1. Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

IMDB Rating: 7.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93%

Storyline:
Set in the opulent decadence of pre-Revolutionary France, Dangerous Liaisons is a thrilling drama of deceit, manipulation and revenge. Directed by Stephen Frears, the film focuses on the morally ambiguous Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), two narcissistic aristocrats who use sex as a weapon to degrade and humiliate others for their own amusement. Pfeiffer plays the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, a religious woman who becomes the unsuspecting victim of Valmont’s seductive powers.

Major Performance:
Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Madame de Tourvel is a heartbreaking performance. Her character represents decency and virtue in a world filled with deception, and her struggle against Valmont’s ruthless manipulation generates sympathy and emotional investment. Pfeiffer conveys her character’s inner conflict effectively by using subtle facial expressions and gestures, showing the turmoil beneath her serene exterior. It’s a nuanced and sensitive performance that adds depth and emotional substance to the film.

In addition to its critical acclaim, Pfeiffer’s performance in Dangerous Liaisons earned her several awards and nominations, including her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The role cemented Pfeiffer’s status as a serious and versatile actress, showing her ability to grasp complex characters and deliver powerful performances.

2. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

IMDB Rating: 6.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 96%

Storyline:
The Fabulous Baker Boys is a bittersweet drama about two piano-playing brothers – Jack and Frank, played by real-life siblings Jeff and Beau Bridges. Struggling to keep their lounge act afloat, they decide to hire a female singer, Susie Diamond, portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, a former escort with no professional singing experience but a voice that could save their act.

Major Performance:
Pfeiffer gives one of her most acclaimed performances as Susie Diamond. Despite being untrained, Susie’s raw talent and effortless charisma rejuvenate the Baker Boys’ stale act, and Pfeiffer embodies this character with a captivating mixture of vulnerability and toughness. Her rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee” atop a grand piano is one of the film’s most iconic scenes, showcasing both her singing talent and magnetic screen presence.

Pfeiffer’s performance garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival. This role reinforced her reputation as a versatile actress, displaying her ability to balance comedy and drama while handling her musical scenes with confident flair.

3. Batman Returns (1992)

IMDB Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 80%

Storyline:
In this sequel to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Michael Keaton reprises his role as the Dark Knight, battling against the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the power-hungry businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Pfeiffer plays Selina Kyle, Shreck’s quiet, mousy secretary who transforms into the enigmatic, whip-wielding Catwoman after a near-death experience.

Major Performance:
Pfeiffer turned in a mesmerizing performance as Catwoman/Selina Kyle. Her portrayal of Catwoman is one of the most iconic in film history, with her multi-layered performance capturing the character’s duality: a timid, overlooked secretary one moment, a commanding, fiercely independent villainess the next. Pfeiffer manages the transition between these two extremes with a subtlety that amplifies the emotional weight of her character’s journey.

Not only did Pfeiffer contribute a significant performance to this blockbuster, her iteration of Catwoman has become a gold standard for many of the character’s future portrayals in other films, TV series and comic books. Her role has been praised for its complexity, depth, and feminist undertones, laying the groundwork for the portrayal of female anti-heroes in superhero cinema moving forward.

4. Love Field (1992)

IMDB Rating: 6.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 73%

Storyline:
In Love Field, Pfeiffer plays Lurene Hallett, a Texas housewife who becomes obsessed with Jackie Kennedy following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Lurene embarks on a bus trip to Washington, D.C. to attend the president’s funeral, planning to scatter her own devoted mementos along with the millions of others. However, her journey takes an unexpected turn when she meets a black man and his young daughter, who are on the run from the law.

Major Performance:
Pfeiffer shines in her role as Lurene. In a depiction of a woman desperate for emotional connection, her character’s blind optimism contrasts with the intolerance and violence she encounters on her journey. Her naivety slowly fades as she confronts racism and social inequality, and Pfeiffer’s sensitive performance provides a heartfelt portrayal of personal growth and mutual understanding.

Her role in Love Field earned her another Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, reinforcing her status as a genuinely gifted actress. This film demonstrated again her ability to tackle diverse roles with sensitivity, understanding, and authenticity. The film’s exploration of historical, racial, and personal themes showcased Pfeiffer’s range and talent as an award-winning actress.

