Kenneth Branagh’s all-star revival of the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery gives us a traditional exotic cross-section of high society (with picturesque servants and bits of rough) on board the snowed-in Orient Express, on which someone has been whacked. The film has Pfeiffer in one of her late-career grande dame roles: the manhunting American widow Mrs Hubbard, which she plays a little softer than Lauren Bacall, who had had the role in the 1974 version. Pfeiffer sang the melancholy Never Forget over the end credits, with lyrics by Branagh.
19. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
The sole Shakespeare on the Pfeiffer CV (it is a shame that she hasn’t done more, maybe Gertrude or Volumnia). At any rate, she is a gentle and serenely charming Titania in Michael Hoffman’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which updates the action to 19th-century Tuscany. She is queenly and self-possessed, with a British accent that puts the brakes on her line readings. She nicely plays off the pouting petulance of Rupert Everett’s Oberon and there is something sweetly romantic in her magical infatuation with Bottom, played rather self-effacingly by Kevin Kline.
Pfeiffer returned to Hollywood after a five-year family break with this film (and Stardust, below) and it signalled a new career phase of character parts, comedy roles and wicked-witch turns. Here, in a remake of John Waters’s Hairspray of 1988, she plays the ruthless dragon-lady and former beauty queen Velma Von Tussle, the gimlet-eyed TV station chief in charge of a 60s pop music TV programme called The Corny Collins Show; this has a segregationist attitude to black music, permitting it appear once a month on something it calls “Negro Day”. Velma is icily opposed to a suggestion from the wide-eyed dance contestant Tracy Turnblad to bring white and black people together on the show. Pfeiffer gets a sexy moment, reprising the song Big, Blonde and Beautiful, attempting to seduce Tracy’s dad (Christopher Walken).
One of Pfeiffer’s “witchy” roles, but atypical in that it is from her starry heyday. It is a wackily OTT fantasy comedy based on John Updike’s novel, which perhaps reveals much about how Updike saw himself. Pfeiffer plays one of three single and discontented women (with Cher and Susan Sarandon) in Eastwick, Rhode Island, who have their own little coven and whose intimate conversations supernaturally summon a certain diabolic man they want to meet, played with much eyebrow work by Jack Nicholson. In a way, the women and Nicholson are in danger of cancelling each other out, but it is a strong performance from Pfeiffer.
This ornate Gilliam-esque fantasy, taken from Neil Gaiman’s novel, was the other film that brought Pfeiffer back to the screen in 2007. Despite being a bit overwrought, it gave Pfeiffer a perfectly decent showcase in the witchy role of Lamia, a British-voiced sorceress who is on a fanatical mission to find the source of eternal youth. She relished the panto nastiness and absurdity of the role, but stayed Pfeiffer-classy at the same time. If there had not been a strict British thesps rule for the Harry Potter movies, she could easily have found a berth there.
Why on earth shouldn’t Pfeiffer find her career third act in superhero films (along with Michael Douglas, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart etc)? In Ant-Man and the Wasp, with Paul Rudd as Ant-Man and Evangeline Lilly as the Wasp, Pfeiffer plays Janet, the mysterious mother of Lilly’s character, Hope. Janet has to be rescued after miniaturising herself to a subatomic size to fly into a rogue nuclear missile to disable it, then finds herself unable to get back out. It is a bizarre notion, but Pfeiffer is engagingly like a mix of Marlon Brando and Susannah York playing Superman’s parents in the 1978 film.
14. Wolf (1994)
Pfeiffer’s second pairing with Nicholson on this list. Both in their 90s superstarry pomp, they find themselves in a ripe high-concept fantasy: a rare, perhaps unique, example of “romantic horror” that can claim to be an ancestor of the Twilight series. Pfeiffer plays Laura, the pert daughter of the wealthy mogul who takes over a publishing house and fires Will (Nicholson), the growlingly saturnine editor-in-chief, and replaces him an obnoxious smoothie who is having an affair with Will’s wife. It is at this moment that the unhappy, rage-filled Will is bitten by a black wolf in the woods and turns into a werewolf. Lupine Jack, sprouting hair and fangs all over the place, has a fascinatingly dangerous sexual allure for the playfully sensual Laura as the secret of Will’s other life becomes clear. Pfeiffer plays it dead straight and gives it an enjoyable gloss.
13. Grease 2 (1982)
Here, improbably, was the movie that gave Pfeiffer her big break. In the much yawned-at sequel to Grease, she takes on the role of Stephanie, the uber-blond chick and leader of the Pink Ladies, enamoured of bikers and Freudianly singing of her yearning for a “Cool Rider”. It is hardly new to complain that the actors in the Grease movies were too old for teen roles, but, interestingly, Pfeiffer looks mature in a good way: her distinctive chiselled cheekbones and wide-set eyes give her something classy, almost blueblooded. It was her above-the-title star quality that made sure her career survived – and thrived – when the film crashed and burned.
