtesan who, seeing both her career and beauty on the wane, takes a young lover to forestall her growing sense of mortality. While Pfeiffer has long been happily married to a man of her own vintage, she quickly anticipated the annoying questions she'd get from journalists while promoting the film.
"I said, 'Well, I'm really headed into the eye of the storm here, aren't I?'" Pfeiffer recalls, an amused trill in her voice. "I said to myself, 'Okay, everything's going to be about turning 50, the issues of your fading beauty, and all those questions you hate, hate, hate.'"
Can you blame those who might ask the questions? Pfeiffer, after all, is almost infamously beautiful: that porcelain skin, the long neck, the lithe figure, those wide-set cornflower blue eyes that unsettle the soul. For more than a quarter century, she has practised a kind of voodoo with that ridiculous beauty, using it to beguile onscreen partners (and, not coincidentally, certain swaths of the movie-going public) while keeping them off balance with a quicksilver mix of icy aggression and emotional vulnerability. Now, having passed the milestone of her 50th birthday last year, Pfeiffer is confronting the reality that she may be moving into an uncertain new phase of her professional life.
Not that she doesn't look fabulous. Today, she is in a soft, peach-hued sweater and properly distressed 7 For All Mankind jeans, both of which hug her small frame. In Chéri , she parades across the screen in a series of sumptuous period costumes; sometimes, the camera lingers on Lea in bed, her blond curls cascading across the sheets. In one scene, wearing something resembling a Grecian gown while watching her young lover lounge in the bath, she looks like Aphrodite herself.
It would be ironic if Pfeiffer, like Lea de Lonval, found her prospects shrinking, for she is contemplating returning to work on a more frequent basis. After first breaking out as the cocaine-addled gangster's moll, Elvira, in Brian De Palma's hysterical Scarface in 1983, she went on to prove her acting chops opposite such heavyweights as Jack Nicholson ( The Witches of Eastwick ).
Starting in the late eighties, she rattled off three Oscar-nominated performances in five years: as the virtuous target of seduction in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), as a washed-up lounge singer in The Fabulous Baker Boy s (1989), and as a 1960s housewife obsessed with Jackie Kennedy in Love Field (1992). But about a decade ago, Pfeiffer slowed down her pace to one leading role a year in order to dedicate herself to raising her two children, who were born in 1993 and 1994.
"When they were little, I would just throw them in a suitcase and we'd go everywhere, and once they got in school I didn't feel that was fair to them," she explains, sitting earlier this week in the corner of a room at the Four Seasons Hotel, legs casually tucked under her on a chair.
"My daughter's 16, and it really hit me how little time I have left with her, and my son, he's 14, I only have four years left with him."
"There are things only a mother notices," she continues. "So you can't be away for too long. I'll leave, and people are there, and taking care of things, and they're running great, and I come back - everybody's happy, things are running smoothly - and I'm out of sync, you know? There's this sort of rhythm that's happening, and you're not a part of it. It takes a while to fall back in."
Pfeiffer says she isn't sure what she'll do when the kids leave home. "I don't know if I'll direct, I don't know if I'll go back to school and do something else, I don't know if I'll act more, just do more movies. … It'll be interesting. I know I'll have serious empty-nest syndrome."
It never occurred to me, the sort of comfort level that I had, or the ease of being with someone - you take it for granted - of being with somebody for years who knows your body, who accepts all your imperfections, and you meet them at a certain age when you're young. And 10 years later, or whatever, the idea of this new person, you know, seeing all your flaws, it makes you really vulnerable.
Taking the role of Lea meant being away from her family during a shoot in France, but it was an opportunity to reunite with Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton, the director and writer, respectively, of Dangerous Liaisons .
Pfeiffer, who went to college for only one year, had never read Colette, and in conversation she gives the impression of being more intuitively than formally educated: She says she had never heard the phrase 'May-December relationship' until a few days ago, and she is unsure of the proper way to describe a gap of two decades in age between lovers. "She's 20 years … do you say 'senior'?" she inquires.
"I was a bit daunted when I learned [ Chéri ]was from French literature," Pfeiffer admits. "I went: 'Oh boy,' and prepared to plod my way through the material."
But Hampton, who began working on the project seven or eight years ago, says the list of actresses who fit the bill for the lead role of Chéri was short: "You needed an actor who was about 50, who was clearly very beautiful, and was sufficiently relaxed in herself to give herself to the story and not be made anxious by it. It's a tough subject for a woman turning 50 … and Michelle had absolutely no provisos about being shot in a way that made her look as if she was aging."
Pfeiffer says that's not entirely true. "I don't like it, you know?" she nods. "As a person. But as an actress? You have to sort of separate the two, it's just important. It was really an integral part of the piece."
Reaching a certain age was not the only thing Pfeiffer shared with Lea. The character initiates her relationship with the 19-year-old Chéri as a diversion, but when six years pass and the two are still together, their feelings for each other have grown without either entirely realizing it. Nevertheless, Chéri's mother arranges a marriage for her son, leaving Lea adrift and lamenting: "Being with someone for six years is like following your husband to the colonies. By the time you come back, you've forgotten what to wear and nobody remembers who you are."
Pfeiffer admits Lea's social dislocation reminded her of when she broke up with her first husband, actor-director Peter Horton, whom she had married in 1981 at age 23. "I remember when I was married the first time and we separated - ugh, you know? It never occurred to me, the sort of comfort level that I had, or the ease of being with someone - you take it for granted - of being with somebody for years who knows your body, who accepts all your imperfections, and you meet them at a certain age when you're young. And 10 years later, or whatever, the idea of this new person, you know, seeing all your flaws, it makes you really vulnerable.
"And being single is a different lifestyle. It's like functioning in a social situation. All of a sudden, now you're single and it's scary at first," she continues. "I mean, for better or worse, unknowingly, you kind of take on a different role when you're a married person. So I do think that is, um, really, it's scary. Does that make sense?"
Five years after her divorce with Horton was finalized in 1988, Pfeiffer married again, to television producer David E. Kelley ( The Practice , Ally McBeal ). "I think it's one of the things that makes my marriage work, that we're both in the same business," she says.
"I'm really glad he's not an actor, because as much as you might have an empathy for each other, that creates a whole other dynamic that's kind of complicated. But you know, if you aren't in our industry, you really don't understand what it takes out of you. When I go to work, he even said to me, 'There's a little part of you that kinda goes away, that kinda disappears, we kinda lose you a little bit.' And he tolerates that, you know? Because he knows I'll be back."