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Michelle Pfeiffer

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Michelle Marie Pfeiffer (/ˈfaɪfər/; born April 29, 1958) is an American actress. Known for playing eclectic roles from a wide variety of film genres, she is recognized as one of the most prolific actresses of the 1980s and 1990s. Pfeiffer has received numerous accolades throughout her career, including a Golden Globe Award and a British Academy Film Award, in addition to nominations for three Academy Awards and a Primetime Emmy Award.

Born and raised in Santa Ana, California, Pfeiffer briefly studied court stenography before deciding to pursue acting. Beginning her career with minor television and film appearances in 1978, she attained her first leading role in Grease 2 (1982), a critical and commercial failure in which she was distinguished as a positive exception. Disillusioned with being typecast in nondescript roles as attractive women, she actively sought more challenging material, earning her breakout role in 1983 as gangster moll Elvira Hancock in Scarface. She achieved further success with roles in The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Married to the Mob (1988), for which she was nominated for her first of six consecutive Golden Globe Awards. Her performances in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) earned her two consecutive Academy Award nominations, for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress respectively, winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for the latter.

Establishing herself as a leading lady with several high-profile roles during the 1990s, Pfeiffer became one of the decade's highest-paid actresses. In 1992, she starred in Batman Returns as Selina Kyle / Catwoman to widespread acclaim, and received her third Academy Award nomination for Love Field. She drew praise for performances in The Age of Innocence (1993), Wolf (1994) and White Oleander (2002), while producing and starring in several successful films under her production company Via Rosa Productions, including Dangerous Minds (1995). Opting to spend more time with her family, she acted sporadically over the following few years, voicing characters in two animated films for DreamWorks. In 2007, she returned from hiatus with villainous roles in the blockbusters Hairspray and Stardust. Following another sabbatical, Pfeiffer earned lauds in 2017 for Where Is Kyra?. Returning to prominence that same year with supporting roles in Mother! and Murder on the Orient Express, she received her first Primetime Emmy Award nomination for playing Ruth Madoff in The Wizard of Lies. She debuted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Janet van Dyne / Wasp in Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) before earning her eighth Golden Globe Award nomination for French Exit (2020).

Awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007, Pfeiffer has remained one of Hollywood's most bankable actresses for four decades. Considered a sex symbol, she has been cited as one of the world's most beautiful women by several publications/

Early life

Michelle Marie Pfeiffer was born on April 29, 1958, in Santa Ana, California, the second of four children of Richard Pfeiffer (1933–1998), an air-conditioning contractor, and Donna Jean (née Taverna; 1932–2018), a housewife. She has an older 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 of Swedish ancestry. The family moved to Midway City, another Orange County community around seven miles (11km) away, where Pfeiffer spent her early years.

Pfeiffer 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 the Miss California contest the same year, finishing in sixth place. Following her participation in these pageants, she acquired an acting agent and began to audition for television and films.
Career
1970s–1980s: Early work and breakthrough

Pfeiffer made her acting debut in 1978, in a one-episode appearance of Fantasy Island. Other roles on television series followed, including Delta House, CHiPs, Enos and B.A.D. Cats. Her TV movie debut was in "The Solitary Man" (1979) for CBS.  Pfeiffer transitioned to film with the comedy The Hollywood Knights (1980), with Tony Danza, appearing as high school sweethearts. She subsequently played supporting roles in Falling in Love Again (1980) with Susannah York and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981), none of which met with much critical or box office success. She appeared in a television commercial for Lux soap, and took acting lessons at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, before appearing in three 1981 television movies – Callie and Son, with Lindsay Wagner, The Children Nobody Wanted and Splendor in the Grass.

Pfeiffer obtained her first major film role as the female lead in Grease 2 (1982), the sequel to the smash-hit musical film Grease (1978). With only a few television roles and small film appearances, the 23-year-old Pfeiffer was an unknown actress when she attended the casting call audition for the role, but according to director Patricia Birch, she won the part because she "has a quirky quality you don't expect". The film was a critical and commercial failure, but The New York Times remarked: "[A]lthough 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, her agent later admitted that her association with the film meant that "she couldn't get any jobs. Nobody wanted to hire her." On her early screen roles, she asserted: "I needed to learn how to act ... in the meantime, I was playing bimbos and cashing in on my looks."

