MOVIES : Michelle Pfeiffer’s Balancing Act : ‘I’ve always been daring with my work. But I’m not really very daring in my life. I’m pretty safe.’

<i> Linda Winer is the theater critic for Newsday and New York Newsday. </i>

It is not, on the surface of things, a good day--or maybe epoch--to be cornering Michelle Pfeiffer.

For starters, the new Esquire profile says that a session with its reporter made Pfeiffer feel like vomiting. Then USA Today reveals that Harper’s intends to print a $1,525 retouching bill for her photograph on that Esquire cover. And, shortly before we begin to talk, Jim Brown from the “Today” show has accused her of being rude to him on the set of “The Russia House,” the glasnost thriller that opens Wednesday. He said, she says, that she was “ ‘having an actressy day’ . . . an actressy day!

But, in fact, here sits Pfeiffer, looking less like some temperamental Hollywood commodity than a cornered forest creature, less like a bankable moody beauty than a thoughtful, intelligent but admittedly press-wary woman who just happens to have eyes that end somewhere above her ears.

“I’m trying to become a bigger person,” she says with a quick, easy laugh that suggests what good company she must be with a couple of girlfriends and some coffee. “I came to a revelation the other day that there are more important things in life than being misquoted in an interview. So you’re misquoted, people read it and they forget about it in three minutes. In the grand scheme of things, there are much, much more important things to worry about.”

Oh nuts, wisdom. From where the moguls sit, of course, Pfeiffer, 32, need not worry her fabulous head a bit. In the last three years, she has broken through the ranks of promising starlets with slim hips and fat hair and emerged with five major movies--each more daring and confident than the last.

She began this career roll as the fecund Earth Mother in “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987), then shattered expectations as the gum-chomping Italian Long Island widow in “Married to the Mob” (1988). Months later, she was sleek and elegant as the trendy restaurateur caught up with drug-runners in “Tequila Sunrise” (1988), then ineffably poignant as the saintly 17th-Century French sexual victim in “Dangerous Liaisons” (1989).


Even so, perhaps nothing prepared audiences for Susie Diamond, the former hooker and sultry lounge singer in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989)--a woman tough and vulnerable and willing to make love to a grand piano while singing a pretty grand “Makin’ Whoopee.”

About now, someone should note that this is where the media sends in the guys. Interviews with Pfeiffer are nearly always assigned to male journalists, smitten souls who’ve gone mental describing her face “as pale and smooth as porcelain . . . a wide, voluptuous mouth with a plump upper lip and two of the biggest, bluest, almond-shaped eyes you’ve ever seen.” Or her “cornflower blue eyes--even devoid of makeup . . . she turns enough heads to keep osteopaths in business for a week.”

Pfeiffer, of course, is a dish. Part of the Pfeiffer phenom, however, is that women like her too. It is hard to name another major actress today who is this interesting to both sexes. Yes, she is partly a throwback to the Golden Age goddess, but there also is a dark quality, an unpredictability, a willingness to play far beyond her looks and grow through roles. As she has put it, “Brave characters seem to be my theme.”

In the real world, bravery is a theme too--just not the way you might expect. The woman is shy--apparently shy enough to feel like vomiting after that Esquire interview. “I’ve always been pretty daring with my work,” she explains softly. “But I’m not really very daring in my life. I’m pretty safe.”

Pfeiffer has been one of Harper’s Bazaar’s 10 most beautiful women, one of People’s 25 intriguing people for both 1988 and 1989, the entertainer with whom J&B; Scotch drinkers would most want to have dinner, and on and on. She got her first Oscar nomination for “Dangerous Liaisons,” her second, along with almost every other major critics’ award, for “Baker Boys.”

But, right now, she is dressed--almost hiding--in a nondescript white T-shirt and simple quality baggies. She wears little makeup, no nail polish, no jewelry beyond a couple of hanging earrings and a few more little studs. There is a sweetness to her. She thinks before she speaks, punctuating the silences with a thoughtful “Ummmmm.” Although she dislikes the inevitable invasion of privacy, she also seems to dislike facile answers.

Does the beauty talk get to her? “Ummmmm,” says Pfeiffer, who once said “the way my mouth curls up and my nose tilts, I should be cast as ‘Howard the Duck.’ ” Now she sighs and runs her fingers through her hair the way Susie Diamond did when things got complicated. “It’s not even that it gets to me. It just becomes boring for me. It’s kinda a no-win subject.”

Director Jonathan Demme, who gave her the chance to cut loose into comedy with “Married to the Mob,” has said that she has been “in touch with her gifts all along” and credits her “enormous patience with those of us who tended to focus first on how gorgeous she is.” Does that sound right to her? “That’s great for Jonathan to say,” she says, chuckling. “But it’s a no-win comment for me. It’s a subject I have to avoid.”

Whatever, she is obviously a long way from the Orange County surfer bunny who discovered her muse at 19 while working the checkout line at a Vons supermarket.

