P F A N D O M
Michelle Pfeiffer Retrospective. Episode 4
by Nathaniel R
She didn't quit the supermarket. That's something we need to understand immediately about Michelle Pfeiffer's methodic rise. After losing the beauty contest and landing an agent in 1978, winning TV gigs and moving to Hollywood, she merely transferred to a different supermarket. She was very practical and very focused, according to those who knew her when, taking acting classes and going to cattle calls but always showing up at work. Many stars bios are littered with colorful anecdotes about brief early jobs but in Pfeiffer's case, supermarket checkout girl, was an actual job that she stuck with until the acting, well, stuck.
One of her teachers, who had described her as a tardy, disinterested but smart student in high school recalls meeting her just before her career took off in the grocery store...
When I saw her at the supermarket, there was a difference. Something had happened there. She had this steely look of determination. She looked at me and she said, 'I'm gonna be an actress,' And I remember telling her, 'Now Michelle, a lot of people have agents and wanna be an actress and...' And, 'No, no,' She told me there was this movie with Tony Danza -- The Hollywood Knights. She was just trying out for it, and she thought she might have a chance for it...
I don't know. You'll see a kid coming through that'll tell you, 'I'm going to be a doctor.' They're just hell-bent, they're sure that's what they're going to do. Nothing stops them from doing it. And some kids do that. And then I get a call, 'Hey, you gonna be in your room today?' And they come back, and they've just gotten their law degree from Harvard or something. And it's usually one of those kids who has that look. And she had that look.
-John Bovberg, to Douglas Thompson in the book "Pfeiffer: Beyond the Age of Innocence."
She got the movie.
That movie, her first, was the teen sex comedy The Hollywood Knights (1980). Whatever went wrong with the movie -- it's nearly unwatchable today given the dated sexism, absurd levels of obnoxiousness, and incoherence -- it did stumble into a sort of time and place notability. It's clearly a rip-off of the earlier blockbuster success American Graffiti (1973) in which a bunch of teenagers cruise around the neighborhood in a single day, while also being an obvious bridge from Animal House (1978) to Porkys (1981). Raunchy sexist comedies aimed at teenagers who technically couldn't see them given their R ratings were briefly all the rage...
The other way it has endured long past the shelf life of many 1980 releases (it's always been readily available as viewing formats have changed) is thanks to the cast list. Casting director Harriet Helberg, who started her film career auspiciously with Carrie (1976), found multiple future bright lights for the movie. It wasn't just Michelle Pfeiffer's debut but the big screen bow of both Tony Danza and Robert Wuhl, who would both go on to TV series headliner fame. The movie also features future Nanny Fran Drescher in one of her earliest roles.
Pfeiffer only has a few scenes as beautiful car hop Suzie Q, who wants to be an actress. All but one of her scenes are with screen boyfriend The Duke (Tony Danza) and like all the other multiple stories in the movie, the scenes are basically the same every single time. The Duke and Suzie Q are, in a way, the "dramatic relief," if that were a thing, since the rest of the movie is otherwise meant to be gut-bustingly funny and bawdy. These two are always bringing the mood down. They argue, express their love for each other, and wonder what's next for them since he's about to start college and she's auditioning. Pfeiffer is a bit stiffer as an actress than she'll soon be, and her voice whinier, but she already commands the camera with consummate ease, even when you can only see a quarter of her face in shots as when she turns away from the camera and those straight blond locks fall like a curtain to obscure that mesmerizing face.
P.S. Here is the exact moment that Michelle Pfeiffer arrives on the big screen...
The most amusing bit about Pfeiffer's entrance into film history is the fight that Susie & The Duke (Michelle Pfeiffer & Tony Danza) are having. He's complaining that she works nights and she reminds him that she has to be free during the day to audition. The Duke responds with bitter sarcasm:
Oh I forgot. You're going to be a famous actress.
Why yes, Tony, in fact she is. Fame is just two years away.