Pfeiffer was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama for The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). She received a third Oscar nomination for Love Field (1992). Her other notable film roles include The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Married to the Mob (1988), Frankie and Johnny (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), Wolf (1994), White Oleander (2002), and Mother! (2017). She received her first Emmy Award nomination for portraying Ruth Madoff in the HBO television film The Wizard of Lies (2017).
Pfeiffer was born in Santa Ana, California, the second of four children of Richard Pfeiffer, an air-conditioning contractor, and Donna (née Taverna), a housewife. She has one elder brother, Rick (born 1955), and two younger sisters, Dedee Pfeiffer (born 1964), a television and film actress, and Lori Pfeiffer (born 1965). Her parents were both originally from North Dakota. Her paternal grandfather was of German ancestry and her paternal grandmother was of English, Welsh, French, Irish, and Dutch descent, while her maternal grandfather was of Swiss-German descent and her maternal grandmother was of Swedish ancestry. The family moved to Midway City, where Pfeiffer spent her childhood.
She attended Fountain Valley High School, graduating in 1976. She worked as a check-out girl at Vons supermarket, and attended Golden West College where she was a member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority. After a short stint training to be a court stenographer, she decided upon an acting career. She won the Miss Orange County beauty pageant in 1978, and participated in Miss California the same year, finishing in sixth position. Following her participation in these pageants, she acquired an acting agent and began to audition for television and films.
Pfeiffer's early acting appearances included television roles on Fantasy Island, Delta House and BAD Cats among others. She was one of the several candidates to audition as a replacement for Kate Jackson on the television series Charlie's Angels in 1979, although the part went to Shelley Hack. She had small roles in a few theatrical films, including Falling in Love Again (1980) with Susannah York, The Hollywood Knights (1980) opposite Tony Danza, and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981), none of which met with much critical or box office success. Pfeiffer later said of her early screen work: "I needed to learn how to act... in the meantime, I was playing bimbos and cashing in on my looks." She appeared in a television commercial for Lux soap, and took acting lessons at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, before appearing in three further television movies – Callie and Son (1981) with Lindsay Wagner, The Children Nobody Wanted (1981), and a 1981 TV movie remake of Splendor in the Grass.
She then landed her first major film role as Stephanie Zinone in Grease 2 (1982), the sequel to the smash-hit musical Grease (1978). The film was a critical and commercial failure, and Pfeiffer's single release of "Cool Rider" from the film's soundtrack on PolyGram failed to dent the music charts. Nevertheless, Pfeiffer received some positive attention for her performance, notably from The New York Times, which said "although she is a relative screen newcomer, Miss Pfeiffer manages to look much more insouciant and comfortable than anyone else in the cast". Despite escaping the critical mauling, Pfeiffer's agent later admitted that her association with the film meant that "she couldn't get any jobs. Nobody wanted to hire her".
Director Brian De Palma, having seen Grease 2, refused to audition Pfeiffer for Scarface (1983), but relented at the insistence of Martin Bregman, the film's producer. She was cast as cocaine-addicted trophy wife Elvira Hancock. The film was considered excessively violent by most critics, but became a commercial hit and gained a large cult following in subsequent years. Pfeiffer received positive reviews for her supporting turn; Richard Corliss of Time Magazine wrote, "most of the large cast is fine: Michelle Pfeiffer is better ..." while Dominick Dunne, in an article for Vanity Fair titled "Blonde Ambition", wrote, "[s]he is on the verge of stardom. In the parlance of the industry, she is hot".
Following Scarface, she played Diana in John Landis' comedy Into the Night (1985), opposite Jeff Goldblum, Isabeau d'Anjou in Richard Donner's fantasy film Ladyhawke (1985), opposite Rutger Hauer and Matthew Broderick, Faith Healy in Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty (1986), opposite Michael Caine, and Brenda Landers in a segment of the 1950s sci-fi parody Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), all of which, despite achieving only modest commercial success, helped to establish her as an actress. She finally scored a major box-office hit as Sukie Ridgemont in the 1987 adaptation of John Updike's novel The Witches of Eastwick, alongside Jack Nicholson, Cher, and Susan Sarandon. The film grossed over $63.7 million domestically, the equivalent to $134.4 million in 2016 dollars.