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), with Jeff Goldblum; Isabeau d'Anjou in Richard Donner's fantasy film Ladyhawke (1985), with Rutger Hauer and Matthew Broderick; Faith Healy in Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty (1986), with 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, with Jack Nicholson, Cher, and Susan Sarandon. The film grossed over $63.7 million domestically, equivalent to $152 million in 2021 dollars, becoming one of her earliest critical and commercial successes. Pfeiffer received strong acclaim for her work. Praising their comedic timing, Roger Ebert wrote that Pfeiffer and her female co-stars each "have a delicious good time with their roles", while the Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson said Pfeiffer makes her character "a warm, irresistible character."

Pfeiffer was cast against type, as a murdered gangster's widow, in Jonathan Demme's mafia comedy Married to the Mob (1988), with 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 restaurateuse Jo Ann Vallenari in Tequila Sunrise (1988) with 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), with 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 intense voice training for the role for four months, and performed all of her character's vocals. The film was a modest success, grossing $18.4 million in the US (equivalent to $40 million in 2021 dollars). Her portrayal of Susie, however, drew unanimous acclaim from critics. 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". 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. Pfeiffer's performance as Susie is considered to be the most critically acclaimed of her career. The film is best remembered for the scene in which Pfeiffer's character seductively performs "Makin' Whoopee" atop a grand piano, which itself is considered to be one of the sexiest and most memorable scenes in modern cinema.
1990s: Worldwide recognition and established actress

By 1990, Pfeiffer began earning $1 million per film. Pfeiffer took the part of the Soviet book editor Katya Orlova in the 1990 film adaptation of John le Carré's The Russia House, with 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.

In 1990, Pfeiffer formed her own boutique film production company, Via Rosa Productions, which ran for ten years. The company allowed her 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 independent drama Love Field, which was released in late 1992. Reviewers embraced the film and The New York Times felt that Pfeiffer was "again demonstrating that she is as subtle and surprising as she is beautiful". For her portrayal of the eccentric Dallas housewife, she earned nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Drama and won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival.

Pfeiffer took on the role of Selina Kyle / Catwoman in Tim Burton's superhero film Batman Returns (1992), opposite Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, after Annette Bening dropped out because of pregnancy. For the role, she trained in martial arts and kickboxing. Pfeiffer received universal critical acclaim for the role, and her performance is consistently referred to as the greatest portrayal of Catwoman of all time by critics and fans alike, and is also one of the best regarded performances of her career. 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." Batman Returns was a big box office success, grossing over US$267 million worldwide.

In Martin Scorsese's period drama The Age of Innocence (1993), a film adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920 novel, Pfeiffer starred with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, portraying a Countess in upper-class New York City in the 1870s. For her role, she received the Elvira Notari Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress – Motion Picture. Also in 1993, 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.

Following the formation of her producing company in 1990, Pfeiffer saw a growing professional expansion as a producer. While she continued to act steadily throughout the decade, she and her producing partner Guinzburg experienced a winning streak of producing back to back films next under their Via Rosa Productions header. In the 1994 horror film Wolf, she starred with Jack Nicholson, portraying the sardonic and willful interest of a writer who becomes a wolf-man at night after being bitten by a creature. The film was released to 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." Wolf was a commercial success, grossing US$65 million (equivalent to $119 million in 2021) at the domestic box office and US$131 million worldwide (equivalent to $240 million).

Pfeiffer's next role was that of high school teacher and former United States Marine LouAnne Johnson in the drama Dangerous Minds (1995), which was co-produced under her 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.; 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. While Dangerous Minds received negative reviews, it was a box office success, grossing US$179.5 million around the globe. Pfeiffer portrayed Sally Atwater in the romantic drama Up Close & Personal (1996), with Robert Redford.