By now, the Pfeiffer story is acquiring the aura of Hollywood legend, right up there with soda-fountain discoveries and sweater girls at Hollywood High. Only this one is the legend of the eldest daughter of an air-conditioning contractor in Midway City near Disneyland. She sold jeans in the mall, went to the beach, drifted in and out of junior college and school for court stenographers. The epiphany reportly came while she watched some woman complain about a cantaloupe at Vons.

So Pfeiffer, almost a woman, asked herself what she really wanted to do with life, answered “actress,” then signed up for a beauty pageant, won Miss Orange County, lost Miss Los Angeles--but captured the eye of an agent.

She went the usual starlet route. Her one line on “Fantasy Island” was “Who is he, Naomi?” She padded her bra to play a bombshell on “Delta House,” TV’s short-lived 1979 spinoff of “Animal House.” She played a carhop in “The Hollywood Knights” and a deb in “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen,” but her big break came in 1982 as Stephanie Zinone in “Grease 2.” The movie disappeared; she did not.

A year later came “Scarface,” in which she played an ice goddess with an attitude opposite Al Pacino. She was so good that she only got offers then to play ice goddesses with attitudes. She turned them down and waited. And waited. She played a scared party girl in “Into the Night,” a medieval woman who is cursed to turn into a bird at dawn in “Ladyhawke” and a difficult starlet in “Sweet Liberty.” And she waited some more.

Early in her young L.A. independence, she fell under the spell of a cult, which she said “brainwashed” her and absorbed a lot of her money. She was extricated from the messy business with the help of Peter Horton, now a star of “thirtysomething.” They met in acting class, were married for seven years, divorced in 1987 and remain close friends.

Horton has said that Pfeiffer “is a much bigger person than she was raised to believe.” It is a helpful, even lovely, attempt to connect Pfeiffer the beach babe, with the private, intensely talented and self-critical perfectionist she is today.

She feels the schism, though she’s reluctant to analyze it too much. “Yeah,” she admits, “it becomes a little bit schizophrenic. To begin with, just moving out of your hometown makes you a different kind of person than someone who stays. And I’m no exception to that rule. On the one hand, I’m the same girl I was in Orange County and, on the other hand, I lead a very different life. So there is a discrepancy and there will always be a discrepancy. As a result of that, I think I’ll always feel somewhat homeless . . . no matter where I am.”

She seems less affected by her lack of arts training than her hometown is. “Well, I know it appears that nothing in my life prepared me for this. But, if you really analyzed it, you’d see there is a cause and effect for everything . . . see there was some event that we could go back to my childhood and find. Even though I feel completely unprepared, I know there’s a method to this madness. I can’t come up with it at the moment,” she says. “Nor do I probably want to, but I’m sure that there is some plan to all of this.”

Her parents are surprised. “ Shocked might be a better word,” she says giggling like a daughter with a secret. “I think they’re, uh, yeah, pleasantly surprised. I think shell- shocked, no pun intended. They’re very supportive.”

Somehow, none of this explains what happened in the mere five years between “Grease 2" and the mature creative explosion that began in 1987. How did she get the courage not to settle for bimbo roles? How did she know she was worth so much more--even without an education?

“Some choices are automatic, instinctual, completely emotional. I’m moved by a role and I don’t even know why. Other choices"--a grimace--"I aggravate for weeks and sometimes months.” She won’t say which are which, though she has said elsewhere that she never bothered to see “Tequila Sunrise.” For now, she says, “It’s pretty evident in my work when I aggravate.”

She has learned her craft in public, pulled off lots of different exotic accents and, in “Baker Boys,” sang well enough to have fans requesting an album. But she also believes strongly in her acting lessons. “It’s hard to learn while you’re working because there’s so much pressure on you,” she says. “You have to come up with the goods on the spot and tend to fall into bad patterns and get comfortable. It’s important to have a place where you can explore and fall on your face.”

As New Yorkers know, there was one full-facial splat-ola. Immediately after “Baker Boys,” Pfeiffer put herself onstage in Central Park in a Hollywood all-star production of “Twelfth Night” for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Although her inexperience was obvious, her Olivia improved through the evening and she handled the role’s tricky balance between elegance and foolishness with intelligence and wit. Other reviewers, however, saw it, well, another way.

“Ummmmm,” she recalls wincing. “I wanted to do something truly frightening. I’d come from movies and, though I find different characters challenging in their own way, you really put yourself out there on the stage. It was something I had never done. It was unbelievably terrifying. I look back and I think about what I did and I can’t believe it. If you asked me to put on that costume and get on the stage right now, you couldn’t pay me enough.

“I didn’t know in detail really what the Public Theatre meant. I didn’t know people would make such a huge deal ... stupid me. Certainly, I thought people would come, but it turned into such an extravaganza, I cannot tell you. People flew in from Los Angeles. We had Sidney Lumet and we had Robert De Niro , every night some incredibly famous or powerful person. . . .

“Every night was sheer terror, but the night after the reviews came out was devastating. Having to get up there on that stage was unbelievable. But that was another example. . . . I got myself to the theater. I got myself dressed. I mustered up the courage to go on and then I gave one of the best shows I did during the entire run.” She definitely would consider getting on a stage again. In Shakespeare? “Noooo.”