Pfeiffer was cast against type, as a murdered gangster's widow, in Jonathan Demme's mafia comedy Married to the Mob (1988), opposite Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell and Mercedes Ruehl. For the role of Angela de Marco, she donned a curly brunette wig and a Brooklyn accent, and received her first Golden Globe Award nomination as Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, beginning a six-year streak of consecutive Best Actress nominations at the Golden Globes. Pfeiffer then appeared as chic restauranteuse Jo Ann Vallenari in Tequila Sunrise (1988) opposite Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell, but experienced creative and personal differences with director Robert Towne, who later described her as the "most difficult" actress he has ever worked with.
At Demme's personal recommendation, Pfeiffer joined the cast of Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons (1988) alongside Glenn Close and John Malkovich, playing the virtuous victim of seduction, Madame Marie de Tourvel. Her performance won her widespread acclaim; Hal Hinson of The Washington Post saw Pfeiffer's role as "the least obvious and the most difficult. Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it. Her porcelain-skinned beauty, in this regard, is a great asset, and the way it's used makes it seem an aspect of her spirituality". She won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Pfeiffer then accepted the role of Susie Diamond, a hard-edged former call girl turned lounge singer, in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), which co-starred Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges as the eponymous Baker Boys. She underwent intensive voice training for the role for four months, and performed all of her character's vocals. The film was a modest success, grossing $18,428,904 in the US (equivalent to $35.6 million in 2016 dollars ). Pfeiffer's portrayal of Susie, however, drew rave reviews from critics. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote of the performance: "[...]she proves to be electrifyingly right. Introducing Ms. Pfeiffer's furiously hard-boiled, devastatingly gorgeous Susie into the Bakers' world affects the film the way a match might affect a fuse," Fellow critic Roger Ebert compared her to Rita Hayworth in Gilda and to Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, adding that the film was "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." Variety singled out her performance of 'Makin' Whoopee', writing that Pfeiffer "hits the spot in the film's certain-to-be-remembered highlight... crawling all over a piano in a blazing red dress. She's dynamite."
During the 1989–1990 awards season, Pfeiffer dominated the Best Actress category at every major awards ceremony, winning awards at the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress and the Chicago Film Critics Association. At the Academy Awards, she was favored to win the Best Actress Oscar, but the award went to Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy in what was considered a surprise upset. The only other major acting award for which she was nominated that she did not take home for The Fabulous Baker Boys was the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, which also went to Tandy.
In the 1990s, Pfeiffer accepted and also turned down many high-profile roles, beginning with the title role in Pretty Woman (1990), which earned Julia Roberts a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She took the part of the Soviet book editor Katya Orlova in the 1990 film adaptation of John le Carré's The Russia House, opposite Sean Connery, a role that required her to adopt a Russian accent. For her efforts, she was rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. Pfeiffer then landed the role of damaged waitress Frankie in Garry Marshall's Frankie and Johnny (1991), a film adaptation of Terrence McNally's Broadway play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which reunited her with her Scarface co-star, Al Pacino. The casting was seen as controversial by many, as Pfeiffer was considered far too beautiful to play an "ordinary" waitress; Kathy Bates, the original Frankie on Broadway, also expressed disappointment over the producers' choice. Pfeiffer herself stated that she took the role because it "wasn't what people would expect of [her]." Pfeiffer was once again nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama for her performance. During this period, she turned down the role of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a character that won Jodie Foster the Academy Award for Best Actress. Pfeiffer also declined the role of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992), ultimately played by Sharon Stone, as well as the role of Louise in Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise, which went to Susan Sarandon.