Pfeiffer 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. Under their Via Rosa Productions header, Pfeiffer and Guinzburg produced the films One Fine Day (1996), A Thousand Acres (1997) and The Deep End of the Ocean (1998). Pfeiffer voiced Tzipporah, a spirited shepherdess who becomes the wife of Moses (Val Kilmer), in the animated biblical drama film The Prince of Egypt (1998). Pfeiffer starred alongside an all-star voice cast that included Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock and Patrick Stewart. She served as an executive producer and starred as the divorced single mother architect Melanie Parker in the romantic comedy One Fine Day (1996) with 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) with Bruce Willis.
2000s: Intermittent work and hiatus

Pfeiffer chose to begin the process of dissolving her film production company, Via Rosa Productions, in 1999, and moved 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 and Harrison Ford starred 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), with Sean Penn. Despite grossing $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), with Alison Lohman (in her film début), Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright. 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.

In 2003, 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 cinemas in 2007 with villainous roles in two summer blockbusters, Hairspray and Stardust, which the media welcomed as a successful comeback for the actress. In the former, a film adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, she starred alongside John Travolta, Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah as Velma Von Tussle, the racist manager of a television station. Although a fan of Pfeiffer's work in the musicals Grease 2 and The Fabulous Baker Boys, director Adam Shankman cast Pfeiffer largely based on her performance in Batman Returns, claiming she was his first and only choice for Velma. Although she had fun with the part, Pfeiffer described Velma as the most difficult role she had played at the time, because of her character's racism; but she was drawn to the film's important message anti-bigotry, accepting that "in order to do a movie about racism, somebody has got to be the racist and it's me!". Released to widely positive reviews, Hairspray grossed $202.5 million worldwide. Pfeiffer's performance was also critically acclaimed, with film critic David Edelstein of NPR calling her "sublime". The cast of Hairspray was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Cast in a Motion Picture, and 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. In the fantasy adventure Stardust, Pfeiffer plays Lamia, an ancient witch who hunts a fallen star (Claire Danes) in search of eternal youth. The film received mostly positive reviews but performed moderately at the box office, earning $135.5 million globally. The New York Times film critic Stephen Holden described Pfeiffer as "as deliciously evil a witch as the movies have ever invented", writing that she "goes for broke with the relish of a star who figures she has nothing to lose."

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 domestically. 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), with 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.

Pfeiffer's 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, with 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."

2010s: Resurgence and career expansion

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, and Sofía Vergara, among many others, saw her take on the supporting role of Ingrid Withers, an overwhelmed secretary befriending a deliveryman (Efron). While the film was panned by critics, it made US$142 million worldwide. In 2012, she appeared with 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, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter and Chloë Grace Moretz, she played Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the matriarch of the Collins family. 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 stated that her lack of acting throughout the 2000s was due to various reasons, including her family and approach to choosing roles. and now with both her children away at college, she intends to "work a lot". She commented that she felt her best performance was "still in her", mentioning how that's what she thought kept her her going further. The slew of screen work that would follow in 2017 would prompt the media to dub her career resurgence a "Pfeiffer-sance". In the independent drama Where Is Kyra?, she starred 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, and received a limited release on April 6, 2018, to critical acclaim; Her role as Kyra was dubbed the "performance of her life" by Village Voice's Bilge Ebiri, and "the performance of her career", by Rolling Stone.

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 earned her first Emmy nomination for her performance in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie.

In Darren Aronofsky's psychological horror film Mother! (2017), with Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, Pfeiffer portrayed one of the mysterious guests disrupting the tranquil life of a couple. While Mother! polarized viewers and prompted mass walkouts, the film was better received by critics. Despite its divisiveness, critics unanimously praised Pfeiffer's contribution, some of whom felt that her performance was worthy of an Oscar nomination. Vulture remarked: "Out of the main actors, it's Pfeiffer who is able to root the character in meaning — she bracingly marries the exploration of Biblical creation, mythological overtones, and hellish domestic commentary. There's a gravity to Pfeiffer's performance that allows her to succeed where the other main actors fail, save for brief spurts — she straddles the boundaries between embodying a symbol and granting the character enough interiority to feel like a flesh and blood woman, too."