After five movies and her first play, she intended to take a nap. Instead, she did “The Russia House.”

That is, she moved to the Soviet Union for the first major Hollywood film to be made there that was not a co-production. Fred Schepisi directed Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of John leCarre’s thriller about a Russian physicist (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who uses a Russian woman (Pfeiffer) as liaison to an English publisher (Sean Connery). Which means she had to learn to speak English with a Russian accent and some Russian.

“What do you mean, ‘How did I make myself look haggard?’ ,” she asks with mock incredulity. “I was haggard. I was so tired.” That’s when she also was supposedly rude to the “Today” show. “I actually had agreed that they could come on the set, even though I felt strongly against it. But I said, ‘Well, have them come on this unimportant scene.’ Well, they ended up coming for the week--every day for five days--when I had my two biggest scenes in the film. I was . . . fit to be tied. I’m very passionate about my work. When it becomes a circus, it . . . demeans and becomes disrespectful to the process.”

After “Russia House,” she made “Love Field,” an interracial romance co-starring Dennis Haysbert, due out next fall. Next month, she joins Al Pacino to film “Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune,” an adaptation of Terrence McNally’s play about two frumpy, middle-aged blue-collar lovers. Either this is the funniest casting since Dustin Hoffman was Sean Connery’s son in “Family Business,” or director Garry Marshall has rethought the concept.

Somehow, she has squeezed-in six months of normal life since “Love Field"--and loved it. “It feels good. I could use another six months, but I won’t take it now.” She has been puttering around her West Los Angeles house, a 1917 hacienda-style adobe, where she built her own fireplace and has two dogs and a cat and maybe another dog to come. She also has been playing in New York a bit with Fisher Stevens, whom she met while they were both appearing in “Twelfth Night.”

There had been stories about affairs with Michael Keaton and John Malkovich, but this one has lasted a year and a half. Stevens, more a character actor than a glamorous leading man, is artistic director of New York’s Off-Off Broadway Naked Angel Theater. “We’re sort of bi-coastal now. But he’s a die-hard New Yorker. We’ve managed pretty well,” she says with a grin, “so long as he’s busy.” She denies that her beauty is hard on relationships. “I’ve been pretty fortunate. I haven’t been with jealous men.”

Though her career is soaring, Pfeiffer wasn’t all that surprised by recent reports about the bad times for women in male-dominated Hollywood. “It was pretty frightening. You know, I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad. I assumed we had made much more progress than we apparently have. It seems we’ve backslid, to use a ‘born-again’ Christian term.”

But she too has formed a production company to develop her own films--including one about journalism with her friend Cher. “I don’t have a huge interest in producing, but I do feel the shortage of interesting roles. More women need to write and actresses have to make better choices. If a movie is good, people will go see it--whether the lead is a woman or a man.”

So far, she has resisted the temptation to join fellow actors in political activism. “I don’t like the idea of just putting my name on some committee list or showing up at some benefit in a pretty dress. I’d want to get in there and roll up my sleeves and do something. . . .”

But--here’s that contradiction again--she doesn’t want to “draw attention to myself, so I stay away. No matter where I go, no matter what I do, people stare at me,” she says soberly. “And I can’t do anything about it. There isn’t a moment in my life, unless I’m in my home . . . unless I’m behind closed doors in some way.”

Yet her buddy Cher gets looked at a lot and doesn’t mind attracting attention, so why does it get to her? “Well, Cher’s incredibly good at handling publicity. I’m not. I’m just not. And that’s fine,” she softens into a grin. “I can build a fireplace and she can’t. So.”

She doesn’t want to complain about fame’s burden, “because I realize that I’m really fortunate. But, on some levels, it really is one.”

And then there is the clock. “You see the statistics and realize that the longevity of a female career, as opposed to a male career in this business, is just so much shorter. I’m not complaining or anything, but it is what it is. So I think, ‘Well, the work is here now.’ At some point, I’m going to want to stop and have a family and take some time off then. So I guess right now is a good time to work.”

She also knows that this has been a stunning few years. “It has been amazingly packed. But I can remember when I wasn’t on such a roll. I remember my then-husband was having dinner with an agent and I remember (the agent) saying, ‘Well, Michelle’s not as hot as she used to be.’ And I thought, ‘Maybe this just isn’t going to happen for me.’ ”

Asked to play a game of “What if . . .” as in “What if you didn’t get another job after ‘Sweet Liberty,’ ” she emits an especially long “Ummmmm,” runs her fingers through her hair again and repeats “What if nobody ever hired me again? Well . . . ummmm. I probably would have gone back to school . . . and become a psychiatrist.”

Why that? “Because it always fascinated me, what motivates people and what’s in the little red wagon that we all drag behind us. That’s probably why I went into acting.”

In her red wagon has always been a fear of being “found out. But, as I’ve gotten older, I realized everybody feels that way.

“You know, I think people will find out that I’m really not very talented. I’m really not very good. It’s all been a big sham.”

And you’re ugly?

“And I’m really ugly,” she says laughing. “But I think I’ve learned to live with that and know it’s just my neurotic self.”