Monday, August 14, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie and Johnny

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

And then there was the time my two favorites starred in one of the most starkly honest and mature films about grownup relationships this viewer has ever seen. Frankie and Johnny (1991) is a beautifully melancholic tale, laced through with rich and sincere humor aimed at adults—people who've lived long enough to have loved and lost and felt real longing and despair.

Al Pacino is fantastic as Johnny, the new short-order cook at the diner where Michelle Pfeiffer's Frankie works. Johnny is a good man who truly believes that he and Frankie are meant to be together. Johnny is fully alive now to the realization that life is short, so he's resolved to cherish every minute of it moving forward. Frankie is the cynic, the beaten-down diner waitress who masks the pain of previous relationship failures with biting sarcasm and avoidance. She's the emotional core of the film. Pfeiffer makes us believe just how badly Frankie has been hurt before, how frightened and damaged beyond repair she feels. Her performance is simply heartbreaking, so nakedly raw and thoroughly believable. At the time she was cast, there were grumblings about her being "too pretty" to be convincing as the world-weary Frankie. With this ferocious, committed performance, she put those doubts to rest.

Late in the movie, Pfeiffer sobs, almost uncontrollably, through a devastating monologue that guts me every time—"I'm afraid to be alone, I'm afraid not to be alone, I'm afraid of what I am, what I'm not, what I might become, what I might never become." It's truly a tour-de-force moment, the kind that will forever be included in highlight reels celebrating her work.

Frankie and Johnny is an all-time sentimental favorite of mine, one that will always hold a special place in my heart. Sometimes you connect with a film, or with a character, in such a deep and meaningful way that they become an integral part of you. That's my experience with both this film and the two lead performances, but especially with Pfieffer's work as Frankie. She's a revelation here. Some days, I even believe it's her very best work.


  1. That monologue crushed me. Who hasn't felt like that? Let's just say, I identify with it. Terrific write up, Mike. She certainly has done some fine work in her career. Thanks for celebrating it.

    1. Thanks, Susan. That scene destroyed me when I first saw the film as a teenager, even though I'd yet to live long enough to fully understand. Every time I've watched since (which is a lot), it wrecks me all over again, sometimes in new ways. I firmly believe it's one of the best pieces of acting I've ever seen. Also a terrifically written scene as well. The entire movie is a treasure.

      My Pfieffer kick started recently with a discussion on Facebook with friends about best actresses (surprise, I chose Michelle). This inspired me to go back and rewatch most of her films, which I'm still in the process of doing. I've seen many of these movies several times each yet her performances never cease to amaze me.

      I'm excited to see her in Mother this fall!

  2. Great article and very timely, I watched Frankie And Johnny again last weekend and found it an even better film than I remembered. Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer are superb and I can never understand people who say that Michelle was "too beautiful" to play the role of Frankie. For me she was totally believable and I love the subtle and understated way she conveys her emotions.
    Really how is it possible to get any better than this film? It's sublime, I love the ending with Debussy's beautiful "Clair de Lune" weaving it all together ... I would class Frankie and Johnny as a perfect film, it has everything.

    1. Thank you, Paul. And you sum it up beautifully - Frankie and Johnny truly is a perfect film in my eyes. It hits me right in the feels every time.

      And I agree about the criticism being unfair to Pfeiffer. She makes this role her own, truly owning Frankie's fear and anxiety and regret. It's a tour-de-force performance and her looks shouldn't play a factor in how anyone views it. But this speaks to something else I've always felt - she's been dismissed too often in her career because she's beautiful. Thankfully, over the years people seem to have realized she's a rare acting talent. She's so much more than just a pretty face (although of course she is also that).