Monday, August 7, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: The Fabulous Baker Boys

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

Here it is, the iconic performance that made Michelle Pfeiffer a breakout star and a household name while also earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) is an intensely intimate film with some terrific insights into what it's like to be lonely and feel unworthy or unloved. I hate to use this cliche, but it's the kind of film we don't see nearly enough these days. It focuses on a lounge act trio—two piano-playing brothers, Frank and Jack Baker (real-life siblings Beau and Jeff Bridges) and the inexperienced yet undeniably charismatic singer who shakes up their humdrum existence, Susie Diamond (Pfeiffer).

It's no surprise Pfeiffer was celebrated when the film opened to glowing reviews—she's pure electricity here, especially on stage where Susie quickly develops into a stunningly confident singer, putting her entire body and soul into the performances. In the film's most famous scene, when she's wearing that red dress and slinking and writhing atop Jack's piano while singing "Makin' Whoopee," Pfeiffer provides one of the most indelible moments in film history, one that will be played forever in montages celebrating the magic of the movies.

Pfeiffer is equally adept at dishing out Susie's razor-sharp wit, as in this memorable scene:
Frank: Okay, let's hear it. We trashed the Avedon, the Luau Lounge—what's our beef with 'Feelings'?
Susie: Nothing... except who cares? I mean, does anybody really need to hear 'Feelings' again in their lifetime? It's like parsley, okay? Take it away, nobody's going to know the difference. 
Frank: 'Feelings' is not parsley!
Susie Diamond: Frank, to you 'Feelings' may be goddamn filet mignon, but to me, it's parsley. It's less than parsley.
The real magnificence of Pfieffer's performance is in how she allows us inside Susie's delicate vulnerability. She's overcome a lot in her past (she was a prostitute), protecting herself from the pain with biting sarcasm off stage and sultry seductiveness on stage. When Susie finally expresses herself to Jack with heartbreaking honesty, it's devastating to watch. Pfieffer makes us feel Susie's pain. Her speech about how we tell ourselves that we have an empty place inside us to hide away the pain culminates with a devastating truth: "But you do it long enough and all you are is empty."

In 1988, Roger Ebert famously raved about Pfeiffer's performance. He said:
"This is one of the movies they will use as a document, years from now, when they begin to trace the steps by which Pfeiffer became a great star." — Roger Ebert
And also:
"This is the movie of her flowering—not just as a beautiful woman, but as an actress with the ability to make you care about her, to make you feel what she feels."
Ebert was correct. This is the film that launched her career into the stratosphere, and forever after people would point to it as the moment when audiences and critics realized she had not only the raw talent but also the charisma and dedication to become the best.


  1. I rewatched The Fabulous Baker Boys a couple of weeks ago as a personal tribute to Michelle while I packed my case in preparation for a holiday. After the first 10 minutes, I stopped packing.
    This movie is completely pfabulous, for all the reasons you’ve chronicled in your review. Pfeiffer's work is both sultry and superb and sometimes feel a wisp of sadness as I remember when Michelle was on the rise before she began turning down great roles and appeared in films such as One Fine Day and I Am Sam.
    1989 was a great year for movies!

    1. As usual, I agree with you, Paul. I've been in the midst of an extensive Pfeiffer pfilms rewatch (and even a couple of recent ones I hadn't seen yet). So far I've rewatched about fifteen of her movies and I had that reaction at one point also: if only she'd chosen or been handed better roles after that great '80s-early '90s streak. Still, she's pfabulous no matter how average or subpar the film or role might be. She always shine, I find.

      Yup, '89 was great. God, the Batman film seemed omnipresent in my world back then. Good times.

    2. Pfeiffer was and still is one of my favourite actresses and a cinematic crush that I’ll never shake. And why should I? She’s always been absolutely pfabulous even if the films aren't worthy of her.
      I was happy to see Pfeiffer having a bit of fun in the fantastic and almost forgotten One Fine Day, a film that I find holds up better than other romantic comedies that I thought were superior at the time (SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE being one example.)
      Thanks again for the link it's a pleasure to read your posts related to Michelle!

    3. Same here. In fact, for me, she's my favorite actress and still my favorite cinematic crush also. Funny you mention One Fine Day because I just rewatched it the other day, for the first time in twenty years since seeing it in the theater. It's a blast! Such a delightful film, a great modern (for the time) take on the old screwball romantic comedies. Pfeiffer and Clooney are terrific together and Michelle especially shines throughout the film.

      Thanks for following along on these posts! Or should I say, pfollowing along? I hope to share some more of my thoughts on Michelle's movies in the coming weeks.