Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Michelle Pfeiffer: The Age of Innocence
Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.
It's long been my contention that Michelle Pfeiffer is the best actress of my lifetime. She's consistently impressed in a wide variety of performances spanning several decades now. She's a true chameleon, disappearing inside of her characters, film after film. Clearly, she works extremely hard at her craft, but she makes it all seem effortless and above all, honest. We believe she is the character she's playing. There's no performative artifice to her acting; instead she's fluid and natural, fully inhabiting the women she's bringing to life.
Pfeiffer's performance as Countess Ellen Oleska in Martin Scorsese's sublime The Age of Innocence (1993) is, without question, one of a handful of Pfeiffer roles that I point to whenever someone asks for "best performance ever" lists. The exquisite beauty and crushing heartache of her work in the film has haunted me over the years and through repeat viewings. Even though she tries mightily to adhere to the social decorum of the day, Ellen's desire for Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance that nearly equals Pfeiffer's) radiates with a white-hot intensity that practically scorches the screen. This love, built on mutual attraction and also respect, will sadly remain unconsummated due to the societal mores of 1870s New York City. Pfeiffer makes us feel every ounce of Ellen's pain, often with just a heartfelt glance or a forced smile in polite company. It's a remarkably affecting performance and, as is usual with Pfeiffer, utterly seamless as well.
An argument can be made that it's Pfeiffer's best work. Whether or not that's true, and I tend to believe it might be, it's clearly among her most definitive roles. I would also argue that it's one of the most achingly beautiful and nuanced performances ever captured on film.