Whatever happened to Michelle Pfeiffer? From Scarface (1983) to One Fine Day (1996), she was a shopworn angel in the era of tough-minded monetarism. She was nominated for Academy Awards three times between 1989 and 1992. As Richard Corliss wrote in a 1985 Film Comment piece: "She has shown how the notion of elegance can accommodate itself to the California decades of this century, and suggested with wit and sleek high style, how it might survive into the next." But she hasn’t survived. Discovering motherhood, Pfeiffer descended into a series of magazine soaps – The Deep End of the Ocean (1999), The Story of Us (1999), What Lies Beneath (2000) – that have seen her star grow dimmer and dimmer. Like a Tin Pan Alley tune, she was never high art. Just potent but undemanding, sometimes brilliant. In The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), for which she earned a Best Actress nomination, she was all three.
Watching that notorious scene in which her singer Susie Diamond carries Makin’ Whoopee sprawled across Jack Baker’s grand piano, you wonder why Pfeiffer didn’t make more of her voice. Key not simply for Pfeiffer’s impassioned rendition, the scene also showcases the film’s specific alchemy of contemporary materialism and old-fashioned sentiment. In a blood-red gown slashed to the hip, red stilettos, and red lipstick, La Pfeiffer’s reflection is symmetrically captured in the polished wood, like some expensive exotic fish glimpsed beneath a mahogany pool. At the height of the "Greed is Good" era, this scene seemed to analogize the dilemma creative people face in the trade off between image and substance.
The "Fabulous Baker Boys" used to play everywhere and pull in the crowds. Now their old-time standards and after-hours banter goes for little in empty lounges and hotel lobbies. When they hire tough cookie Susie – "two pianos aren’t good enough anymore" – their fortunes pick up. But as Jack (Jeff) and Susie become involved, the talented Jack’s position vis-à-vis his keeper grows more obvious and turmoil erupts between the brothers. Dusting down his dreams in a jazz cellar, can Jack face himself and try for something more? Michael Ballhaus’ telephoto lens pans across the blurry lights of a sequin-strewn curtain through which we see him improvizing. Again and again, this film finds its protagonists in a beautiful place made sad by their inability to see. Few filmmakers until Michael Mann have so effectively worked this discrepancy between an aesthetic surface and the sadness it contains. Perhaps the rainy sidewalks and starry skies are clichés. But these foolish things surely derive their beauty from the clash between authentic desire and the tumult of empty antics. The telethon the boys play becomes a mindless reminder of a Reaganomics which saw charities baldly soliciting for cash, while nobody made any bones about artists becoming prostitutes. When Jack and Frank fight in the parking lot after Jack storms out of the gig, the ethical and personal dispute becomes all the more poignant for being played out by real brothers. But there is hope. One night Jack cuts across Frank’s patter – "I love you, Frank" – and the appreciative punters bring the house down.
Frank and Jack have never had a day job in their lives, and The Fabulous Baker Boys plays out at dusk as the streetlights come on, at dawn before the day becomes smeared by experience. Jack is discovered asleep in a diner by Jennifer Tilly’s wannabe singer, now slumming as a waitress on the late shift. Recognizing each other’s needs, they also recognize the vicissitudes of their lives. It could be a scene from Edward Hopper. When Susie and the boys drink champagne on a hotel verandah against a starry sky, the scene glows like Paramount comedies used to in the ’30s. Consonant with the film’s modernist nostalgia perhaps, the protagonists also smoke an unfashionably great deal! Only a few years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a critique of screen smoking that has helped banish the merest whiff of tobacco smoke from the Hollywood aesthetic. Seen today, Jack and Susie seem genuinely subversive.
It is a real treat to have such a handsome movie mediated by the lush transparency of digitalization after years of the clunky grain of videotape. But the extras here are unremarkable. Why not give us an interesting fresh take rather than the same old anodyne set interviews? After all, I have the DVD, so don’t need to be told that Pfeiffer embodies her characters. Why are actors, so compelling on screen, so often boring in interview? And as Jeff Bridges muses, why didn’t Michelle Pfeiffer sign a recording contract?