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Pfandom: Cool Rider and a Pink (Leading) Lady

on the set of Grease 2, her first lead roleP F A N D O M  
Michelle Pfeiffer Retrospective. Episode 8 
by Nathaniel R 

We've mostly focused on Michelle Pfeiffer's acting in our Pfandom retrospective. We're sure the star who has described herself as "extremely private" would like it that way, but this would be the appropriate time for a brief bit of personal context.

Though the young actress had been working nonstop since the late 70s in television roles and a few features, she'd been struggling offscreen. She was impatient with the way her career was developing. She'd also become involved with a cult, an experience she's always been cagey about in interviews. She had given them too much of her money and was eating strangely at their insistence. In 1981, she took back control of her life.

At the Grease 2 premiere in NYC with her new husband Peter Horton and producer Allan Carr

Two marriages and two divorces (of sorts): in her personal life she fell in love with fellow up-and-coming actor Peter Horton (who would later become a TV star on thirtysomething), and broke free from the cult; in her professional life she dumped her first agent to sign with the much more powerful William Morris Agency. The shakeup had an immediate effect on her career...

On her honeymoon, she learned she'd won the lead role in Grease 2 despite being the least famous of the finalists; New rock star Pat Benatar, Broadway's original "Annie" Andrea McArdle, and young TV stars Kristy McNicol and Lisa Hartman had also been in the running for the sequel to one of Hollywood's all time biggest hits*

Grease 2 (1982)
Pfeiffer enters her intended star-making vehicle in a broadly cartoonish way shimmying, strutting, swinging her arms around, singing the Pink Girls chant during "Back to School," her dark shades setting her apart from the crowd (as they also will in the "Let's Score" number). In subsequent group numbers she has this flexible way of being both inside and outside of the dancing, sometimes deeply committed to the choreography, other times taking a moment to jump in. The takeaway feeling is always 'too cool for school,' and, luckily for Pfeiffer, too cool for this movie.

Which is not to say that this big break into leading lady status is one of her finest performances. Sometimes she leans too far into a high pitched whine (she'll develop much more range with her speaking voice later on) and nothing is delivered with any subtlety. Not that a lot of subtext and nuance would be the right choice for this picture.

Don't you think that's kind of weird?  Not like weird weird, but exciting weird.

Still, she lays on the sass and tough girl shtick and everything really extra thick. As thick as she likes the ketchup on her burger as we discover in her single most endearing scene as Stephanie gets some after-school tutoring from Michael (Maxwell Caulfield) about Shakespeare. She doesn't know that he's her dream man, her "cool rider" as it were.

Just how much of an actor's personal life bleeds into their screen life is a question with only speculative answers across a wide spectrum. But Pfeiffer's Stephanie Zinone sure feels like a role she could only have played right then and there. It's not much of a stretch to imagine that the impatient actress, who had been frequently employed from the start but still felt like nothing was happening, would relate to the there-but-not-there feeling that the dissatisfied Zinone exudes.

In the long final act of the movie, this feeling is literalized in one super kitschy sequence which kicks off with the comic "Girl for All Seasons" number, before drifting off into a morose Stephanie/Michael dream sequence "(Love Will) Turn Back the Hands of Time".

Underneath Pfeiffer's inestimable beauty, physical comedy, nd snarky quips, there's a surprisingly moving undercurrent of hazy yearning. She wants a different life and new experiences -- she's longing for something else. What that was maybe the actress herself didn't yet know. Stephanie Zinone certainly didn't though she's ultra specific about what she imagines it to be in the movie's justifiably famous and best number, "Cool Rider".

For this one brief shining moment, Pfeiffer slays so completely that you're forgetting you're even watching a cash grab sequel. She's utterly magnetic, eyes popping, mouth open, ready to pounce. This is stardom; her inner life comes roaring to life, until you're totally inside her point of view, caught up in that 'devil in skin tight leather' fantasy as if it's your own. 

a typical teen mag article at the timeMaxwell and Michelle at the premiere

The Fallout
Grease 2's status as a 'Bad Movie We Love,' its fans now legion, was not evident back in 1982. Though Pfeiffer proved she could carry a picture, the knives were out for the film. There was gossip that she and Maxwell Caulfield had never clicked (to put it mildly). Grease 2 opened to hostility from critics and relative disinterest by the public, despite much pre-release hoopla. 

