Michelle Pfeiffer is a three-time Oscar nominee who has starred in a variety of classics in her long career, excelling at everything from comedy to drama, romance and action. Take a look back at 15 of her greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Pfeiffer has had a 40-year career on screen and has managed to overcome being known at first just for her looks. While her beauty was prominently on display in many of her first roles she quickly became more than just a pretty face and plunged herself into deeper and more complex roles. Pfeiffer’s first professional acting job was on a TV series version of the film “Animal House” called “Delta House.” Her character on the TV show was referred to simply as “The Bombshell.” This debut hardly signaled the arrival of an actress good enough to someday earn three Oscar nominations (“Dangerous Liaisons,” 1988; “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” 1989; “Love Field,” 1992) and seven Golden Globe nominations along with one win.
After “Delta House” Pfeiffer made the rounds of episodic TV appearing on everything from “Fantasy Island” and “CHiPS” to a string of TV movies including a remake of “Splendor in the Grass” which starred Melissa Gilbert. Film stardom came more difficulty. Her first role was in an obscure Elliot Gould film called “Falling in Love Again.” She then did “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen,” which failed despite the presence of such Oscar winning actors as Peter Ustinov and Lee Grant. Pfeiffer then was cast in the lead role of “Grease 2” which despite being clobbered by critics upon its release found the way into the hearts of teenagers on cable TV and endeared Pfeiffer to Hollywood enough to keep her employed ever since.
While her film career seemed to slow down a lot in recent years she was bouncing back in 2017. Within the past few months she had the release of “Mother!”, a stand-out role in the remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” and last year earned her first Emmy nomination for the Bernie Madoff biopic “The Wizard of Lies” opposite Robert De Niro.
Let’s take a tour of her career in our photo gallery, and see if your favorite tops the list.
15. LADYHAWKE (1985)
Director: Richard Donner. Writers: Edward Khmara, Michael Thomas, and Tom Mankiewicz. Starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, John Wood.
One of Pfeiffer’s earliest films was this fantasy film in which she plays a beautiful woman cursed to live as a hawk during the day time. This was her first attempt at doing period drama something that she would have great success with later in her career. This was a real change of pace role for Pfeiffer who had mostly played more contemporary and confident characters in her first few films. Here her shy quiet beauty both inside and outside made for a memorable performance and one that showed the first signs of her great range as an actress.
14. MOTHER! (2017)
Director and Writer: Darren Aronofsky. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris.
“Mother!” was a highly divisive film but one thing most people agreed upon was that Pfeiffer had one of her best film roles in years. RogerEbert.com probably described her presence the best in their review: “More memorable, although this is also by virtue of the juiciness of her too-small role, is the fantastic Michelle Pfeiffer. She marches into a room like she owns it, and nearly walks away with every scene she’s in. It’s the part you’ve been wanting her to get for years, and I hope it leads to more high-profile work.”
Unfortunately, the film’s controversy prevented Pfeiffer from getting any award traction. Aronofsky has had a knack for getting performers such as Ellen Burstyn and Mickey Rourke back into Oscar consideration with great roles but sadly Pfeiffer couldn’t climb the mountain of mixed reviews the film got in order to get a nomination.
13. GREASE 2 (1982)
Director: Patricia Birch. Writer: Ken Finkelman. Starring Maxwell Caulfield, Lorna Luft, Adrian Zmed.
This film was a bit of a disaster when it was first released opening to scathing reviews and poor box office. The film was not the huge blockbuster follow-up to the 1978 juggernaut original film “Grease” people had hoped for. The film got a second life though when it was played seemingly continuously during the afternoons on HBO for the next decade. The film’s ubiquitous presence spawned a generation that grew up with the film and have fond childhood memories of it. While Pfeiffer probably doesn’t rank this among her top performances, it is an interesting glimpse into the charisma and charm she’d bring to later roles and it is easy to see why she is one of the few performers who was able to sustain a film career after what some would consider a disaster. (And her rendition of “Cool Rider” with its somewhat awkward choreography and her singing voice heavily augmented walks that fine line of being slightly cringe worthy but also strangely fascinating to watch.)
12. WOLF (1994)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writers: Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick. Starring Jack Nicholson, James Spader, Christopher Plummer.
This film is largely forgotten today but the story of a publishing editor who becomes a werewolf is elevated by its A-List cast and accomplished director Mike Nichols’ firm hand. Pfeiffer is at the peak of her career here. While she isn’t given the greatest part to work with she still manages to make her character vibrantly alive. She had become known at this point in her life as a great actress and also a great beauty. While she at times seemed to want to downplay her looks in order to be taken seriously as an actress she seems quite at home here in both her acting skill and her looks and she simply oozes charisma as she works her way through the film’s somewhat standard plot.