Pfeiffer had a supporting role in Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express (2017), the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1934 novel of the same name. The mystery–drama ensemble film follows world-renowned detective Hercule Poirot, who seeks to solve a murder on the famous European train in the 1930s. Pfeiffer played an aging socialite with Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench. Pfeiffer sang the song "Never Forget", which plays over the film's closing credits and appears on the film's official soundtrack. The film grossed US$351.7 million worldwide and received decent reviews from critics, with praise for the performances, but criticism for not adding anything new to previous adaptations. Although most critics agreed that the ensemble cast was underused, Pfeiffer's performance earned positive reviews, with Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times opining that the actress delivers the film's best performance. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane found Pfeiffer to be the only actor who appears to be enjoying their material. David Edelstein of Vulture described the actress as "a hoot and a half ... stealing every scene". Mick LaSalle, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, identified Pfeiffer as the film's "most interesting bit of casting", crediting her performance with reminding audiences that she is one of today's best film actresses and "help[ing] Branagh make the case for his remake over the original".

Making her Marvel Cinematic Universe debut, Pfeiffer starred as Janet van Dyne, the original Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), in Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), the sequel to 2015's Ant-Man. Playing Hank Pym's (Michael Douglas) wife, Ant-Man and the Wasp follows the original film's characters as they attempt to retrieve Janet from the Quantum Realm, where she has been lost for several decades. Ant-Man and the Wasp was touted as Pfeiffer's return to superhero films, being her first comic book role since Batman Returns' Catwoman 26 years prior. Critics felt Pfeiffer used her limited screen time well. Variety's Owen Gleiberman described her presence as "lovely" and "wistful", while Josh Spiegel of /Film believes the film suffers from a lack of the actress, describing her appearance as "cruelly brief". She briefly reprised the role the following year in Avengers: Endgame.

In 2019, Pfeiffer starred alongside Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning in the dark fantasy sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil as the villainous Queen Ingrith, mother of Aurora's (Fanning) fiancée Prince Philip. Despite the film earning mixed reviews, critics mostly praised Pfeiffer and Jolie's performances. Describing Pfeiffer as a scene stealer, The Plain Dealer's Laura DeMarco wrote that both veteran actresses "clearly relish their roles."

2020s

In October 2019, she began work on the dark comedy French Exit (2020), based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt, directed by Azazel Jacobs. In the film, which co-stars Lucas Hedges and Tracy Letts, Pfeiffer played a widow who moves to Paris, France, with her son (Hedges) and cat, who happens to be her reincarnated husband (Letts). The film premiered at the New York Film Festival. Pfeiffer's performance garnered critical acclaim, with many critics feeling it was deserving of an Academy Award nomination. Peter Debruge of Variety remarked that she gave a performance "for which she'll be remembered." Pfeiffer received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical for her performance.

Pfeiffer is attached to star alongside Annette Bening in the psychological thriller, Turn of Mind, set to be directed by Gideon Raff. She will also be portraying Betty Ford in the anthology drama television series The First Lady, set to premiere on Showtime in April 2022.

Pfeiffer is set to reprise her role as Janet Van Dyne in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), alongside Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Jonathan Majors and Bill Murray.