In 1990, Michelle formed her own boutique film production company called Via Rosa Productions, which ran for ten years. The company would allow Pfeiffer to produce and/or star in films tailored for strong women. She asked her best friend Kate Guinzburg to be her producing partner at the company. The two met on the set of the film Sweet Liberty (1986) and quickly became friends. Kate was the Production Coordinator on the film and became close with Pfeiffer over the course of the shoot. Via Rosa Productions was under a picture deal with Touchstone Pictures, a film label of The Walt Disney Studios. The first film the duo produced was the nostalgic independent drama Love Field (1992). Pfeiffer earned an Academy Award nomination for Actress in a Leading Role and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama for her performance as Lurene Hallett in the film, which had been temporarily shelved by the financially troubled Orion Pictures. It was finally released in late 1992, in time for Oscar consideration. The New York Times review wrote of Pfeiffer as "again demonstrating that she is as subtle and surprising as she is beautiful." For her portrayal of the eccentric Dallas housewife, she won the Silver Bear Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Pfeiffer took the role of Catwoman (Selina Kyle) in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992) opposite Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito. For the role of Catwoman, she trained in martial arts and kickboxing. Pfeiffer has received universal critical acclaim for her performance and is consistently referred to as the greatest portrayal of Selina Kyle/Catwoman of all time by critics and fans. She was constantly praised for the amount of dimension and authenticity she brought to the character. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praised her for giving the "feminist avenger a tough core of intelligence and wit" and called her a "classic dazzler". Premiere retrospectively lauded her performance: "Arguably the outstanding villain of the Tim Burton era, Michelle Pfeiffer's deadly kitten with a whip brought sex to the normally neutered franchise. Her stitched-together, black patent leather costume, based on a sketch of Burton's, remains the character's most iconic look. And Michelle Pfeiffer overcomes Batman Returns' heavy-handed feminist dialogue to deliver a growling, fierce performance". The movie met a big box office success, grossing over $266 million worldwide (equivalent to $454.0 million).
The following year, she played Countess Ellen Olenska in Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1993) opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. For this role she received the Elvira Notari Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture. That same year she was awarded the Women in Film Los Angeles' Crystal Award for outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.
Pfeiffer's subsequent career choices have met with varying degrees of success. After The Age of Innocence, she played the role of Laura Alden opposite Jack Nicholson in Wolf (1994), a horror film that garnered a mixed critical reception. The New York Times wrote: "Ms. Pfeiffer's role is underwritten, but her performance is expert enough to make even diffidence compelling". The movie grossed US$65 million (equivalent to $105.0 million) at the domestic box office and US$131 million worldwide (equivalent to $211.7 million). Her next role was that of high school teacher and former US Marine LouAnne Johnson in the surprise box office hit Dangerous Minds (1995), which was co-produced under Pfeiffer's film production company Via Rosa Productions. She appeared as her character in the music video for the soundtrack's lead single, 'Gangsta's Paradise' by Coolio (featuring L.V.), which was used by the producer Jerry Bruckheimer for television advertising. A 60-second version was aired on music channels, while a 30-second cut was aired in the rest of the networks. The song won the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance, and the video won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Rap Video.
In 1996, she turned down the Golden Globe Award-winning role of Eva Perón in the biopic Evita, which went to Madonna. Pfeiffer then portrayed Sally Atwater in the romantic drama Up Close & Personal (1996) opposite Robert Redford. The film's screenplay, co-written by husband and wife team John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, was intended to be a biographical account of the career of news anchor Jessica Savitch, but the final version had almost nothing to do with Savitch's life, leading Dunne to write an exposé of his eight-year battle with the Hollywood producers, Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.
She took the role of Gillian Lewis in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996), which was adapted by her husband David Kelley from Michael Brady's play of the same name. Pfeiffer and her producing partner Guinzburg were on a winning streak of producing three back to back films next under their Via Rosa Productions header that included, One Fine Day (1996), A Thousand Acres (1997) and The Deep End of the Ocean (1998). She served as an executive producer and starred as the divorced single mother architect Melanie Parker in the romantic comedy One Fine Day (1996) opposite George Clooney, Subsequent performances included Rose Cook Lewis in the film adaptation of Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres (1997) with Jessica Lange and Jennifer Jason Leigh; Beth Cappadora in The Deep End of the Ocean (1998) about a married couple who found their son who was kidnapped nine years ago; Titania the Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999) with Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci; and Katie Jordan in Rob Reiner's comedy-drama The Story of Us (1999) opposite Bruce Willis.
