Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.*
If you've been paying attention around here lately, you know that I adore Michelle Pfeiffer. She's likely my favorite actor, hands down. Al Pacino, however, also sits right there at the top of my personal pantheon. So it's no surprise that their two film collaborations are extremely special to me. They first starred together in Scarface (1983), Brian De Palma's wildly ambitious and searing critique of power, avarice, and the American Dream, as told through the rise and fall of a drug kingpin. That film belongs to Pacino, with Pfeiffer in a smaller, yet crucially important role. Eight years later, they shared the screen again in Frankie and Johnny (1991), Garry Marshall's warm, tender, and honest look at two damaged people falling in love. This time, Michelle's Frankie is the film's real focal point, with Al's Johnny very much supporting her throughout.
It's interesting to note the differences in their careers at the time they made each film together. In 1983's Scarface, Pacino was the legend, long established as one of the finest film actors of his generation, if not the very best. By the time he played Cuban gangster Tony Montana, he had already solidified his reputation with a string of spectacular performances in 1970s films like The Godfather (I and II), Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. Enter, a relatively unknown and heartbreakingly beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer, as Tony's girlfriend, Elvira Hancock. Pfeiffer was fresh off a critically panned sequel to Grease, (unfairly criticized, to my way of thinking) her first big starring role. She was young and hungry, ready to show she had more to offer. Elvira became the role that changed her career--it made her a star and also announced her as a prodigious acting talent. Unfortunately too many critics and fans only noticed her astonishing beauty.
Skip ahead eight years to 1991's Frankie and Johnny: Pacino was still a star, but one who struggled in the '80s with a series of subpar films (Revolution, anyone?), and dropped out of movies for five years. His comeback began alongside the scorching hot Ellen Barkin in Sea of Love (1989), and by Frankie and Johnny he was on a roll again. Pfeiffer, on the other hand, went from a near-unknown to a superstar in her own right by the time she played Frankie. She spent the '80s methodically building an impressive body of work in films like Tequilla Sunrise, Married to the Mob, and The Witches of Eastwick. This led to her breakout role as Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). By that point, her talents and versatility were finally being appreciated, after years of having been dismissed as just another pretty face.
In Scarface, Pacino is all manic energy, madly ingesting mounds of cocaine one minute, sulking like a child the next, all while dropping F-bombs like they're going out of style. As the icy trophy wife Elvira, Pfeiffer counters Pacino's raving lunacy with a controlled, subtly nuanced performance. Elvira becomes the film's lone voice of reason amidst all of the insanity and chaos of Tony's drug empire. Pacino's lines in the film are absurdly memorable—"Say hello to my little friend" tops among them—but its Pfeiffer who sneaks in one quotable sly dig after another. From "Can't you stop saying fuck all the time?" to "I don't fuck around with the help" to "You're always hungry. You should be starving" to "Don't call me 'baby.' I'm not your 'baby'", Elvira is merciless, verbally eviscerating Tony over the course of the film. He's a terrible husband, and Elvira's not much better as a wife, but she's at least aware of how screwed up their relationship is and won't be silenced about it.
The animosity that develops over the course of the film between Elvira and Tony feels palpably real. He looks at her with contempt, she at him with total disdain. Pfeiffer is pure ice cold white gold, shooting daggers with her eyes (those eyes!) when not verbally berating most everyone around her, especially Tony. For Pacino's part, the hammy acting is a facade, built by a small, selfish man who wants the world to think he's the most powerful person alive. He's faking it until he can make it and Elvira calls him on his bullshit over and over.
