We take a look at the best Michelle Pfeiffer films, showcasing and celebrating the diverse nature of her talent in works ranging from gangster classic Scarface to horror-drama Wolf and musical Grease 2.
Michelle Pfeiffer is our Ice Cold, White Gold Queen, and we do not deserve her.
While other actresses like Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett are mentioned regularly when lists of the best living actresses are compiled, there’s no question that Pfeiffer deserves a spot on any such list. Over a nearly forty year career in film, she’s carved out her own niche with a unique style and an unmatched screen presence.
From her earliest work in films like 1983’s Scarface, where she stole every scene in which she appeared, to her more recent work, like her scorched-earth performance in 2017’s mother! — a performance so spectacular that it almost cracks this top ten list. Pfeiffer is often the very best part of any film she’s in.
The films themselves aren’t always worthy of her talents, but you can be certain of one thing: when you see a Michelle Pfeiffer movie, you are guaranteed a wonderfully nuanced performance out of her. She brings depth and honesty to even her most underwritten characters.
That Pfeiffer has only been nominated for three Academy Awards says more about the Academy’s irrelevance than it does Pfeiffer’s acting. She’s developed a subtle, non-performative style in her career, meaning you know she’s put the work into it but her acting is so organic and natural that you almost forget that you’re watching a performance. She brings her characters to vibrant life like few other actors working today.
Let’s take a look at her top ten performances, each of which stands as a shining example of her sustained excellence over these last several decades.
(Bonus) 11. mother! (Aronofsky, 2017)
Darren Aronofsky’s intensely insane film lands like an assault on our emotions, leaving us battered and bruised by the time it’s all over. Amidst this chaos Pfeiffer (credited only as “The Woman”) delivers an extraordinary performance, her white-hot intensity burning up the screen whenever she appears. In a film loaded with religious and mythological allegories, think of Pfeiffer’s character as Eve or Lilith — original sin incarnate, or woman’s wanton, insatiable desire. Yet even playing an archetype, Pfeiffer still exposes the Woman’s very real humanity, including all of the messy and incompatible elements of the human existence. She’s ferocious, sweet, petty, desirous, judgmental, droll, seeking, knowing, all of this and more.
10. Grease 2 (Birch, 1982)
While the film was never going to be the smash hit that the original Grease was, Pfeiffer certainly made the most of her first big, starring film role. As Stephanie, she provides a glimpse of what we’ve come to know and love about her best characters over the years — that fierce independence and a strong drive for personal autonomy (“Yeah. I’m free every day. It’s in the Constitution.”) Plus, who will ever forget her showstopping rendition of “Cool Rider?” The lyrics are memorably silly and delightfully fun — “I want a devil in skin tight leather” — and she pulls it off with glorious aplomb.
9. Dangerous Liaisons (Frears, 1988)
Turning in her first Academy Award nominated performance, Pfeiffer is simply majestic here. She strikes one sublime note after another as a tragic woman of honor whose life is torn apart by two duplicitous characters, played deliciously by Glenn Close and John Malkovich. Roger Ebert said it best when he wrote of her work here: “Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it.”
8. Into The Night (Landis, 1985)
John Landis’ best film, Into the Night is a true gem, a madcap romp and a beautifully melancholy film about two lonely people drawn together like magnets because of a shared desire for more fulfilling lives. Pfeiffer’s chemistry with co-star Jeff Goldblum is outstanding, each imbuing their characters with equal parts heartache and hope. With her hair shorn into a beautifully disheveled bob cut, flashing that thousand-megawatt smile, and wearing a red leather jacket better than even Michael Jackson ever did, Pfeiffer is simply electric.
7. Wolf (Nichols, 1994)
Pfeiffer’s performance in Mike Nichols’ underrated film about toxic masculinity masquerading as a werewolf movie is so rich, so nuanced, that you want the entire film to stop and simply revolve around her character Laura. As she has often in her career, she’s playing a woman primarily defined (mostly by men) for her beauty, yet one who remains resolutely fierce, intelligent, and consistently wields a whip-smart sense of humor. If that sounds like a meta-commentary on Pfeiffer’s career as an actress, that’s not far off. Wolf is also one of the finest examples of Pfeiffer’s talent for conveying deep and complex emotions with only a piercing glance or a subtle lift of an eyebrow. Few actors today do it better.