Pfeiffer chose to begin the process of dissolving her film production company, Via Rosa Productions, in 1999, and move into semi-retirement in order to spend more quality time with her children and family, meaning that she would continue to star in films sporadically into the 2000s and beyond. Pfeiffer handed her producing partner Guinzburg one final film to produce under the Via Rosa Productions header. The film was called, Original Sin (2001). It was originally intended to star Pfeiffer, who later changed her mind as she was looking to work less for a while. The film was produced by her company, but instead starred Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas.
In the Hitchcockian thriller What Lies Beneath (2000), Pfeiffer starred with Harrison Ford as a well-to-do couple who experience a strange haunting that uncovers secrets about their past. While critical response towards the film was mixed, it opened atop at the box office in July 2000, and went on to gross US$$291 million worldwide. She then accepted the role of Rita Harrison, a highly strung lawyer helping a father with a developmental disability, in the drama I Am Sam (2001), opposite Sean Penn. Despite grossing US$97.8 million worldwide, the movie received unfavorable reviews; Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote: "Pfeiffer, apparently stymied by the bland clichés that prop up her screechy role, delivers her flattest, phoniest performance ever". Meanwhile, SF Gate observed: "In one scene, she breaks down in tears as she unburdens herself to him about her miserable life. It's hard not to cringe, watching this emotionally ready actress fling herself headlong into false material".
Pfeiffer took on the role of a murderous artist named Ingrid Magnussen in the drama White Oleander (2002), alongside Alison Lohman (in her film début), Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn. The film was an arthouse success and Pfeiffer garnered a substantial amount of critical praise; Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote that "Ms. Pfeiffer, giving the most complex screen performance of her career, makes her Olympian seductress at once irresistible and diabolical". Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times described her as "incandescent," bringing "power and unshakable will to her role as mother-master manipulator" in a "riveting, impeccable performance". She earned Best Supporting Actress Awards from the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination.
Pfeiffer lent her voice for the character of goddess of chaos Eris in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003), an animated film featuring Brad Pitt as the voice of Sinbad the Sailor. She had struggles with finding the character's villainies. Initially the character was "too sexual," then she lacked fun. After the third rewrite, Pfeiffer called producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and told him "You know, you really can fire me.", but he assured her that this was just part of the process. Following the release of the film, she took a four-year hiatus from acting, during which she remained largely out of the public eye to devote time to her husband and children. At the time, she turned down the role of the White Witch in the fantasy film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005), which went to Tilda Swinton.
Pfeiffer returned to the screen in 2007 with villainous roles in two major summer blockbusters — Hairspray and Stardust. In the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Hairspray, she starred with John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron and Queen Latifah, portraying the role of Velma Von Tussle, the racist and sizeist manager of a music station. Travolta requested that Pfeiffer play the part of the villainess, which was her first film role in five years. A widely positive reception greeted the film upon its release, while it made an impressive US$118.9 million and US$202.5 million worldwide. The cast of Hairspray was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Cast in a Motion Picture, but won the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Cast, the Hollywood Film Festival Award for Ensemble of the Year and the Palm Springs International Film Festival Award for Ensemble Cast. Her next film release, the fantasy adventure Stardust, opposite Claire Danes, Charlie Cox and Robert De Niro, saw her play the ancient witch Lamia. Filmed before Hairspray, the film premiered three weeks afterwards; it garnered largely positive reviews but, budgeted at US70 million, it made a modest US$135.5 million globally.
Pfeiffer starred in Amy Heckerling's romantic comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007), with Paul Rudd and Saoirse Ronan, portraying Rosie, a 40-year-old divorced mother working as a scriptwriter and producer for a television show who falls in love with a much younger man (Rudd). Her reported salary was US$1 million, with an advance on 15 percent of the gross. However, the film was only distributed on home video markets. Reviews for I Could Never Be Your Woman were moderately positive, with critic James Berardinelli finding Pfeiffer and Rudd to "have adequate chemistry to pull off the romance" in what he described as an "enjoyable romantic comedy that has enough going for it to make it worth a recommendation". She next starred in Personal Effects (2009), opposite Ashton Kutcher, playing two grieving people coping with the pain and frustration of their loss whose bond spawns an unlikely romance. The drama premiered at Iowa City's Englert Theatre.
