Like many people who turn 60 on April 29, three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer has much to celebrate, as well as some regrets. For example, she wishes she hadn’t turned down movies that earned a collective $1.5 billion and fetched Oscar and Golden Globe honors for her contemporaries Jodie Foster, Julia Roberts, Geena Davis, Meg Ryan and Sharon Stone (The Silence of the Lambs, Pretty Woman, Thelma & Louise, Sleepless in Seattle and Casino). “I got so picky that I … disappeared,” she has said. “My agent’s nickname for me is Dr. No.”
Mostly, the problem was that she wanted to spend time raising her kids, not missing them on a film set. But she’s been saying yes to big roles lately, after decades of intentional underemployment. After her youngest turned 21 in 2015, she revved up a career renaissance. As investment adviser Bernie Madoff’s wife, Ruth, in The Wizard of Lies, she earned her first Emmy nomination and her seventh Golden Globe nom (her first since Scorsese’s 1993 movie The Age of Innocence). Her stylish turn as a sexy, haughty widow helped launch Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express as a $350 million franchise. Playing Eve throwing shade at Jennifer Lawrence in the Garden of Eden allegory Mother!, she earned A-plus reviews in a baffling flick that got an F on Cinemascore. And her illustrious past gets a spotlight April 19 in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival's 35th-anniversary tribute to Scarface, where she’ll join a panel discussion with costar Al Pacino, 77.
First, however, comes the Sundance Film Festival smash Where Is Kyra?, her best shot at an Oscar in at least 16 years (since her last great performance, as a murderous mom in 2002’s White Oleander). In the film opening this month, she plays a divorcee who goes broke when her disabled mother, for whom she is a loving caretaker, passes away. She can’t find a job because, as she says, “I’m no spring chicken.” Then she meets a troubled cabbie (Kiefer Sutherland, 51), and her destitution spirals out of control. It’s relentlessly downbeat but daringly glamour-free and artistically dazzling, and director Andrew Dosunmu says the film exists to remedy “the invisibility of the elderly and the disenfranchised.”
Since Pfeiffer’s 1979 debut in the Animal House spin-off Delta House and her 1990 People magazine cover for its first list of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, she has proven herself more talented than beautiful, and her attitude about no longer being a spring chicken is among the smartest in Hollywood. A decade ago, she said, “The good part about turning 50 — because that's the big number that everybody dreads — is that it's really not such a big deal. You spend so much time dreading it and there's so much talk about it, and then it comes and goes and it's over.” At 55, she laughed and quipped: “I’m now at, ‘She looks great for her age.’ But you know, it’s kind of liberating. I don’t need to look younger than I am because it ain’t gonna change anything."
Professionally, Pfeiffer charted a course based on the wisdom of the elders she aspired to learn from. “People like Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep have paved the way,” she once told film historian Stephen Rebello. “Our window of opportunity expands incrementally year by year. I feel like the roles have only gotten more interesting. I want to grow up to be Judi Dench or Ellen Burstyn. The older we get, the less we work. But look at the work just those two women are doing. It gets deeper.”
Pfeiffer said this in 2002, right when she was about to put her acting career on hold. Since then, Dench, 83, and Burstyn, 85, have made over 100 projects grossing over $4 billion and earned four Oscar nominations (most recently Dench's Philomena) and eight Emmy nominations (including Burstyn's House of Cards and Dench's Cranford) between them. Now, with her kids launched, she said, “I can’t see myself ever retiring. Ever. I just realized I’m not done. I have a lot more to do, and a lot more to say.”