11. SCARFACE (1983)
Director: Brian De Palma. Writer: Oliver Stone. Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Arguably one of the most controversial movies ever made, “Scarface” has plenty of fans and even ranks as #105 on IMDB’s list of all time best films. BUT upon its release the film was severely criticized for its graphic violence. Even then though the reaction was mixed with director Brian De Palma receiving a Razzie Award nomination while two of its stars (Pacino, Bauer) receiving Golden Globe nominations. Pfeiffer does well enough with her role to avoid much controversy and her presence here in a dramatic role probably helped get her a second chance at movie stardom after the disappointment of “Grease 2.”
10. THE RUSSIA HOUSE (1990)
Director: Fred Schepisi. Writer: Tom Stoppard based on the novel by John le Carre. Starring Sean Connery, Roy Scheider, James Fox.
Pfeiffer continued to expand her range in this spy drama from famed author John le Carre. She plays a young soviet woman and sports a very strong Russian accent. Le Carre’s work has often had mixed results on screen (Gary Oldman received an Oscar nomination for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” while Diane Keaton’s “The Little Drummer Girl was a major disappointment.) This film falls somewhere in the middle but Pfeiffer is the film’s chief asset and she earned a Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama Golden Globe Nomination for her effort.
9. LOVE FIELD (1992)
Director: Jonathan Kaplan. Writer: Don Roos. Starring Dennis Haysbert, Brian Kerwin, Louise Latham.
“Love Field” was a small film that was rushed into release in 1992 when there was huge press about the lack of potential Best Actress Oscar nominees that year. The quick release worked and Pfeiffer scored her third and to date last Oscar nomination for this story of a young woman obsessed with Jackie Kennedy who meets and falls in love with an African American man while traveling to see Kennedy in Dallas on the day that would become the day he was assassinated. The film delicately explores the issue of interracial relationships in the sixties in the American south where such things were considered controversial.
8. HAIRSPRAY (2007)
Director: Adam Shankman. Writer: Leslie Dixon. Starring John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah.
Pfeiffer had a rare unlikable character to play in this adaptation of the Broadway musical. Her casting was considered a bit of a meta moment since the film’s star John Travolta had starred in the first “Grease” while Pfeiffer took his place as the cool kid in “Grease 2.” Pfeiffer is in fine form as the villain trying to fight the integration of the TV show at the center of the film and in particular shines in her song “The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs.”
7. THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
Director: George Miller. Writer: Michael Cristofer. Starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon.
This film version of the acclaimed John Updike novel met with its fair share of criticism for its deviations from the book and its general over the top production values but this was a pivotal film in Pfeiffer’s career. She was the youngest and least well known of the cast but her presence in the film which did well at the box office drastically increased her profile and set her up for 1988 which would bring some of her best performances in major films. Pfeiffer plays the most lowkey of the three witches while Cher clearly has the juiciest part of the three. (It was so juicy that both Cher and Susan Sarandon were promised the same role and only found out they were both cast in the same part when they arrived on the set for filming. Sarandon eventually gave in and took the a different role in the film.)
6. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)
Director: Martin Scorsese Writers: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Miriam Margolyes.
Pfeiffer is very restrained and compelling as the Countess Olenska, a high society woman in 1870’s New York who falls in love with a man engaged to her cousin. Pfeiffer shows great confidence in this performance and melds into the period drama perfectly. The film is expertly constructed by Martin Scorsese in a change of pace from his usual filmmaking style. While acclaimed in its day this adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel was met with a disappointing reception from the Academy. Scorsese, Pfeiffer, and the film itself all failed to achieve their predicted nominations and Supporting Actress Winona Ryder who was a heavy front runner to win the award ended up suffering a surprise defeat by young Anna Paquin for “The Piano.”
5. DANGEROUS LIAISONS (1988)
Director: Stephen Frears. Writer: Christopher Hampton. Starring Glenn Close, John Malkovitch, Uma Thurman.
This adaptation of the novel and play “Les Liaisons dangereuses” proved to be one of Pfeiffer’s most acclaimed films ever and first exposed audiences to her ability to perform in period drama. Pfeiffer is luminous as the virtuous Madame de Tourvil who falls victim to the deadly game of manipulation and psychological terror being played between the characters played by Glenn Close and John Malkovich. The film earned a total of seven Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture and one for Supporting Actress for Pfeiffer. This would be her first time as an Oscar nominee. Geena Davis would eventually take home the Oscar that year for “The Accidental Tourist” but that supporting category that year marked the first nominations for a bunch of women who became awards regulars. Those being in addition to Pfeiffer and Davis, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack.
4. MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988)
Director: Jonathan Demme. Writer: Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns. Starring Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell, Mercedes Ruehl.
This was a big year for Pfeiffer. A few months prior to the release of “Dangerous Liasons” Pfeiffer had a triumph of a different kind in this offbeat comedy from director Jonathan Demme. Pfeiffer plays a mafia wife whose husband has recently been killed in a mob hit. Pfeiffer had always shown a flair for comedy and here she excels at it complete with a Brooklyn accent as she tries to avoid the clutches of a mob boss (Stockwell) who wants her only to lose her to an awkward FBI agent played by Matthew Modine. Demme was so impressed with Pfeiffer that he later offered her the lead in a serial killer movie he had in the works called “The Silence of the Lambs.” Pfeiffer didn’t think she could deal with the dark subject matter of Lambs so she passed on what would become an iconic Oscar winning role for Jodie Foster. Pfeiffer did however receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for “Married to the Mob.”
3. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Director: Tim Burton. Writer: Daniel Waters. Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Chrisopher Walken.
When Annette Bening had to give up her role as Catwoman in this second film in the Tim Burton Batman series due to her pregnancy, it set off a furor among actresses trying to get the role. (see Sean Young’s infamous attempt to break into Burton’s office and demand an audition.) Pfeiffer was ultimately the one who got the part. While she also excels in the parts of the film when she plays the dastardly whip yielding Catwoman the real brilliance of Pfeiffer’s performance lies in the awkward meek alter ego she plays at the beginning of the film, Selina Kyle. As the put-upon secretary of an evil boss played by Christopher Walken, she gets to ask such self-deprecating questions as how can you be so mean to someone so inconsequential? Her first meeting with Batman himself is marked by her stammering confusion about whether or not to call him the Batman of just Batman. The scene almost plays like the famous la-dee-dah tennis scene that helped win Diane Keaton an Oscar for “Annie Hall.” The bravura desperate comic loser Pfeiffer played in the early parts of the film only make her transformation into the sleek, confident Catwoman creature all the more remarkable.
Strangely Pfeiffer may have cost herself an Oscar nomination for this film when “Love Field” was put into a quick Oscar qualifying end of year release. While superhero films have not done too well at the Oscars (It would be another decade and a half until Heath Ledger would win an Oscar for the Dark Knight.”) Pfeiffer may have stood a chance for this ingenious comic and action turn.
2. FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1991)
Director: Gary Marshall. Writer: Terrence McNally. Starring Al Pacino, Kate Nelligan, Nathan Lane.
As with Batman Returns” the casting of “Frankie and Johnny” caused almost as much press as the movie itself. Written by playwright Terrence McNally as a vehicle for Kathy Bates the play was a huge hit off-Broadway. The play which was entitiled “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune” tells the story of a sad middle-aged New York waitress who finds a chance at love with an ex-con short order cook. It was not really written with a beauty such as Pfeiffer in mind. Her casting became a popular news topic of the day since it seemed to show Hollywood’s discrimination against older and non-traditionally beautiful actresses when Pfeiffer was cast instead of Bates herself or Barbra Streisand who also lobbied for the role. The controversy has its merits but once you get past all that you will find one of Pfeiffer’s best performances as the downtrodden Frankie whose past history of abuse and humiliation at the hands of men makes her fearful of trusting the smitten Johnny (Al Pacino.) Pfeiffer again merges comedy and drama expertly with some genuinely funny moments in the dinner followed by some very profound and touching moments towards the end of the film. This is some of Pfeiffer’s best work ever and was enough that playwright McNally vehemently defended director Gary Marshall’s choice to cast her in the role.
1. THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS (1989)
Director: Steve Kloves. Writer: Steve Kloves. Starring Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, Jennifer Tilly.
While Pfeiffer was teetering on the brink of full out movie legend for a few years in the late eighties this 1989 release was the movie that really put her over the top. As Suzy Diamond a struggling would be lounge singer hired by two brothers to be the lead singer of their act Pfeiffer made film history. She was especially great in a highly erotic and beautifully realized moment when she sings the song “Making Whoopee” in a slow ballad style while dramatically sliding around on top of a piano. The film garnered Pfeiffer a string of awards including a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama. It also earned her a dubious spot in awards record books as the only person to win the four major precursor awards of the day (the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Society, the National Film Critics Society and the New York Film Critics Society) and not go on to win the Oscar. Sadly for Pfeiffer veteran actress Jessica Tandy would take that honor for her work in the Best Picture winner “Driving Miss Daisy” but Pfeiffer’s work in Baker Boys remains some of the best work ever put on screen by an actress and with her recent return to high profile film roles Pfeiffer may still have a chance at taking home Oscar gold someday.