Her next film, an adaptation of Colette's Chéri (2009), reunited her with the director (Stephen Frears) and screenwriter (Christopher Hampton) of Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Pfeiffer played the role of aging retired courtesan Léa de Lonval, opposite Rupert Friend in the title role, with Kathy Bates as his mother. Chéri premiered at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival, where it received a nomination for the Golden Bear award. The Times of London reviewed the film favorably, describing Hampton's screenplay as a "steady flow of dry quips and acerbic one-liners" and Pfeiffer's performance as "magnetic and subtle, her worldly nonchalance a mask for vulnerability and heartache". Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that it was "fascinating to observe how Pfeiffer controls her face and voice during times of painful hurt". Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times praised the "wordless scenes that catch Léa unawares, with the camera alone seeing the despair and regret that she hides from the world. It's the kind of refined, delicate acting Pfeiffer does so well, and it's a further reminder of how much we've missed her since she's been away".
Following a two-year sabbatical from acting, Pfeiffer made part of a large ensemble cast in Garry Marshall's romantic comedy New Year's Eve (2011), her second collaboration with Marshall after Frankie and Johnny. The film, also starring Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Robert De Niro, Josh Duhamel, Zac Efron, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sofía Vergara, among many others, saw her take on the supporting role of Ingrid Withers, an overwhelmed secretary befriending with a deliveryman (Efron). While the film was panned by critics, it made US$142 million worldwide. In 2012, she appeared opposite Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks in the drama People Like Us, as the mother of a struggling New York City corporate trader (Pine). Rolling Stone found her to be "luminous" in the film, and The New York Times, positively pointing out Pfeiffer and Banks, noted that their performances "partly compensate for the holes in a story whose timing is hard to swallow". People Like Us debuted to US$4.26 million, described as "meager" by Box Office Mojo, and only made US$12 million in North America.
Pfieffer reunited with Tim Burton, her Batman Returns director, in Dark Shadows (2012), based on the gothic television soap opera of the same name. In the film, co-starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Chloë Grace Moretz, she played Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the stern and strict, but loyal and devoted family matriarch. Critical response towards the film was mixed, but writers acclaimed the actors' performances—most notably Depp and Pfeiffer's. IGN found her to be "commanding" in her role and felt that the main characters were "played by one of Burton's best ensemble casts yet". While Dark Shadows grossed a modest US$79.7 million in North America, it ultimately made US$245.5 million globally. In Luc Besson's mob-comedy The Family (2013), co-starring Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron and John D'Leo, she played the "tough mother" in a Mafia family wanting to change their lives under the witness protection program. Although reviews for the film were mixed, THV11 said on the cast's portrayals: "The core actors of The Family were really solid and the whole film comes together to make a solid movie". Meanwhile, The Huffington Post felt that "De Niro, Pfieffer and Jones all brought 100% to their roles". The film grossed US$78.4 million worldwide.
Pfeiffer has stated that her lack of acting throughout the 2000s was due to her children, and now with both her children away at college, she intends to "work a lot". She has commented that she feels that her best performance is "still in her", and that she thinks that's what keeps her going. She starred in the independent drama Where Is Kyra? (2017), as a sensitive and fragile woman who loses her mother and "faces a crisis in which she must find a means for survival, all the while hiding her struggles from her new lover". The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2017. The slew of films that would follow would prompt the media to dub Pfeiffer's career resurgence a "Pfeiffer-sance".