12. Dangerous Minds (1995)
A big and self-consciously serious role for Pfeiffer as the inspirational teacher in a tough school with a class full of disadvantaged African American and Latinx pupils. Such a role is always a little preposterous, and nowadays film-makers are warier of “white saviour” narratives, but this film makes things even hokier by making Pfeiffer a Marine Corps veteran, with some tasty karate moves that she busts out under pressure, earning a bit of much-needed respect. But Pfeiffer sells it as hard as she can. Perhaps without meaning to, she does suggest something teacherly and grand in her address to the slouching, sneering, soon-to-be-redeemed kids.
11. Into the Night (1985)
Whatever else you say about it, this was the movie that gave Pfeiffer a scene with David Bowie, who had a bad-guy cameo. Into the Night is an example of a recurring Pfeiffer persona: the mobster or mobster’s girlfriend, a type she plays with entertaining gusto, her refined beauty contrasting well with her gum-chewing, wise-ass criminality. John Landis directed this romp and filled it with celebrity walk-ons (including Bowie). Jeff Goldblum is the bored office worker who discovers his wife is cheating on him and heads out to the airport with a vague notion of flying off somewhere. Pfeiffer crash-lands on the bonnet of his car, being chased by some scary individuals, and fiercely orders the mousy Goldblum to drive her to safety. After this meet-cute, they are off. It is chaotic, but Pfeiffer’s tough-broad routine holds up well.
10. Ladyhawke (1985)
Michelle Pfeiffer fans – and devotees of the offbeat 80s film you might have accidentally rented on VHS back in the day – have an enormous affection for this medieval fantasy from the screenwriter Edward Khmara and the director Richard Donner. In some ways, Pfeiffer’s ethereal beauty and style makes her a shoo-in for this kind of role: it is a pity she showed up too late to be cast in John Boorman’s Excalibur. In medieval France, there is a comely young noblewoman, Isabeau of Anjou (Pfeiffer), who is sometimes in the company of a wolf. She is perhaps in love, from afar, with the gallant captain of the guard, played by Rutger Hauer, who is often seen with a hawk. The awful truth is that a curse has been placed on them, which turns Isabeau into a hawk at night and the captain into a wolf during the day, which means they can never be together as humans. It is hilariously bizarre – and Pfeiffer’s face, with its patrician hauteur, is just right for it.
9. Batman Returns (1992)
The 90s have dawned and here was Pfeiffer’s career second-act in superhero movies, playing Catwoman, a slinky-sexy role that could have been a poisoned chalice, but wasn’t. She gained iconic status in this faintly underpar Batman film, at least partly because of her truly outrageous black-leatherette outfit plus mask, designed by Bob Ringwood and Mary Vogt, rivalled only at the time by the safety-pin dress Liz Hurley wore to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral two years later. In fact, the movie gives Catwoman a great backstory and transformation scene, wittily suggesting that this supremely predatory and confident villain used to be a dowdy, depressed “cat lady” living all on her own in a dull apartment.
8. Frankie and Johnny (1991)
Audiences relaxed into a warm bath of romantic schmaltz with this film directed by Garry “Pretty Woman” Marshall, adapted from the Terrence McNally play. Al Pacino is the short-order cook, Johnny, who falls in love with the hardbitten waitress, Frankie, played by Pfeiffer. The two have a definite chemistry, although perhaps of the actorly sort. Pfeiffer has a great scene when the besotted Johnny persuades her one evening to open her robe so that he can gaze at her naked body for 15 seconds; Frankie has to keep talking to ride out the embarrassment and finds herself nervously monologuing on the bizarrely unerotic subject of a pet parakeet that she had to throw in the rubbish bin when it died. A big Broadway-style role for Pfeiffer; the sort she didn’t often get.
Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre and bonkers horror fantasy made some people very cross and upset. It is fair to say this film is an acquired taste that a proportion of its audience found themselves unable to acquire over its running time. Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence play a creatively blocked writer and his young wife, who allow a strange couple into their house, played by Ed Harris and a superbly witty and confident Pfeiffer. She is an urbane older woman who starts taunting and goading poor, polite Jennifer about the fact that she doesn’t have children; she also gives inappropriately intimate advice about lingerie. It is a rich and juicy role – she is a brittle, obnoxious alcoholic and chain-smoker – although perhaps Pfeiffer’s performance got lost amid the freaky maelstrom of the film and the critical argument that detonated around it.
6. Scarface (1983)
Pfeiffer plays the beautiful Elvira, the lover of Pacino’s cruel and violent gangster Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s remake of the Howard Hawks original that starred Paul Muni. She is at first a gorgeous and haughty creature who boldly asks him to dance in a nightclub and mocks his Cuban background. Finally, Elvira is intrigued by Tony’s candid declaration of interest in her and they get together. Then, when the truth of their lives together is revealed to her, she retreats into a torpor of cocaine addiction, depression and self-hate. It is a difficult, unsympathetic role, made odder by her distinct facial similarity to Tony’s sister Gina, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. In danger of being upstaged by Pacino and Mastrantonio, Pfeiffer maintains the frangible veneer that the character needs.