Artistry
Acting style

Pfeiffer maintains that she has never received formal acting training. Instead, she credits director Milton Katselas with teaching her the difference between how an actor thinks their character would behave during a particular scene, and how the actor themself would behave during the same scene. Vulture.com's Angelica Jade Bastién described Pfeiffer as "an actress of such depth, breadth, and tenacity" that "she obliterates the argument that an untrained actor has less capability than her trained counterparts." Pfeiffer said she sometimes feels fraudulent as an actress because of her lack of conventional training. In 1992, Rolling Stone's Gerri Hirshey identified Pfeiffer as a character actress comfortable wearing unflattering costumes. Film critics have described the actress as "a character actress in a screen siren's body". Drawn towards playing "imperfect" women who are "a little bit broken," Pfeiffer claims she rarely accepts traditionally glamorous roles because she finds few of them interesting, opting to play characters who "move" her instead: "I know that if I can hear the character as I'm reading, it's made some connection [with me]." Often commended for masking her true feelings and emotions, Pfeiffer frequently uses this technique advantageously in period films, a genre that has become a trademark of hers. Pfeiffer herself has admitted to being particularly skilled in this area but also believes disguising one's feelings is not uncommon, speculating, "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 referred to acting as a "sadomasochistic" profession because of how "brutal" she finds the process at times.

In a 2021 profile on the actress, Lynn Hirschberg of W wrote that Pfeiffer's finest roles "seem to involve a woman at war with herself ... Pfeiffer has a way of pitting her characters' wit and self-awareness against their flaws and trauma." During the 1980s, Pfeiffer typically played smart, funny, sexually attractive and strong female characters, whereas AllMovie's Rebecca Flint Marx believes she pursued "a variety of roles that ... provided opportunities for her to showcase her versatility" during the 1990s. According to Rachel Syme of The New Yorker, such characters were often "both ditzy and wily, high-femme and high-maintenance, scrappy and ... armed with claws". Adam Platt of 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." In a review for the Miami New Times, director and film critic Bilge Ebiri observed that Pfeiffer "often played women who were somewhat removed from the world", elaborating, "It wasn't so much unapproachability or aloofness that she conveyed, but a reserve that suggested ... melancholy, pain, dreams deferred". Pfeiffer has said she prefers dramatic over comedic roles, citing the latter as more difficult because one is challenged to be funny yet authentic. Observing parallels between Pfeiffer's roles and "concern with getting others to look beyond their own first impressions of her", Backstage contributor Manuel Betancourt wrote the actress "has long been perfecting the ability to embody women whose inner contradictions are both revealed and concealed by their very gestures."

Town & Country senior editor Adam Rathe believes Pfeiffer is unlike most of the characters she plays. Pfeiffer said she tends to become addicted to her characters once she commits to the role. Describing scripts as a "treasure map", Pfeiffer said searches new scripts "for clues about her characters while seeking parallels to her own emotional life." Describing herself as "choosy" about the roles she decides to play, Pfeiffer researches material that excites her; IndieWire contributor Kate Erbland believes that, in an effort to avoid typecasting, the actress has often chosen roles that confused others. The Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow defended her unconventional acting choices, writing, "Pfeiffer creates her own emotional free world" in which "She liberates audiences from stereotypes and preconceptions. She takes acting roads less traveled by, and makes us happy collaborators in her journey. Her career so far is an arc of triumph and courage." Filmmakers and co-stars agree that Pfeiffer is extremely committed to her work, developing a reputation for competence and preparedness. Her acting ability continues to draw praise from directors with whom she has worked; Martin Scorsese described Pfeiffer as "an actress who could portray inner conflict with her eyes and face better than any other film star of her generation", while Jonathan Demme declared "It's hard for me to imagine anyone who, on a level of quality, would have an edge on her." Pfeiffer refuses to watch her own work, describing herself as "a perfectionist" who finds "nothing perfect in what I do". In addition to discarding old scripts, Pfeiffer does not retain film reviews, magazine clippings or covers about her performances.