Pfeiffer landed the role of Ruth Madoff for the HBO Films drama The Wizard of Lies, based on the book of the same name. The film, directed by Barry Levinson, reunites her with actor Robert De Niro, who played her husband, disgraced financier Bernard Madoff. The Wizard of Lies premiered on HBO on May 20, 2017, garnering favorable reviews from critics and an audience of 1.5 million viewers, HBO's largest premiere viewership for a film in four years. Tolucan Times remarked that Pfeiffer "steals the show as Madoff's wife, Ruth, and is a remarkable lookalike", while Los Angeles Times asserted: "As Ruth, Pfeiffer convincingly portrays a pampered woman left with utterly nothing —she's lost her homes, status and, most important, her relationship with her sons". Pfeiffer scored her first Emmy nomination for her performance in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie. She starred in Darren Aronofsky's psychological horror film Mother!, opposite Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, which was released on September 15, 2017, by Paramount Pictures. The film received generally positive, though polarizing reviews. Pfeiffer's performance was critically acclaimed, with many stating that it was worthy of an Oscar nomination. Pfeiffer is also part of an ensemble cast in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. The film will be released on November 10, 2017.
On July 22, 2017, it was announced that Pfeiffer was cast as Janet van Dyne in Marvel's Ant-Man and the Wasp, directed by Peyton Reed. The film is expected to hit theaters July 6, 2018.
Pfeiffer maintains that she has never received any formal acting training. Instead, she credits director Milton Katselas with teaching her the difference between how an actor initially thinks a character would behave during a particular scene, and how the actor themself would behave during that same scene. In 1992, Rolling Stone's Gerri Hirshey identified Pfeiffer as "an accomplished character actress" who is comfortable wearing costumes that are unflattering in the traditional Hollywood sense, The Fabulous Baker Boys' Susie Diamond – her most critically acclaimed role to-date – being a notable exception at the time. Pfeiffer explained that she rarely accepts glamorous roles because she finds few of them interesting, opting to play characters that "move" her instead: "I know that if I can hear the character as I'm reading, it's made some connection [with me]." A film critic once summarized the actress as "a character actress in a screen siren's body", a sentiment with which her Scarface co-star and friend Al Pacino agrees. Pfeiffer is often commended for her ability to disguise her true feelings and emotions, a technique she frequently uses to her advantage in period films; playing roles in period costume has become something of a trademark of hers. Pfeiffer herself has admitted to being skilled in this particular area but at the same time believes that hiding one's true feelings is not uncommon, speculating, "that's how most people behave. We may not be as mannered or as proper as people were in the 19th century, but very rarely are we talking about what we're really thinking." Pfeiffer has called acting a "sadomasochistic" profession due to how "brutal" the process can be at times. She is often praised for her acting abilities by various directors with whom she has collaborated over the years. Director Martin Scorsese described Pfeiffer, who he directed in the period drama The Age of Innocence (1993), as "an actress who could portray inner conflict with her eyes and face better than any other film star of her generation." Jonathan Demme (Married to the Mob, 1988) declared “It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who, on a level of quality, would have an edge on her."
Pfeiffer is generally considered to be among the most talented actresses in Hollywood. Coined one of the industry's "most interesting" actresses by The Daily Beast, Pfeiffer is known for her versatility, boasting a diverse filmography that includes period, romance, fantasy and comedy genres. During the 1980s, Pfeiffer typically played smart, funny and strong female characters who also happen to be "more than a little sexy." New Woman observed that Pfeiffer's characters tend to "play the world at a distance, mostly, and are often wise beyond their years. They get romanced, but are not overtly romantic. They may be trashy ... but they all retain an air of invulnerability, a certain classical poise." Comparing Pfeiffer's resume to that of actress Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Kaye of The Daily Beast wrote that Pfeiffer's vulnerable characters share a common theme: "the only reasonable expectation is to not expect much". Apart from The Witches of Eastwick, few of the actress' films during this period had been box office successes, an observation Pfeiffer never mentioned to studio heads in fear that they would stop hiring her altogether. However, her performances continued to garner consistently positive reviews despite lackluster ticket sales and several films that critics dismissed as "forgettable". Pfeiffer has managed to establish herself as a "major star" despite having yet to receive top-billing in a blockbuster film.
