Revisiting Michelle Pfeiffer's Performance in Wolf
After several years out of the spotlight, Michelle Pfeiffer has returned in a big way recently, with three vastly different yet equally astonishing performances in such disparate films as Where Is Kyra?, Mother!, and Murder on the Orient Express. For nearly forty years now, Pfeiffer has been one of the best actors of her generation. What’s most remarkable about her career is how exceptional she’s been throughout most of it. No matter the quality of the film, you can be assured of at least receiving a thoughtfully crafted performance from her. Now that she’s back in cinemas regularly, it seems like the ideal time to revisit one of her best performances, in a role that isn’t mentioned often enough when her premiere work is discussed.
Mike Nichols' Wolf (1994) opened in theaters to decent reviews but left audiences expecting a traditional horror film a bit puzzled. That’s largely because Nichols harnessed classic werewolf tropes in service of a smart and slyly subversive commentary on the crisis of masculinity. It holds up remarkably well today, with its exploration of the male ego seeming more relevant than ever in the age of Trump, Weinstein, Hoffman, and so many more serial abusers and misogynists in the news. From a cinematic standpoint, the film is also sumptuously made, with gorgeous cinematography from Giuseppe Rotunno and a memorably vivid Ennio Morricone score. Add in some terrific performances by all involved, especially by Pfeiffer, and you’ll find the film is certainly worth revisiting.
Jack Nicholson's character, book editor Will Randall, is bitten by a wolf one evening while driving back to the city through the countryside. Soon after, Will’s professional and personal lives begin to crumble. He’s demoted at work and he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Since the wolf bite though, he’s also feeling rather spry again, especially for a man his age. Then there’s the bit about him turning into a wolf-man at night and stalking wildlife in the country. Just your usual midlife crisis stuff, really.
Early in the film, Will meets Pfeiffer’s sardonic and willful Laura Alden, who promptly becomes the symbol of all that's missing from his life. Laura is the rebellious daughter of the tycoon who’s taken over Will’s publishing house. From her first introduction, it’s clear that Laura is a woman to be reckoned with. Pfeiffer’s performance is so rich, so nuanced, that you want the entire film to stop and simply revolve around Laura.
Like most of Pfeiffer’s characters, Laura is a unique type yet also the sort of role she has always excelled at playing - a woman primarily defined (mostly by men) for her beauty, yet one who remains resolutely fierce, intelligent, and consistently wields a whip-smart sense of humor. You can see that Pfeiffer has a lot of fun playing this sort of role in Wolf, especially with how Laura responds to being the object of Will's affection. Her subtle acting choices help to reinforce the film's harsh critique of the toxic male ego. Throughout, Will and Stewart Swinton (James Spader, in a howlingly delicious turn as Will’s creep coworker) are constantly mansplaining everything to Laura. Pfeiffer's brilliant reaction shots provide many of the film's most delightful and formidable moments - bemusement, disdain, and exasperation are just a few of the emotions on display from Pfeiffer. Wolf is one of the finest examples of Pfeiffer’s talent for conveying deep and complex emotions with only a piercing glance or a subtle lift of an eyebrow. Few actors today do it better.
That the film's climactic - and entertainingly ludicrous - battle between Nicholson's and Spader's wolf-men ends with Pfeiffer killing Spader in a hail of bullets is utterly appropriate. What follows though, is equally important. The film's final scene is a zooming close-up of Pfeiffer's intensely expressive eyes, as wide and as deep as oceans, signaling a shift in the film's male-female power dynamic. Laura's put up with the men's ugly displays of privilege and entitlement for the last two hours, and now it's her turn to be the predator. Look out, world.
Ultimately, Pfeiffer’s extraordinary performance in Wolf offers a powerful commentary on the resilience of women living within a patriarchal society. In a film that often straddles the line between high and low brow, Pfeiffer ties it all together with a finely drawn and thoughtful performance that resonates more with each viewing. While the film and her work in it have mostly flown under the radar over the years, it deserves to be included in any list of truly great Michelle Pfeiffer performances.