Reception and legacy

Pfeiffer is widely considered to be among the most talented actresses in Hollywood, as well as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Novelist Steve Erickson wrote that Pfeiffer had already threatened to become one of her generation's finest American actresses by as early as her thirties. Despite observing that her filmography lacks the prestige of some of her contemporaries, Bastién believes Pfeiffer's through line to be the most fascinating among her peers. In 2009, Maclean's film critic Brian D. Johnson argued that Pfeiffer had yet to demonstrate her true acting range, believing she could potentially be as respected as Meryl Streep if only allowed the same opportunities. Johnson claims Pfeiffer's performances are sometimes hindered by her own beauty and apparent "lack of ambition" in choosing "safe, undemanding roles", but simultaneously believes this same lack of ambition in turn "makes her such a good actor". Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle remarked that Pfeiffer's humility sometimes causes audiences to forget she is genuinely one of today's best actresses. In another review for Vulture, Bastién wrote that, apart from Pfeiffer, "No modern actress better evokes the rich tension between understanding the currency that comes with being a great beauty and the distaste with being seen at all", while Matt Mueller of Harrods Magazine believes no actor "plays beautiful suffering with more nervy and elegant flair than Pfeiffer". Pfeiffer is particularly renowned for her versatility, having accumulated a diverse repertoire spanning period, romance, fantasy, musical, comedy and drama films. By 2016, Salon's Charles Taylor declared that no actor of the past decade had rivaled the actress in terms of versatility. In 2021, Adreon Patterson of CinemaBlend crowned Pfeiffer Hollywood's most versatile actress. Summarizing her career as defined by its eclecticism, IndieWire contributor Kate Erbland believes Pfeiffer has rarely repeated her acting choices. On this distinction, Pfeiffer explained she has always felt inclined to play the widest possible variety of characters, even early in her career when her options were limited.

Pfeiffer was one of the most successful actresses of the 1980s and 1990s, having typically starred in at least one film per year since the 1970s. One of the highest-paid actresses of the latter decade, she typically earned $9-$10 million per film. In an article otherwise dismissing most Hollywood actors as overpaid, film critic Mick LaSalle noted Pfeiffer as an exception, claiming she "never gives a bad performance and consistently brings in audiences." According to UPI, Pfeiffer was one of a few actresses whose film salary corresponded with their box office revenue as of 1996. Apart from The Witches of Eastwick, few of the actress' films during this period had been major box office successes, an observation Pfeiffer never mentioned to film studios in fear that they would stop hiring her altogether. In 1995, The New York Times journalist Bernard Weinraub said Pfeiffer belongs to a respected group of actresses who are "not considered a big box- office draw". However, her performances consistently garnered acclaim despite mediocre ticket sales and some films critics found forgettable. By 1999, Variety named Pfeiffer "the female movie star most likely to improve a film's box-office appeal". Contributing to Encyclopedia.com, Robyn Karney wrote that among the several blonde, attractive actresses who debuted during the 1980s, "Pfeiffer seemed the most precisely cut from the cloth of a long Hollywood tradition—a sexy, beautiful, intelligent, modern answer to, say, Carole Lombard, blessed with a sophisticated gift for witty one-liners, an ability to cross class barriers, and to bring conviction to a range of contrasting characters across a spectrum". Often compared to actress Julia Roberts, critics generally conceded that Pfeiffer is "a more serious but less commercially branded actress than Roberts". However, Karney felt the declining quality of her films towards the end of the 1990s "emphasize that the course of Pfeiffer's career ... has been dictated by the era from which she sprang" and "unassailable truth that the great female movie star of the Golden Age is no more." Pfeiffer feels critics have not entirely understood her acting decisions, which Rathe attributes to the "wildcard image" she has maintained throughout her career. Pfeiffer elaborated, "Some of the performances I have felt the best about are ones for which I've gotten panned," whereas "The ones that make me cringe are typically when I got the best reviews."