Filmmakers, crew members and co-stars tend to agree that Pfeiffer is extremely "committed" to her work, developing a "reputation for competence, control, and hyper-preparation". At times Pfeiffer has been described as difficult to work with, particularly by Robert Towne, who directed her in Tequila Sunrise; Towne famously dubbed Pfeiffer "the most difficult actress in Hollywood". On this designation, Pfeiffer admitted that she can seem difficult at times but it mostly "depends on whom you talk to." Famous for being very "press-shy" and private, much like the characters she portrays on-screen, Pfeiffer is notorious for disliking interviews. In a 2017 interview with Interview magazine, the actress warned her interviewer, director Darren Aronofsky, that she is "the worst interviewee that ever was"; her interviews often feature discussions about how much she dislikes being interviewed because the process makes her nervous. Pfeiffer revealed that there was a time when attending interviews to promote her films would make her very agitated and uncomfortable, but she has always "mastered the art" of maintaining a composed, polite demeanor when performing such responsibilities. However, she maintains that "I still don't believe – and I never will – that it's the actors' responsibility to sell a film." The actress resembles an "intense conversationalist" in her interviews, tending to scrunch her face and narrow her eyes before responding to questions. Pfeiffer always discards old scripts in which she has written extensive notes about her characters, nor does she retain film reviews, magazine clippings or covers about her work or performances.
Pfeiffer has long been referred to as one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, a designation The Daily Telegraph's Mick Brown considers to be both "a defining characteristic in her acting career" and "a curse". Pfeiffer initially struggled to convince casting agents and directors to take her seriously as an actress because they perceived her as little more than a pretty face during the early stages of her career. Pfeiffer's acting abilities continued to be overshadowed by her beauty even several years after her breakout performance in Scarface (1983); she responded by pursuing roles in which being blond is not a requirement. The Daily Beast's Elizabeth Kaye recognized Pfeiffer among Hollywood's rare "beautiful women" who trust that it is possible to be physically beautiful and serious simultaneously. Kaye believes that the actress achieves this feat by "grafting the sensibility of a modern woman onto the glamour of a '30s icon"; Rolling Stones' Gerri Hirshey agreed that Pfeiffer's roles combine "Nineties guts and Thirties glamour." For Interview magazine, Peter Stone described Pfeiffer as a "Blond, sultry, and ethereal" actress with an "unforgettable" face. Nisha Lilia Diu, another The Daily Telegraph contributor, opined, "It's not that she looks younger than she is – she doesn't particularly – it's the symmetry of her bone structure, the flashing aquamarine eyes and those lips, the top one so much fuller than the bottom. It's the kind of beauty you find yourself involuntarily taking a moment to marvel at mid-conversation." At least two of Pfeiffer's films, Stardust (2007) and Chéri (2009), in which she plays a 5, 000 year old witch obsessed with beauty and a courtesan fading into obscurity, respectively, explore themes of beautiful women struggling with the idea of aging. Pfeiffer personally identified with the topic of "our obsession with youth and the ludicrous degrees to which women will go to reclaim it" portrayed in the films. Pfeiffer claims to not want to appear younger than she is and has yet to undergo plastic surgery, although she admits she would "never say never" to the procedure. Dismissing the claim that she is "drop dead gorgeous", insisting that she is only "conventionally pretty". Pfeiffer has been famously self-deprecating about her own appearance, comparing herself to Howard the Duck.
During the 1990s, Pfeiffer attracted significant comment in the media for her beauty; in 1990, she appeared on the cover of People magazine's first 50 Most Beautiful People in the World issue. She was again featured on the cover of the annual issue in 1999, having made the "Most Beautiful" list a record six times during the decade (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1999). Pfeiffer is the first celebrity to have appeared on the cover of the annual issue twice, and the only person to be featured on the cover twice during the 1990s. Men's Health ranked Pfeiffer the 45th on their list of "The Hottest Woman of All Time".
Culture commentators noted that in 2014, Pfeiffer, who was not promoting any movies at the time, had become a "pop-music muse" and was mentioned by name in the lyrics of two separate songs moving up the charts at that time: "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars and "Riptide" by Vance Joy.