5. Love Field (1992)
Pfeiffer boldly tackles an emotional movie that comes close to Sirk-ian melodrama, earning her one of her three Academy Award nominations. She plays an unhappily married 60s Dallas housewife called Lurene, who fan-worships Jackie Kennedy. When poor, lonely Lurene hears in 1963 that John and Jackie Kennedy are to make their fateful visit to Dallas, she makes sure she is going to see the mega-celebrity couple in the flesh. When she is caught up in the terrible calamity, she is overwhelmed by a sense of purpose and resolves to go to Washington for the state funeral and in doing so becomes involved in a strange situation with an African American man, played by Dennis Haysbert. It is a strange film – overcomplicated, overwrought; the kind of movie that had not been popular for decades – but Pfeiffer gives an earnest, heartfelt performance.
4. Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Pfeiffer has a very difficult role, perhaps the most difficult, in Christopher Hampton’s elegant and languorous adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel of sexual intrigue, directed by Stephen Frears. She is the beautiful, sensitive and virtuous Madame de Tourvel, to whom the dissolute, predatory Vicomte de Valmont, played by John Malkovich, starts making his sinuous advances. Valmont’s lizardly character is pretty well fixed (at least at the beginning), as is that of the heartless Marquise de Merteuil, played by Glenn Close. But Madame de Tourvel has to change, gradually: she has to be credibly pure and scandalised by Valmont, but must also plausibly thaw and glow and be amused and finally overwhelmed by his candid overtures. She has to fall in love with the jaded Valmont, and he with her. Pfeiffer is impeccably cast and gives a very well-judged performance, bringing an aristocratic mien to the film.
3. Married to the Mob (1988)
Here is the one movie that proved Pfeiffer can play comedy and that her beautiful movie-star face can be animated by the thrill of delivering funny lines. In this offbeat caper, Jonathan Demme dramatised the mob-wife scenario that Martin Scorsese was to address later in Goodfellas, although the ironised comic tone is closer to The Sopranos. Pfeiffer is Angela, the wife of “Cucumber” Frank De Marco, played by Alec Baldwin, and a stressed mum to their little boy. But she is sick of hanging out with all the other mafia wives and dismayed at the bad habits that her little boy is getting into, such as rooking all the other kids in the neighbourhood with the three-card monte. When “Cucumber” is brutally whacked, Angela wants to get out of the whole business, with their boy. She is a widow, but she wants to divorce the mob. That isn’t easy, especially as she appears to have fallen for the goofily innocent lawman Mike, played by Matthew Modine. It is a great performance, helped by the kind of smart and beguiling script that was not to come along all that often.
2. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
Pfeiffer’s great singing voice is showcased in a movie that many devotees consider the high-water mark of her Hollywood output. Jeff and Beau Bridges are the Baker boys, Jack and Frank, a cheesy piano lounge act who are grinding tiredly through their routine in the clubs and decide they need a singer to perk things up. After the traditional audition montage of hilarious no-hopers, Pfeiffer shows up chaotically late and, having removed her gum, blows them away with More Than You Know. Her character is Susie Diamond, a high-price escort who wants the redemption of showbusiness. Susie turns their duo into an emotionally fraught trio and Frank feels upset and fraternally betrayed when he realises that Jack is falling hard for Susie. And who wouldn’t, considering her showstoppingly slinky performance of Makin’ Whoopee in a red dress, slinking all over the piano, whose ivories Jack is tickling? Pfeiffer comes close to Marilyn Monroe status with her open, sexy and warm-hearted performance.
Overt passion and adult sexuality have rarely been demanded of Pfeiffer, but it is here, in Edith Wharton’s story of high-class New York society manners of the late 19th century, a world in which feelings are coded and concealed. Impressively, she makes her mark opposite the mysterious and exquisite Daniel Day-Lewis. Pfeiffer plays Ellen, a beautiful and sensitive woman who has returned to New York in despair, having escaped a disastrous marriage to a grasping and unscrupulous Polish aristocrat. She is a controversial and divisive figure in high society, where some are reluctant to accept her, but the lawyer Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) agrees to act for her. In any case, Ellen is a relative of his fiancee, May (Winona Ryder). Soon, Newland falls for Ellen – he is forced to gratify his erotic and romantic obsession with something as fanatically fetishistic as peeling off her glove and kissing the inside of her wrist. Pfeiffer becomes his amused confidante at first, listening to his tortured confidences about how he does not wish to rush into marriage, but she is someone who has a worldly wisdom and a knowledge of the human heart far in excess of Newland, who is a little callow. Pfeiffer raises Day-Lewis’s game as perhaps none of his co-stars have ever done in an excellent and thoroughly grownup performance.