P F A N D O M
Michelle Pfeiffer Retrospective. Episode 6
by Nathaniel R
[Editor's Note: Due to a scheduling issue with DVDs and a two day internet outage at your host's home last week we're a bit out of sequence & behind. Apologies]
Last week we got an early glimpse of Michelle Pfeiffer's bad girl side with the campy plodding Texas melodrama Callie & Son (1981). It was one of three telefilms the young actress co-starred in the year before her first leading movie role (Grease 2). Her last two TV movies before stardom make a fascinating double feature for their good girl/bad girl dichotomy and their foreshadowing of more famous roles...
Splendor in the Grass (aired October 26th, 1981 on NBC)
As with the TV movie A Solitary Man I was unable to find a working copy. This remake of the 1961 Elia Kazan classic aired just two weeks after Callie & Son which also featured Pfeiffer as a promiscuous frequently drunk beauty who men use and abuse; the threat of typecasting always rears its head with new performers. Pfeiffer was just three years into a career that didn't start so auspiciously, but by Splendor she's not just shed the early stiffness in front of the camera but is acting with abandon and devouring the camera's attention.
In Splendor she plays the small but key role of Ginny (played by actress/director Barbara Loden, future wife of Elia Kazan in the original), the flapper daughter of Ace (Ned Beatty taking on the Pat Hingle role) and the sister of Bud (Cyrill O'Reilly attempting Warren Beatty's star-maker). Ginny is always up for a party and for taunting her dad. Though Melissa Gilbert played Natalie Wood's Oscar-nominated role, there are shades of Natalie's Rebel Without A Cause work in Pfeiffer & Beatty's uncomfortable dynamic. Beatty plays a father who is discomforted by his daughter's beauty / while his daughter just wants to be loved but doesn't yet know, or in this case care to know, how to modulate her sexuality; she's just "on" at all times, however inappropriate.
Ginny is a tremendously sad part and the TV movie has a shocking sequence in which Ginny, drunk and desperate to be loved, makes out with numerous men at a party while stumbling towards a car. This is one of the most frank but PG rated visual statements you'll ever get that someone is about to be gang-raped. That said it's worth noting that in no way is the scene shot in an exploitive way; Pfeiffer the actress is very much in charge of what you're taking in emotionally, but it's highly upsetting nonetheless.
The Children Nobody Wanted (aired December 5th, 1981 on CBS)
Young actors can't necessarily "plan" their careers. When attempting to establish their name, most actors will take whichever parts they can get their hands on and Pfeiffer was no different. This particular performance must have felt like a statement to casting directors at the time watching it, 'If you think I'm just the fast 'bad girl,' you'll have to rethink immediately.'
The Children Nobody Wanted is a biopic of sorts on Tom Butterfield (1940–1982) though the film only covers a portion of the man's college years. He was the youngest single man to become a legal foster parent in the state of Missouri. His advocacy on behalf of orphaned or abandoned children led to the creation of the Butterfield Ranch and Butterfield Youth Services. But, through the screenplays choice to frame the film with voiceover by his girlfriend Jennifer (played by Michelle Pfeiffer but curiously by another actress in the voiceover), Pfeiffer becomes ostensibly a secondary lead despite having little bearing on the plot.
She is up to the elevated task.
On the page Jennifer is a completely stock part, the "longsuffering girlfriend," often sidelined from the drama and repeatedly ignored by her boyfriend Tom. Tom is played by Fredric Lehne, who has since had a very long career as a familiar if uncelebrated face on many TV series including American Horror Story and Lost. (He's also in the ensemble of the forthcoming Hugh Jackman musical The Greatest Showman). Tom has weighty concerns trying to rescue young boys from disastrous placements in large facilities, sexual abuse, and more and regularly neglects his devoted sweetheart. Still Jennifer sticks by him for nearly the entire running time, even when she's labelled a "whore" by angry townsfolk who look at Tom's unusual home for boys with suspicion. She only leaves him once when she realizes she'll never be his top priority but quickly returns. Pfeiffer sells Jennifer's internal drama with surprising pathos despite little help from the screenplay, staging, or even the narration.
On the one hand this telefilm is completely watchable, well produced, and an interesting true story. The cast is strong as well with best in show reserved for Pfeiffer and the then recently Oscar-nominated Barbara Barrie (Breaking Away) who bringing salty resolve and significant warmth to their scenes. On the other its frustratingly vague about virtually everything including how Tom got away with frequently illegal tactics he uses to keep saving the kids (and collecting more of them, hiding the actual numbers from social workers). This vagueness extends to the relationship between Jennifer and Tom. Despite the fact that it's told from her perspective we never get a sense as to whether they married after college, continued living as an unmarried couple while running a large foster home, or even whether or not they broke up. The telefilm occassionally plays like mere hagiography underlining Tom's heart and devotion to unwanted kids when it should perhaps be delving further into the particulars of the events themselves. I became so curious about what happened that I tried to do some reading on the topic only to become even more confused. Jennifer doesn't appear in the biggest article I could find on Butterfield (a Readers Digest article from the early 80s) even though it covers events we see in the film. She also isn't mentioned in Tom's obituary. Butterfield died of pneumonia a year after this TV film aired. He was only 42.
But I'm getting sidetracked. Despite being extraneous to the proceedings in many ways (it's understandable but entirely misleading that Pfeiffer is now the sole figure on the DVD cover) Pfeiffer does lovely work as this (fictional?) girlfriend especially when she begins to question her own extraneousness. The actress creates her own mini-drama singlehandedly within a much larger narrative that frankly doesn't have use for her beyond meeting the "supportive girlfriend of great man" check box.
The order in which the young Pfeiffer filmed her many minor projects from 1979 through 1981 is unclear but I'd be willing to bet that this bad girl project Splendor in the Grass and good girl project The Children Nobody Wanted were both shot after similar (on paper) types in Callie & Son and Falling in Love Again. Pfeiffer attacks the parts in bolder and more nuanced ways to create different creatures entirely. We'll see easy reverberations of these two early triumphs in future films. Two examples: Pfeiffer's no makeup natural beauty surrounded by blonde moppets in Witches of Eastwick, and curly haired nervous breakdowns on dance floors in Batman Returns. Nevertheless Pfeiffer's extraordinary beauty would keep her in the position of having to prove over and over again that she was a tremendous talent long past the point in her career when that should have been necessary. We'll soon see ample proof of that in this retrospective.
Next Saturday: A double feature of Falling in Love Again (1980) and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981). And then we hit the movies you know and love like Grease 2 and Scarface and so on. Excited yet?