Old enough to know what's best

Michelle Pfeiffer insists it was all in the "lighting."

The 51-year-old actress is discussing an arresting scene in her new film, "Cheri," where she literally seems to age a decade, all under the unflinching eye of the camera. It's one take -- no cuts, no special effects. Clearly lighting helped, as did director Stephen Frears, who insisted that her character, an aging French courtesan, smile luminously throughout the early part of the film, purposely saving the shock of what Pfeiffer calls the "droopage" for that moment. "When your face is in repose, everything drops and you age," she explains, with a chortle. "I'd like to say that we used prosthetics but we didn't."

What she glosses over is the utter pathos she brings to the scene, that of a beautiful woman staring into the abyss of age and loneliness.

For those who grew up on Pfeiffer's icy beauty in "Scarface," or watched her writhe on top of a grand piano in "The Fabulous Baker Boys," or giggled during "Batman Returns," when, as Catwoman, she snapped her whip with sadomachistic glee, a senescent Pfeiffer is almost an unimaginable concept. In person, she appears as a beautiful, mature woman of indeterminate age. The skin is still creamy, the cheekbones curvy and pronounced, the eyes that eerie green-blue. Over tea at the Four Seasons, she is dressed for anonymity, arriving in a gray top, black slacks, and black Jackie-O glasses that almost completely obscure her famous visage. Yet, when the glasses come off, she is unexpectedly straightforward.

"Cheri," which opened Friday, certainly dives headfirst into the feminine dilemma of the aging beauty. Based on a pair of novels by Colette and set in pre-World War I France, "Cheri" tells the story of the professional siren Lea de Lonval, who falls unexpectedly in love with a much younger, slightly vapid, but exceedingly beautiful young man, played by Rupert Friend. It's the tale of a refined cougar written about 90 years before cougardom entered the cultural lexicon, and the new film pairs Pfeiffer again with her "Dangerous Liaisons" director Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton.

"It certainly was walking into the eye of the storm, in terms of the whole issue of aging. I turned 50 on the set," Pfeiffer says. She was happy that she was working, so she didn't have time to dwell on crossing the 5-0 rubicon, although she notes, "Honestly, there's certainly a mourning that takes place. I mourn the young girl, but I think that what replaces that is a kind of a liberation, sort of letting go of having to hold on to that. Everyone knows you're 50. So you don't have to worry about not trying to look 50. And then it becomes, 'Hey, she looks good for her age.' "

For Frears, his short list of actresses for the part essentially consisted of one person: Pfeiffer. "What's good about her [in the part] is she is extremely hard-headed and she's very touching and very vulnerable," he says. "She was always very, very good about her age. She wasn't endlessly whispering into the cameraman's ear."

If anything, she says, it was cinematographer Darius Khondji who consistently balked when told to make Pfeiffer "look my worst."

Pfeiffer works relatively infrequently these days. She took off five years after 2002's "White Oleander" to devote to her family, her two teenagers and husband David E. Kelley, the creator of such TV shows as "Ally McBeal" and "L.A. Law." Even now she and her agent, Chris Andrews of Creative Artist Agency, have a code name for worthy scripts. They call them "dead of winter" as in good enough projects that they "warrant me leaving my family during the middle of the school years and knowing they can't come with me actually," she explains.

"Cheri" was one of those rare projects. Pfeiffer was sitting in the makeup chair on her film "Personal Effects" (a little-seen effort with Ashton Kutcher) when her hairdresser got a call and handed the phone to the actress. It was Frears -- whom Pfeiffer hadn't spoken to you in long time -- telling her about "Cheri."

"He couldn't have just called my agent, you know?" she says, laughing. He sent her the script, which she loved so much that she kept "waiting for the for the other shoe to drop because movies fall apart all the time.

"When I started out, super low-budget movies were the exception to the rule. And now, it's not. And now movies are being financed in all sorts of weird creative ways," she says. "I don't even know where the money comes from, and I don't really want to know. But all of a sudden you've got 30 producers on a film because they all gave $5. And they're all visiting. It's just crazy; you never want to leave your trailer."

Pfeiffer can be delightfully blunt -- which is partly why several years ago, she gave up her production company. "The process is too heartbreaking for me," she says about making movies on the other side of the camera. "It's years out of your life and mostly a lot of dead ends. And I also don't think my temperament is right because I'm really a straightforward person. I call it as I see it. I expect people to deal with me in the same way. And when they don't I get really angry. When I ended the company I kind of had this rebirth for my love of acting."

She and Kelley also moved to the Bay Area for a life "that was just ever slightly slower." When she's not working, she is perfectly content to hang out with her kids. "I'm not like one of these moms who can't, like, wait for school to start in the fall so they can get rid of their kids," she says. "I hate school. I hate getting up in the morning. I hate the homework. I like summer days with my kids. I have fun with them."

But when she does work, her focus is complete, as she demonstrates in "Cheri." Her character has long ago forsworn love as an occupational hazard. Or as Pfeiffer says, she knows that "if she fell in love that would be the end of her career. I think she's incredibly independent. She would never tolerate anyone controlling her. She wants someone malleable and young that she can control. It's interesting at the end of it when he decides he doesn't want to be controlled anymore."

Pfeiffer admits that when she takes on a role, it's hard for her not to become consumed. Her new character intoxicates, seeps into her, obsesses her unconscious psyche.

With her latest outing, it was film's examination of timeless themes -- the high price of love, the power dynamics between men and women, and the deterioration of beauty -- that got under her skin.

"It's been a year almost to the day that I stopped filming 'Cheri,' " Pfeiffer says, "and I still haven't recovered."

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rachel.abramowitz @latimes.com

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