Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ageless beauty


June 28, 2009

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Belle epoque ... Michelle Pfeiffer.

Belle epoque ... Michelle Pfeiffer. Photo: AP

This Hollywood star found turning 50 liberating, writes Helen Barlow.

When Michelle Pfeiffer purred the words to Makin' Whoopee while sprawled across a grand piano in 1989's The Fabulous Baker Boys, the scene went down in history as one of cinema's sexiest moments.

"Oh it was the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus," Pfeiffer defers, initially citing the camera's dizzy circling as the reason. She then reconsiders. "I guess it is one of my finest moments. I know it took a lot of courage to get up on that piano and sing."

Now 20 years later, Pfeiffer at 51 is still stunning. Today wearing tight blue jeans, a V-neck top and little jewellery or make-up, she is doing nothing to accentuate her beauty, but it startles nevertheless. She seems to be just pushing 40, though to her credit she has embraced passing a half-century.

"If you think hitting 40 is liberating, wait till you turn 50," she muses. "You dread it for years, then it happens and it's no big deal."

Outspoken against the wide use of plastic surgery she prefers to work out in the gym to keep fit. She radiates health. "You know I'm fit when I'm working and maybe not so fit when I'm not filming," she says, flashing a megawatt smile. "It's just the older you get the less you can eat. Isn't that horrible? I figure that by the time I'm 70 I will just be a breatharian. I won't have to eat anything to keep going the way I am.

"I remember my grandmother used to survive on the craziest thing. She would literally have the same thing every day - half a piece of toast with something on it - and she was very, very lean, strong and very fit. I used to think, `how could she eat so little?' " She pauses, lowering her voice in that haunting way only Pfeiffer can. "I know now."

Strong genes or not, the three-time Oscar nominee (for Love Field, Baker Boys and Dangerous Liaisons), whose 1992 version of Catwoman (in Batman Returns) left Halle Berry with impossible shoes to fill in the recent incarnation, possesses a rare show-stopping presence - especially when it comes to period dramas.

She was unforgettable as Madame de Tourvel in Stephen Frears's classic Dangerous Liaisons, she was impressive as Countess Olenska in Martin Scorsese's The Age Of Innocence, and now she reunites with Frears (and writer Christopher Hampton) for Cheri, playing Lea de Lonval, an ageing courtesan during the belle epoque, a decadent moment in early 20th century French history. The story is based on a 1920 novel by Colette, who chronicles the risque mores of her time. The film opens on July 23.

"I didn't know about this period at all and I was really surprised when I read how Colette describes the character," Pfeiffer notes. "You sort of have your ideas about what a high-class prostitute or courtesan is, and what I love about Colette's writing is that there was nothing undignified about Lea.

"The story's really about her feelings and about a woman making a choice to sell sex. Everyone's going to have different feelings about that, but Lea really has a lot of integrity, is very smart and thinks about other people. I hadn't seen that character before."

Pfeiffer's comfort with her age made her one of just a handful of contenders for the role, Hampton has said. "You needed an actor who was about 50, who was clearly very beautiful, and was sufficiently relaxed in herself to give herself to the story and not be made anxious by it," he told Canada's The Globe And Mail. "It's a tough subject for a woman turning 50 . . . and Michelle had absolutely no provisos about being shot in a way that made her look as if she was ageing."

As she had done so convincingly in 2007's I Could Never Be Your Woman with Paul Rudd, Pfeiffer is again paired with an even younger man in Cheri. Initially she is meant to just keep the wayward youngster in line, yet, as she lolls around on satin sheets with up-and-coming British actor Rupert Friend (Keira Knightley's beau off-screen) it seems impossible to imagine they're not meant for each other.

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