6. Scarface (De Palma, 1983)
The first moment we see Elvira Hancock descending that elevator, wearing that stunning blue dress, is the very moment Michelle Pfeiffer became a star. Pfeiffer’s masterful performance upends our preconceptions of the traditional, frigid ice queen trope — while Elvira is hardly impressed with Tony Montana’s (Al Pacino) bombast or power, she’s also a woman with little power of her own beyond her sexuality and acerbic wit. It’s an iconic, brave portrait of a woman whose entire life has been defined by her beauty. Pfeiffer powerfully shows us how this fosters in Elvira, a detached cynicism and damaged self-worth.
5. Married To The Mob (Demme, 1988)
In Jonathan Demme’s endearingly eccentric and wildly entertaining mob satire, Pfeiffer plays Angela de Marco, a recently widowed New York mob wife trying to restart her life and make a clean break from her husband’s mafia ties. She uses her best physical asset as an actress — those big, expressive blue eyes, as deep and as wondrous as any ocean — to expose Angela’s vulnerabilities. It’s an exceptionally touching performance, and one that beautifully showcases Pfeiffer’s natural gift for comedy.
4. Batman Returns (Burton, 1989)
As Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Pfeiffer is like a supernova, sending shockwaves that ripple through the film and impact everyone she comes into contact with. It’s a shockingly committed performance, the kind that goes beyond mere acting and is instead some form of highly expressive performance art. She also brings great nuance to Selina’s arc, from meek and mousy secretary to ferocious and extroverted antihero. At first Selina is sweetly funny while also being desperately lonely and vulnerable. Then, after her transformation
— “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.” — she’s pure animal magnetism, prowling seductively through the rooftops and streets of Gotham City. One moment she’s licking herself clean like a cat and the next, she’s besting every man in her path. Pfeiffer’s most ferocious performance.
3. The Age Of Innocence (Scorsese, 1993)
In Martin Scorsese’s gorgeous, heartbreaking adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Pfeiffer makes us feel every ounce of Countess Elena Oleska’s pain, often with just a heartfelt glance or a forced smile in polite company. It’s a remarkably affecting performance and, as usual with Pfeiffer, utterly seamless. The secret love between Pfeiffer’s Elena and Daniel Day-Lewis’ Newland Archer is built on mutual attraction and respect, yet will forever remain unconsummated due to the societal mores of 1870s New York City. Pfeiffer’s performance is suffused with that sad longing, and the constant realization that as hard as it is to do, she must set aside those desires. The performance is, simply, a stunning achievement.
2. Frankie And Johnny (Marshall, 1991)
One of the great, underrated romantic comedies, Frankie and Johnny offers two legendary actors — Pfeiffer and Al Pacino — at the absolute peak of their prowess. Pfeiffer’s performance as Frankie is so wonderfully realized, so heartbreakingly honest, that it’s nearly impossible to separate the actress from the character. Pfeiffer is Frankie here. She presents a character whose past heartbreak, anxieties, and vulnerabilities are ever-present, and who wields sarcasm and cynicism as her only defense mechanisms against further pain and suffering. Late in the film, she sobs through an absolutely devastating monologue — “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 a tour-de-force moment, the kind that will forever be included in highlight reels celebrating her work.
1. The Fabulous Baker Boys (Kloves, 1989)
While Scarface announced Pfeiffer as a star, it was her transcendent performance as foul-mouthed, sexy, and sardonic lounge singer Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys that truly made her a breakout star and earned her a second Academy Award nomination. She’s pure electricity in the film, especially on stage where former escort Susie quickly develops into a stunningly confident singer, putting her entire body and soul into the performances. Pfeiffer supplies one of cinema’s most indelible moments during the film’s showstopping scene, wearing that famous red dress and slinking seductively atop the piano while singing “Makin’ Whoopee.” This is the work that launched Pfeiffer’s career into the stratosphere. It’s the moment when audiences and critics alike realized she not only had the raw talent, but also the charisma and dedication to become one of the best actors of her generation.
Over to you: what are your fave Michelle Pfeiffer films?