Pfeiffer has been named one of the world's biggest film stars, establishing herself as a "major star" despite having yet to receive top-billing in a blockbuster film. In 2002, Amy Longsdorf of The Morning Call described Pfeiffer as "one of the most popular and critically acclaimed movie stars in the world." According to Carmenlucia Acosta of L'Officiel, "Few actresses have had the fortune of interpreting timeless roles that still remain popular today", calling Pfeiffer "one of Hollywood's most acclaimed figures." Awarded a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007, Pfeiffer has remained one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses for over four decades. In 2020, the Kenosha News voted Pfeiffer America's 26th favorite actress. Despite her popularity, Krizanovich dubbed Pfeiffer Hollywood's most underrated actress. Similarly, Matthew Jacobs of HuffPost Canada believes Pfeiffer continues to be underappreciated despite her accolades, since her public persona has never quite rivaled those of her contemporaries. The Boston Globe's Mark Shanahan observed that, despite Pfeiffer's success and reputation, she is sometimes overlooked during discussions about Hollywood's greatest leading ladies because of her effortlessness and "insoucian[ce] on the screen. She's also uncommonly lovely, which, alas, can obscure even serious acting chops." Describing Pfeiffer as an "Unheralded Comedy Maven", Jacobs hailed her as "one of the great comedic actors of our time, though she is rarely recognized as such". The author identified subtlety as one of her strengths since her "magnetism never overwhelms the movies she's in. Even when she is the most talented person on-screen (and she usually is), she still allows room for the ensemble to shine."

Public image

Pfeiffer has long been described as one of Hollywood's most beautiful actresses, a designation The Daily Telegraph's Mick Brown considers to be both a defining characteristic and curse. After being cast in early roles largely based on her appearance, Pfeiffer initially struggled to convince directors to take her seriously as an actor because they doubted she was more than simply attractive, which she combated by actively seeking challenging roles in which physical beauty was not an essential characteristic. Candice Russell of the Sun-Sentinel described Pfeiffer as "so awesomely constructed ... that her looks have a tendency to upstage her ability", questioning whether she would be able to subvert this trope by the time she received her second Academy Award nomination in 1989. Rachel Syme of The New Yorker observed that, early in her career, critics struggled "to characterize her work without undermining it" by inevitably focusing on Pfeiffer's appearance, "as if her beauty and talent were opposing forces that needed to somehow be reconciled". The Daily Beast's Elizabeth Kaye recognized Pfeiffer as a rare Hollywood talent who understands it is indeed possible to be both physically attractive and a serious performer, believing the actress achieves this by combining "the sensibility of a modern woman" with "the glamour of a '30s icon". Describing Pfeiffer as popular, beautiful, mercurial and memorable, Karen Krizanovich of The Daily Telegraph observed that, after initially being drawn to her beauty, critics and audiences remain captivated by Pfeiffer's performances. Similarly, Town & Country's Adam Rathe wrote that "Pfeiffer's undeniable beauty helped get her through Hollywood's door, but it was the intelligence and humor she brought to her carefully chosen roles ... that really made her a star".

Regularly revered as one of the most beautiful women in the world, film critics and journalists have constantly discussed Pfeiffer's perceived beauty at length, earning her the nickname "The Face" in the media. Celebrity photographers Nigel Parry and Patrick McMullen cite her among the most beautiful women they have photographed. In 2020, Vogue Paris listed Pfeiffer as one of the 21 most beautiful American actresses of all-time. Ranking her among history's most beautiful actresses, Glamour named Pfeiffer "the most perfect face on the silver screen". The same magazine recognized the actress as one of the greatest fashion icons of the 1980s, calling her the decade's "go-to girl" and "one of our all-time favourite movie goddesses". Similarly, Harper's Bazaar crowned Pfeiffer the fourth most glamorous "beauty icon" of the decade, while Complex ranked her the 49th "hottest woman of the '80s". As one of the most famous sex symbols of the 1980s and 1990s, her beauty and fashion choices attracted immense media scrutiny throughout both decades. Men's Health ranked Pfeiffer 45th and 67th on their all-time hottest women and sex symbol rankings, respectively. According to Alice Cary of British Vogue, several costumes worn by the actress "have become hallmarks of popular culture". In 1990, Pfeiffer appeared on the inaugural cover of People magazine's annual "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" issue. She was again pictured on the cover in 1999, making her the first celebrity to appear on the cover of the issue twice, and the only celebrity to grace the cover twice during the 1990s. She has been featured in the "Most Beautiful" issue a record-breaking six times throughout the decade (from 1990 to 1993, and in 1996 and 1999). In 2004, the magazine named her one of the most beautiful women of all-time. AllMovie biographer Rebecca Flint Marx wrote that Pfeiffer possesses "a rare beauty that has inspired countless platitudes and an almost-permanent place on People's Fifty Most Beautiful list".

