Frankie and Johnny (1991)
Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hector Elizondo, Nathan Lane
Directed by: Garry Marshall
IMDB Rating: 6
Michelle Pfeiffer was viewed as a controversial choice for the part of Frankie in the Gary Marshall directed adaptation of Terrance McNally’s off-Broadway play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” The part of Frankie was originated by Kathy Bates and written as a world-weary waitress who “hadn’t dated since Reagan was president.” At the time, Pfeiffer countered that physical beauty didn’t guarantee happiness and she was perfectly suited to play the part. That Pfeiffer had been nominated for two acting Oscars in the two years leading up to Frankie and Johnny had no bearing on whether she could play the part apparently. She was simply too pretty and seemingly not talented enough to pull off a down and outer. Whether that proved true has to be seen, I guess, but it got me to thinking about Pfeiffer’s career and how she evolved from ‘just a pretty face’ to an actor of significance and respect.
Pfeiffer’s co-star in Frankie and Johnny, Al Pacino, virtually burst into the public conscience as a fully formed method actor in his signature role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, earning his first Academy Award nomination in the process. While he had won acclaim on the stage in New York, his film career up to that point consisted of the well regarded The Panic in Needle Park, the part of Michael was a rocket launcher to fame and respect. Within three years he starred in Serpico, Godfather II, and Dog Day Afternoon, cementing his place as one of the preeminent actors of his generation.
Pfeiffer’s career, on the other hand started in roles that solely focused on her looks. They were light and airy, often taking place in the California sun (sometimes made for television) and culminated in the dismal Grease II (1982). Ironically, it was opposite Pacino in 1983’s Scarface that Pfeiffer began the climb to respectability and the film led to a string of, if not classics, then certainly career building roles in films like Into the Night, Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick and Married to the Mob. It was her two decade ending classics, however, Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys, that finally put her near the top of the leading actress pyramid and accounted for the first 2 of her three acting Oscar nomination.
Frankie and Johnny sits right after those two films and just before her iconic performance as Cat Woman in Batman Returns, her third Oscar nomination, for Love Field, and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of innocence. To doubt her abilities, then seems like a misguided folly and Hollywood sexism at its peak. In Scarface, the more famous of the actors two pairings attests, Pfeiffer gives every bit to Pacino as she gets and my money is in Frankie and Johnny, she makes him work as well.