For her part Pfeiffer has always seemed slightly embarrassed by Grease 2 and hated the celebrity portion of promoting it. (That aversion to the very public nature of her career was not something she'd ever get over when mega-fame did arrive but that was in the future.)

Overnight stardom didn't materialize in 1982 as the hype had promised. Though the tomatoes being thrown were largely aimed at director Patricia Birch and leading man Maxwell Caulfield, bombs have blast radiuses. Pfeiffer's heat cooled. Offers did come in but they were for similar tough chick types. Discouraged, she turned them down.

How long would she have to wait for something great?


Last Week: Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981)
Next Week
: Scarface (1983)

* These details about the casting of Grease 2 come from the book "Pfeiffer: Beyond the Age of Innocence"

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Reader Comments (20)

Why did you mention the cult? Now all I can think about is the younger her being susceptible to suggestion.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Nathaniel, I love you. Thank you for this. ❤️

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

IIRC the playhouse/acting school where she studied also yielded a lot of Scientologists? What a minefield for bright young stars.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

I never loved her in movies but I thought she was very attractive. i hope she can have a resurgence in the movies she has done this year!

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterK

Grease 2 is a mess, but she was pretty damn fun in it. I Must say, I will never understand the love for the first Grease. People act like it's a masterpiece and it's soooo much better than the sequel. NO. They both suck.

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterF*ckTrump

I'm being serious when I say that Grease 2 is probably the film I have watched more than any other. I watched it repeatedly as a child, and could still probably quote it word for word if I watched it today. And thank you for that gif of the "weird weird" line, I obsessed over that scene, and her lips, haha, and the way she says "incestuous". And the way she climbs over the ladder in Cool Rider. I die. She is way too cool for this movie, yes. Stephanie Zinone is way too cool for pretty much any movie!

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJB

No matter what anyone says (even Nathaniel!), Grease 2 is awesome and Pfeiffer is wonderful in it.

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Grease 2 is a big Pfeiffer gap but I have never seen the original Grease,a film everyone loves yet I never got interested in,I do have an aversion to most musicals though.

Nice article,no cheap muck raking,keeping it classy like the lady herself.

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

This just in: Pfeiffer pfronts and is pfeatured in the April issue of Interview Magazine: http://people.com/movies/michelle-pfeiffer-interview-magazine-cover

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Omg that Interview interview:

“I’m more open now, my frame of mind, because I really want to work now, because I can,” she says. “These last few years I’ve had some really interesting opportunities. And I have this weird synchronicity with Annette Bening.”

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

I want to work more because I can

What she said in the interview makes my day!

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJans

I can't pass a ladder without seriously considering whether I should climb it and start belting Cool Rider

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

Joey - LOL. i know the feeling.

March 28, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

And she had me with line from the endearing scene..."you must think I'm some kind of a dummy"

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

The main reason this movie doesn't come close to the original is the songs. Cool Rider and maybe Who's That Guy are the only engaging numbers. The rest sound like they were written by the people behind the New Mickey Mouse Club. For it's 60's setting, the movie is very 80's.

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

OMG those Interview photos. Mega-swoon.

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJB

I'm pretty much with F*ckTrump on this (judging by his username, we probably agree on quite a few things).

The first Grease wasn't so great either (any affection I have for it stems from the fun I had acting alongside an old girlfriend as part of a high school production of the original musical, many moons ago), and Grease 2 arguably has as many decent songs (the brilliant Four Tops' 'Back to School' deserves a particular shout-out). Plus, Michelle Pfeiffer > John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, even if Maxwell Caulfield is a real cheese-ball (to his credit, he memorably spoofed his image as the iconic Rex Manning in 'Empire Records', years later).

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarco

Any chance for a continuation of Pfandom, please?

February 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Ryan -- post Oscars i shall try again

February 15, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks Nathaniel R - much appreciated!

February 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

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