Pfeiffer is mentioned in Vance Joy's 2013 song, "Riptide" ("I swear she's destined for the screen, Closest thing to Michelle Pfeiffer that you've ever seen") Joy told reporters that the Pfeiffer film moment which led him to include her name in his song was her portrayal of Selina Kyle in Batman Returns. He said, "She comes back to her apartment after being thrown out the window by Christopher Walken and she goes mental. Her apartment's all pink and beautiful, and kind of creepy and infantile, then she just smashes it all up and spray paints stuff and transforms into Catwoman. It's this really kind of sexual scene; it's amazing."
Pfeiffer is also mentioned in Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars's 2014 song, "Uptown Funk" ("This hit, That ice cold, Michelle Pfeiffer, That white gold") In an interview Ronson answered a reporter saying his favorite Pfeiffer movie was "The Fabulous Baker Boys. I also liked her in Scarface and Tequila Sunrise. She was such a babe".
Australian cricketers speak of "getting a Michelle" when they take five wickets in an innings. This means they have taken "Five for" which has become a "Pfeiffer" and hence a "Michelle".
While taking acting classes in Los Angeles, Pfeiffer was taken in by a seemingly friendly couple who ran a metaphysics and vegetarian cult. While they helped Pfeiffer to stop drinking, smoking, or doing drugs, the couple took control of her entire life. Much of her money went to the group. "I was brainwashed... I gave them an enormous amount of money." Pfeiffer, insecure, felt that she could no longer live without them. At an acting class taught by Milton Katselas in Los Angeles, Pfeiffer met fellow budding actor, Peter Horton. Pfeiffer and Horton began dating.
Pfeiffer and Horton eventually married in Santa Monica in 1981, and it was on their honeymoon that she discovered she had won the lead role in Grease 2. Horton directed Pfeiffer in a 1985 ABC TV special, One Too Many, in which she played the high school girlfriend of an alcoholic student (Val Kilmer); and in 1987, the real-life couple played an on-screen couple in the 'Hospital' segment of John Landis's comedy skit compilation, Amazon Women on the Moon. However, they decided to separate in 1988, and were divorced two years later; Horton later blamed the split on their devotion to their work rather than on their marriage.
After her marriage to Horton, Pfeiffer had a three-year relationship with actor/producer Fisher Stevens. They met when Pfeiffer was starring in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night, in which Stevens played the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Pfeiffer was also involved in an affair with John Malkovich, her co-star in Dangerous Liaisons, who at the time was married to Glenne Headly.
In January 1993, Pfeiffer was set up on a blind date by her best friend and former producing partner Kate Guinzburg, with television writer and producer David E. Kelley, who took her to the movies to see Bram Stoker's Dracula the following week, and they began dating seriously. They married on November 13, 1993. She made a brief uncredited cameo appearance in one episode of Kelley's television series Picket Fences and played the title character in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, for which Kelley wrote the screenplay. Pfeiffer had entered into private adoption proceedings before she met Kelley. In March 1993, she adopted a newborn daughter, Claudia Rose, who was christened on Pfeiffer and Kelley's wedding day. In August 1994, Pfeiffer gave birth to a son, John Henry.
Having been a smoker for ten years and having a niece who suffered from leukemia for ten years, Pfeiffer decided to support the American Cancer Society. Her charity work includes as well her support for the Humane Society. In 2016 she also attended the Healthy Child Healthy World's L.A. Gala for people who lead the organizations for children's environmental health and protect those most vulnerable. In December that same year, Pfeiffer, who is a vegan, joined the board of directors for Environmental Working Group, a consumer research and advocacy group based in Washington. D.C. The nonprofit organization focuses on farm subsidies and the health effects of toxic chemicals used in food, cosmetics, and in drilling and mining for fossil fuels.
During her career, Pfeiffer has won numerous awards including the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama, the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Best Actress awards from the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as Best Supporting Actress awards from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle and the San Diego Film Critics Society.
She has received three Academy Award nominations to date: Best Supporting Actress for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and Best Actress in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and Love Field (1992).
In 2017, she received her first Emmy Award nomination for her performance in The Wizard of Lies (2017) portraying Ruth Madoff.