Pfeiffer has said in interviews that working Pacino in each film was a vastly different experience. He was playing a metaphorical, toxic male monster in Scarface, and some of that method acting carried over onto the set. He was in character, distant and difficult. Pfeiffer was playing a woman who's tough exterior masked an inner turmoil and depression that threatened to overcome her at any moment. It's no wonder it was a tough shoot for her. Talking with Darren Aronofsky for Interview earlier this year, she said of the film,
“How’d it happen?” she said of her Scarface performance. “I’m very willful, you know. I’m a survivor. It’s in my nature. I don’t look so tough, but I am. And I think I was able to hide behind the tough exterior of that character, who was just sort of tuned out and tuned off, drugged.” She continued, “I can tell you that I was terrified. And it was a six-month shoot I think. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and I were really the only females. It was a boys’ club. And it was also the nature of the relationship, for Tony Montana to be very dismissive of my character. So I would go to sleep some nights crying.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the warmth and tenderness of Frankie and Johnny. It's like comparing night and day when looking at each Pfeiffer-Pacino film. As Johnny, Pacino is a man who's lived through some extremely difficult times, including a prison sentence. Yet he's emerged from it all a new person, resolved to be more present to his life and the people in it, to simply be, to let the wonder and awe of the world wash over him. Consequently, when he falls hard for Pfeiffer's Frankie the first time they meet, he never questions it; instead, he pursues her with all his heart, unashamed to express his true feelings to her, repeatedly, despite her reticence. It's one of Pacino's most soulful performances. He's simply magnificent here.
Pfeiffer is the true star of the film though, turning in what might be the most exceptional work of her career. There was some doubt when she was cast—yet again, critics said she was "too pretty" to play a depressed and long-suffering diner waitress, as if life only hurts average looking people. Pfeiffer made the criticism look absurd she delivered what I've long believed to be her best performance. Frankie has been through enough emotional turmoil in her day that she's basically forgone a love life as a means of self-protection. She simply can't face the possibility of being hurt again.
The verbal jousts between Frankie and Johnny are delightful, full of heart and soul, opening windows into each character's inner conflicts and emotions. Contrast that with the mean spirited antagonism between Elvira and Tony, and you have two distinctly different pairings between Pfeiffer and Pacino. The drastic differences in each film showcases both actors' unparalleled range and versatility. Not only do they have terrific chemistry in each film, but that spark is more than just a physical attraction; their words and inflections and facial expressions combine to form fully realized portraits, one of a couple in a deteriorating sham of a marriage and another experiencing the emotional twists and turns of falling in love.
Johnny is compassionate and patient, but he's also not shy about telling Frankie that he can wait for her because fate has brought them together and will keep them together. Frankie's reactions to Johnny's sunny optimism are usually cynical and sarcastic—"I'm a BLT down sort of person, and I think you're looking for someone a little more pheasant under glass." Pfeiffer is brilliant here, from her nervous rebukes of Johnny's affections, to her eye-rolling dismissals of anything remotely sweet or heartfelt, to the moments when she blows up at Johnny because she simply can't hold in her anguish anymore.
The film carefully teases out elements of Frankie's backstory that allow us to understand why she struggles to believe that love is an option for her. Then, towards the end of the film, Pfeiffer delivers a tour-de-force monologue that lays bare all of Frankie's fears and anxieties, as well as her traumatic history with an abusive ex. The film was building to this moment; every subtle and lived-in acting choice Pfeiffer makes up to that point helps us understand and connect with Frankie more by the time the dam finally bursts, and the tears start gushing. Pacino is wonderful in the scene as well, being supportive, allowing Pfeiffer to let it all out, just holding her and telling her he'll be with her when bad things happen from now on. It's a multiple-tissue box kind of scene, and it wrecks me every single time I watch.
In two films together, eight years apart, Michelle and Al were able to showcase not only their unmatched versatility but also their deep emotional connection as actors that allows us to believe in them as a couple. They each share an important physical characteristic that makes audiences believe in their performances: big, beautiful, and expressive eyes. You can read their characters' thoughts—whether it's Elvira or Frankie or Tony or Johnny—simply by watching Michelle's and Al's eyes. They do more acting with their eyes than some actors do with their entire bodies. When they look at each other with anger or loathing in Scarface, we believe they mean it; when they stare into each other's souls in Frankie and Johnny, we see the tentative early stages of love between them, and we believe it. Hopefully, some day soon, we'll be treated to another memorable onscreen pairing of Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, and witness their wonderful chemistry together, one more time.
*This post is part of the Double Duo Feature Blogathon, co-hosted by the wonderful folks at the blogs Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Flapper Dame. Visit their sites for links to all of the posts from the various blogs participating in this event. Thanks for allowing me to be part of your blogathon, Phyllis and Emily!