Michelle Pfeiffer turned 50 last year, and though the years haven't been that bad on her, her screen image has definitely cooled a bit. Her last couple of movies went straight to DVD, and her few other screen performances since 2001 have been in supporting performances (White Oleander, Hairspray, Stardust). Now she's starring as an aging French courtesan in Cheri, directed by Stephen Frears and adapted from the Colette novel. The movie is having its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and Mick Brown's timely profile of Pfeiffer will do until somebody publishes her biography. The title character of Cheri is the son (Rupert Friend) of a colleague (Kathy Bates) who Pfeiffer's character, Léa de Lonval, agrees to educate in the ways of sex and love, with predictably bittersweet results. "Being in that stage of life wasn't something I really had to do a lot of research for,' Pfeiffer told Brown, "because I'm already there. Although in some ways it's a little bit harder to really understand and articulate to yourself, because you're right in the middle of it. Probably 10 years from now I'll be able to look at this phase of my life and be able to understand her journey more. But I think for a lot of women 50 is a very particular age. I'm not one that's ever really thought about birthdays, but this was a big one and I was not looking forward to it. But surprisingly it has left me feeling liberated in a strange kind of way. Sort of, the pressure's off."
For Pfeiffer, Cheri marks a return to the literary period-picture world of Dangerous Liasons and The Age of Innocence. Pfeiffer speculates that she fits into these movies about the social manners of an earlier time because "I'm good at disguising my feelings." Frears, who directed her twenty years ago in Liasons, says she was first on his list of actresses for the role, and "It's quite a short list… She is exactly the right age, and just by being beautiful herself, that struggle has been a large part of her. And she wears it very gracefully. She puts jeans and a cap on and she looks about 16. I remember saying to her when I met her, I think we're going to have trouble making you look old.' But she was just very good about it. She wasn't saying, 'Oh, go on, make me look younger,' like you might imagine Hollywood actresses do. She wasn't asking to conceal anything. The main problem was this great, great cameraman [Darius Khondji] who had been trained to make beautiful women look even more beautiful, and who was completely soppy – he kept saying, 'I can only make her look beautiful.' She was much more straightforward about it. I took my hat off to her."
As to her recent career slowdown, Pfeiffer claims to be okay with it ("Everyone slows down when they get to my age, but that's fine."), adding, "But there are fewer roles for all of us in the movie industry. They're making a fraction of the movies they used to make; and so many of them are either animation or these franchise films that you see more and more A-list actors doing. The middle-range financed film hardly exists any more." She lives outside Los Angeles, raises her kids, and checks in with her analyst. "I remember I had an acting coach, Milton Katselas, who I studied with when I was first starting out, and he would ask us, 'OK, how do you think this character would behave in this scene?' And you'd give your little explanation – 'Well, I think…' And then he'd say, 'OK, now how would you really behave in this scene?' And the first answer was almost always bullshit. But we don't even realise it."