Pfeiffer has been famously self-deprecating about her own appearance. At least two of her films, Stardust (2007) and Chéri (2009), explore beautiful, youth-obsessed women struggling to accept aging, themes with which Pfeiffer personally identified. Pfeiffer claims she has yet to undergo plastic surgery but admits she is open to minor cosmetic procedures. According to several plastic surgeons, she possesses some of the most sought-after and requested celebrity features among clients. In 2001, plastic surgeon Stephen R. Marquardt declared that Pfeiffer possesses the most beautiful face in Hollywood. Nicknamed the "golden ratio", Marquardt claims Pfeiffer's face adheres to a mathematical formula in which he determined a person's ideal mouth is 1.618 times as wide as their nose. Several media publications have described Pfeiffer as an "ageless beauty". Folha de S.Paulo described the actress as "an effusive demonstration that age, contrary to what the youth industry sustains, brings rewards, not just wrinkles." Famous for being "press-shy" and private like the characters she plays, Matthew Jacobs of HuffPost crowned Pfeiffer Hollywood's prime example of "a movie star who doesn't walk around feeling like a movie star", which benefits her ability to play authentic characters without allowing her fame to affect her talent. Pfeiffer is notorious for disliking press interviews, referring to herself as "the worst interviewee that ever was". The Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow observed that the actress can at times appear "flustered or elusive" during interviews. Vikram Murthi of The Nation believes Pfeiffer's aversion to publicity "has lent her an air of gravitas, of someone who directs a spotlight rather than chases after it." Pfeiffer explained that promoting her own films used to agitate her, but she has always "mastered the art" of maintaining a composed, polite demeanor when performing such responsibilities. However, she maintains her belief that it is not an actor's responsibility to promote a film project.

Media commentators noted that Pfeiffer had unexpectedly become a "pop-music muse" in 2014; her name is mentioned in two of the year's most popular songs: "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, and "Riptide" by Vance Joy. Joy was particularly inspired by Pfeiffer's transformation from Selina Kyle into Catwoman in Batman Returns, whereas Ronson cited The Fabulous Baker Boys as his favourite Pfeiffer film. Australian cricketers speak of "getting a Michelle" when they take five wickets in an innings. In cricketing parlance, this is referred to as a "five for", a near-homophone for "Pfeiffer", which resulted in the nickname "Michelle".
Personal life

While taking acting classes in Los Angeles, Pfeiffer was taken in by a seemingly friendly couple who ran a metaphysics and vegetarian cult. They helped her to cease drinking, smoking and doing drugs. Over time, they took control of her entire life. Much of her money went to the group. "I was brainwashed," she said, "I gave them an enormous amount of money."

At an acting class taught by Milton Katselas in Los Angeles, she met fellow budding actor Peter Horton, and they began dating. They 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, where 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.

In 1988, Pfeiffer had an affair with John Malkovich, her co-star in Dangerous Liaisons, who at the time was married to Glenne Headly.

Pfeiffer and Horton decided to separate in 1988, and were divorced two years later. Horton later blamed the split on their devotion to their work rather than their marriage. Pfeiffer then had a three-year relationship with actor/producer Fisher Stevens, whom Pfeiffer met when she was starring in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night, where Stevens played Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

In 1993, Pfeiffer married television writer and producer David E. Kelley. 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. She had entered into private adoption proceedings before she met Kelley, and in March 1993 adopted a newborn daughter, Claudia Rose, who was christened on Pfeiffer's and Kelley's wedding day. In 1994, Pfeiffer gave birth to a son, John Henry Kelley II, named for his grandfather and Pfeiffer's father-in-law, United States Hockey Hall of Fame coach John Henry "Jack" Kelley.