Does it help to have a pretty face? Not everyone thinks so. Indeed it was Noel Coward’s long held conviction that attractive actresses suffered more harshly at the hands of the critics than their less favored sisters.

“God forbid,” he told me once, “that an actress in London has a pretty face. The critics will never forgive her. But let her have cross eyes and green teeth and they will laud her to the skies. . . . “

Fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on your point of view--Hollywood is not London and here a pretty face has long been considered a passport of a kind, if only to a good table at Ma Maison and an introduction to Henry Kissinger.

But it is not always an asset to an actress, as Michelle Pfeiffer can attest. She once lost a key role because of her looks. Even when she went back to see the director again--this time with wet, straggly hair and dark circles under her eyes--he was unconvinced.

“You’re too pretty,” he said. And that was that.

Ironically, as a young girl she had thought herself ugly. “Oh absolutely. I wouldn’t even go to the mailbox without a lot of makeup. Now I hardly wear any.”


And her looks, even now, she considers “conventional.” “I don’t find that real interesting. The kind of beauty I admire is Meryl Streep’s”.

But with the opening of her latest movie, John Landis’ “Into the Night,” in which she stars with Jeff Goldblum, she finds herself getting praise from the critics not only for her looks but for her talent too. Not everyone liked the film. But almost everyone liked her.

Said Time magazine: ‘Trim, smart and drop-dead gorgeous Pfeiffer has been nibbling at stardom since her stints in ‘Grease 2' and “Scarface.” Now, by animating this sparkling thriller-satire with her seen-it-all elegance she has every right to feast on it.”

Right now, if you believe the grapevine, Michelle Pfeiffer is an actress to watch. For about her there is a kind of untouchable sexual elegance which should be as encouraging to her would-be directors as it must have been discouraging to her would-be suitors.

Sitting cross-legged on a sofa in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, sporting no makeup, her hair coiffed in a Mix Master, making no effort at all to look, in Time’s words “drop-dead gorgeous,” but succeeding just the same, she confessed that, encouraging as her reviews had been, she found it hard to believe them. She also said that on a recent promotional trip to New York, she had had some difficulty explaining just what Landis’ film was all about. It isn’t easy and will not be attempted here.

But she made it clear just how much she’d enjoyed working with Landis.

“He’s totally straightforward and I liked that a lot,” she said. “You know where you stand with someone like John. One day he said: ‘I feel so lucky to have you in my movie.’ That made me feel great.”

If she found it hard to explain Landis’ film she knows it will be even more difficult talking about her next one due for release soon--Richard Donner’s medieval romantic fantasy “Ladyhawke.”

For in this she plays a princess suffering under an evil bishop’s curse, which dooms her to be a red-tailed hawk by day and a woman after dark.

Just how, you may wonder, do you decide to take on a film in which some of your best scenes, demonstrably, are up in the air?

“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “It was a lovely script but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it until I talked with Dick. His background in special effects (“Superman”) convinced me it would be done well.”

The movie kept her in Italy for nearly five months. The setting is really France but Donner needed crumbling castles for his story and Italy’s castles, it seems, crumble rather more dramatically than France’s.

For an actress who seemed to have nowhere to go but down after the dismal “Grease 2,” Michelle Pfeiffer seems to have made a spectacular recovery.

“But that film was a good experience for me,” she said. “It taught me a valuable lesson. Before it even came out the hype had started. Maxwell (Caulfield, her co-star) and I were being thrust down the public’s throat in huge full page advertisements. There was no way we could live up to any of it and we didn’t. So the crash was very loud. But it did teach me not to have expectations.”

Not only did she have no expectations but, for a while it seemed, neither did anyone else. Then along came “Scarface” in which she played the sleek and glossy mistress of gangster Al Pacino. A lot of critics hated the film--it was, after all, a remake of the Paul Muni classic--but most of them liked her. And it gave her exposure. And the offers began coming in.

None of this would have seemed remotely possible to her a few years ago when she was working as a check-out clerk at a grocery store. She was not content with her lot but she could see no way out. Once upon a time, of course, her biography would claim that some talent scout, hurrying out with his packet of frozen peas, had taken one look at her and handed her his card.

But there was no talent scout. The way she got to Hollywood was by entering a beauty contest which, to her surprise but nobody else’s, she won. Thus did Miss Orange County arrive in town ready for anything.

She did television and movies (among the films was “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen”). She also got involved with a cult group.

“I used to go to their house three times a week,” she said. “They convinced me to become a vegetarian and I gave up fish and meat and chicken. In fact I only stopped being a vegetarian last week. Peter (her husband, actor Peter Horton) and I went to a restaurant and he said: ‘I think I’ll have some fish and I suddenly said: ‘That sounds good to me.’ I’ve been eating fish ever since.”

She was, she says, “thoroughly brainwashed” by the group.

“I stopped seeing them just two weeks after meeting my husband. I’d wanted to stop months before but found it difficult; they get you to believe you won’t be able to survive without them. Not until I was with Peter did I realize just what I’d gotten myself into.”

Now the fish-eating Pfeiffer is trying to practice patience in her career.

“That’s hard for me,” she said. “I want everything yesterday. But I know I mustn’t rush into things any more. I’ve got to wait for the right part to come along.”

But she confesses the recent reviews have encouraged her.

“It’s funny,” she said. “Whenever I get a good review in the past I’d think the studio had paid for it or something. Or perhaps that I’d met the critic somewhere and they’d like me. I just couldn’t believe that something good was being written about me for no reason. It’s taken me a long time to be convinced. . . . “