P F A N D O M
Michelle Pfeiffer Retrospective. Episode 5
by Nathaniel R
It wasn't initially clear, as it rarely is for new working actors, where Michelle Pfeiffer's place in the Hollywood ecosystem would be. The first three years of her career (1979-1981) were a mish-mash as if her management was throwing her at everything just to see what would stick. In the first three years of professional acting career she made four TV movies, three feature films, had two series regular gigs, and snuck in a few guest spots. The roles were far from stellar but she was working, a lot and was famously a quick study. Callie & Son, an absolutely ridiculous CBS melodrama from October 1981, gave her her showiest pre-Grease 2 role. And her campiest. She wasn't the star. Lindsay Wagner was a TV superstar at the time (The Bionic Woman, Scruples) and plays Callie from teenage years to 40something. In fact, Pfeiffer is so low on the totem pole that her name is even mispelled in the credits (missing one "l"). But the acting is newly confident and fluid. It's ripe, sure, but that suits this character. In short, you can now see the great lyrical star actress that's just around the career bend.
When Pfeiffer arrives the plodding and plotty telefilm gets a badly needed jolt of energy. The PR department noticed and pushed her presence with the following very false advertisement...
Those illustrations are exact replicas of scenes in the movie. That much is true. Pfeiffer does lay seductively across Jameson Parker's bare chest as he talks on the phone to his mother. She does even toussle with the star over a shotgun while wearing a fetching neck scarf like she's Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. But she's not the main attraction this ad implies. She's only in half an hour or so of a three hour movie and she is definitely not a "scheming" young woman. If anything Sue Lynn Bourdeaux is a victim; while trashy and troubled she's collateral damage in the muddy love & war between the title characters.
Summing up the plot of Callie & Son is a herculean task and you probably wouldn't believe if it I did so let's just say that it is a mess. It begins like a sympathetic woman's picture about a sad girl-in-trouble pressured into giving up her baby and then morphs into a romantic drama fantasy about marrying up, then into a 'the world's gone mad' tragedy before it picks its last lengthy identity as absolute junk (but sort of entertaining junk). Callie is, in the end, an Oedipal Prime Time Soap Opera in which a fabulously wealthy and powerful Texas family of two, newspaper mogul mother and politician son, are continually at odds with but way too into each other.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Sue Lynn Bordeaux, the trashy daughter-in-law Callie didn't plan for her son Randy (Jameson Parker, just before his long run headlining the hit series "Simon & Simon"). It isn't long before the marriage is in trouble. Callie even goes to pick Sue Lynn up from a motel room (to prevent a news scandal) where she's been mistreated by a random trick. What was she to do? Her husband wouldn't sleep with her! If you think it's hard to believe that a straight man would refuse to have sex with Michelle Pfeiffer, let's just say that this is not the first or the last time that the movie will strain credulity.
Soon we learn that Sue Lynn is being blackmailed. She's now a Senator's wife but there are pornographic photos of her in a threesome with two men before she met him (network TV was racier back then then people remember!).
Thing go downhill from there and the film gets ickier and ickier as Randy beats his wife which the movie treats as ugly but also acceptable (because, you know, she's a whore). Mostly though the ick factor comes from the movie's increasingly suggestive mother and son relationship. Callie REALLY loves her son and the older Randy gets the more he seems to also REALLY love his mom.
This begins as subtext but the supporting characters keep making it actual text; everyone notices. In one thorny scene, Callie's rejected suitor (and hurt close friend) suggests that she needs to go to bed with someone and it can't be her son. Sue Lynn resists an insult this explicit when she fights with her husband but when she finally fights with "Mama" she's less vague about the accusation.
This is more than Mama can bear.
Previously: Miss Orange County, TV guest spots, TV recurring roles, and The Hollywood Knights
Next Saturday: Michelle in her last pre-stardom features: Falling in Love (1980) and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981)