Revisiting and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of writer-director Steve Kloves's 1989 masterpiece, The Fabulous Baker Boys. While the film itself is worthy of serious examination, at this time I'm simply hear to gush like the pfan boy I am about Michelle Pfeiffer's career-defining performance as Susie Diamond. After all, this post is part of the 2019 Reel Infatuation Blogathon, cohosted by Silver Screenings. I've certainly been infatuated with Susie all these years, so let's get right into the myriad reasons why.
Pfeiffer's extraordinary turn as Susie catapulted her into a new stratosphere of superstardom while declaring once and for all that she was a major acting talent and a force to be reckoned with onscreen. She'd been building towards this recognition since at least 1983, with her electrifying performance as Elvira Hancock in Scarface. Still, though, critics seemed to spend the majority of the 1980s talking fist and foremost about Pfeiffer's otherworldly physical beauty while completely downplaying her exquisite acting skills. Baker Boys helped wake some of those critics up to the notion that many of us had known for years: Michelle Pfeiffer has got the goods and is one of our best living actors.
The character of Susie, as conceived by Kloves, is full of spunk and sarcasm, but its through Pfeiffer's nuanced work bringing her to life that we realize she's so much more than that. Her entrance into the film is hilariously memorable, as Susie stumbles up the stairs, breaking a heel while exclaiming, "Goddammit!" A former escort, the jaw-dropping beauty shows up to the audition to sing for the Baker brothers (played masterfully by real-life bros Jeff and Beau Bridges) in what has to be one of the tiniest micro-miniskirts in all of cinematic history, nonchalantly chewing gum, and dripping with unimpressed sarcasm over the Baker Boys' big-fish-in-a-small-pond local stardom. Irritated that she's late, Frank (Beau Bridges) obnoxiously scolds her that you can't be late in show business. Susie's sarcastic retort—"This is show business?"—is spit out with such great comic delivery by Pfeiffer that you can't help but burst out laughing over how well she's just put Frank and his inflated ego in their place.
While the film is ostensibly about the near-broken brotherly relationship between the Baker boys, Susie is the glue that holds the entire film together. She's sultry siren slinking atop Jack's piano singing seductively about makin' whoopee one minute, and the eye-rolling, quipping side-women to these petty, squabbling siblings. Who will ever forget her diatribe comparing the standard, "Feelings" to parsley? It's one of my favorite moments in Pfeiffer's filmography, a sprawling, beautiful, hilarious rant in which Pfeiffer unleashes all of Susie's pent-up aggression while making it clear these feelings of frustration have as much to do with Jack's inability to open his heart to her as they do Frank's constant condescension.
Susie is a former call girl who's experience plenty of pain and heartbreak over her life. She's just old enough to realize she's not likely to hit it big as a singer, but still young and hopeful enough to realize that might just be okay. Pfeiffer imbues Susie with an interesting, and intoxicating, mix of sexy sass and zen cool. While Frank's little brother Jack (Jeff Bridges) is almost too cynical to even contemplate a concept like hope, Susie serves as his perfect foil: another lost soul who's seen enough of life to realize it'll break your heart more often than not, but who's also unwilling to cast all hope aside. She doesn't need the Baker Boys the way they seem to need her. She's confident enough in her own abilities to land on her feet, whether that's as an escort, a lounge act, or a singer of inane television jingles for cat food.
Much of this spark of life that Susie can't help but carry with her everywhere, comes down to Pfeiffer's magical performance. Pfeiffer plays Susie as a complex character, allowing her to be sexy and smart, sweet and sour, scared and steadfast. In other words, she's a real woman. The world at large, Susie will always be arguably Pfeiffer's most iconic role, possibly alongside Elvira in Scarface and Selina Kyle/Catwoman in Batman Returns. The Fabulous Baker Boys certainly features some of the most iconic moments of Pfeiffer's career. There's the audition scene, when she unleashes a devastatingly vulnerable rendition of "More Than Words", completely blowing away both the Baker Boys and audiences. And who will ever forget her colossally sexy performance of "Makin' Whoopee" atop Jeff Bridges's piano. The high-slit red cocktail gown she donned for the scene should be in the Smithsonian, if it isn't already.
Of Pfeiffer's legendary performance, movie critic Roger Ebert once wrote, "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." He also noted, "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." Thirty years on, it's clear that Ebert accurately called it. While it's appalling that she didn't take home the Academy Award for Best Actress that year—she lost out to Jessica Tandy for the egregious Driving Miss Daisy; a result that seems more wrong with every passing year—Pfeiffer's performance as Susie Diamond will always be one of the best by any actress from any era. It's certainly in my personal all-time best list. I'll never stop loving Susie Diamond.
This post is part of the Reel Infatuation Blogathon 2019.