5. The Age of Innocence (1993)

IMDB Rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 83%

Storyline:
The Age of Innocence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a beautifully realized adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel. Set in the high society of 1870s New York, Pfeiffer plays Countess Ellen Olenska, an unconventional woman who returns from Europe and disrupts the lives of her cousin May Welland (Winona Ryder) and her fiancé Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Major Performance:
As the scandalous Countess Olenska, Pfeiffer delivers an affecting performance, embodying her character’s defiance and vulnerability in equal measure. She lends depth to the so-called “fallen woman,” enabling viewers to empathize with her plight in a repressive society. Her nuanced performance as a woman trapped by societal conventions, trying to find a measure of personal happiness, is both moving and engaging.

Pfeiffer’s performance was praised by critics and she received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress. In an era known for confining roles for women, Pfeiffer offered a performance that was bold, brave, and deeply emotional. Her turn as Countess Olenska remains one of her most memorable performances, reinforcing her reputation as an actress of remarkable depth and talent.

6. Frankie and Johnny (1991)

IMDB Rating: 6.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 68%

Storyline:
In this film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s off-Broadway hit, Pfeiffer stars alongside Al Pacino in a poignant story of second chances. Pfeiffer plays Frankie, a weary waitress who finds herself pursued by Johnny, a short-order cook newly released from prison. In their ordinary lives, Frankie and Johnny find the possibility of extraordinary love.

Major Performance:
Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Frankie is touching and full of depth. She captures her character’s weary skepticism and fear of intimacy perfectly, and her on-screen chemistry with Pacino creates a compelling love story. Pfeiffer’s depiction of a woman slowly letting her guard down and daring to hope for happiness again is both compelling and heartwarming.

Her performance in Frankie and Johnny earned Pfeiffer wide recognition not only because of the chemistry she had with Al Pacino but also due to the authenticity of her character, showcasing another facet of her acting abilities. Dealing with social realism, the vulnerability and subsequent blossoming of Pfeiffer’s character demonstrated the actress’ range and nuanced understanding of her characters.

7. Hairspray (2007)

IMDB Rating: 6.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 91%

Storyline:
In a remake of the original 1988 John Waters film, Hairspray takes place in 1962 Baltimore, focusing on the lovable plus-sized teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) who earns a spot on a local TV dance show and becomes a celebrity overnight. Pfeiffer plays Velma Von Tussle, the show’s ambitious and racist producer, who will stop at nothing to ensure her own daughter becomes Miss Teenage Hairspray.

Major Performance:
Pfeiffer shines in her role as the manipulative Velma Von Tussle. Her comedic timing and scene-stealing performances, especially during musical numbers, make her a standout amongst a star-studded cast. She embodies the role of the villainess with an air of vanity and entitlement and delivers a splendid musical performance, showcasing another facet of her range as an actress.

The character of Velma presented Pfeiffer with an opportunity to demonstrate her comedy and singing skills, which she performs with vibrant perfection. Her turn as the haughty and flamboyantly cruel antagonist full of prejudice is a testament to Pfeiffer’s ability to bring diverse and complex characters to life in an engaging and compelling way.

8. Scarface (1983)

IMDB Rating: 8.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 81%

Storyline:
In Brian De Palma’s critically acclaimed Scarface, Al Pacino plays Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who rises to become a powerful drug lord in 1980s Miami. Pfeiffer plays Elvira Hancock, Tony’s disenchanted trophy wife, who spirals into drug addiction.

Major Performance:
Despite the limited screen time, Pfeiffer made a strong impression with her portrait of Elvira Hancock. Her striking beauty and icy demeanor provide a stark contrast to Tony’s fiery ambition. Her portrayal of increasingly disillusioned Elvira living a life of glamour and excess while harboring a deep-seated resentment and addiction, is effectively tragic.

Pfeiffer’s role in Scarface marked a significant turning point in her career. Despite the relative brevity of her role, she captured the plight of her tragic character with a heartbreaking accuracy that captured audiences. This was a significant, breakout role that highlighted Pfeiffer as a powerful and emotive actress and laid the foundation for the wide range of roles she would go on to perform.

9. White Oleander (2002)

IMDB Rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 69%

Storyline:
White Oleander is a film adaptation of Janet Fitch’s best-selling novel, which follows a young girl’s journey through foster homes after her mother is imprisoned for murder. Pfeiffer plays Ingrid, the aforementioned mother, who is an eccentric artist with an overpowering personality.

Major Performance:
In her portrayal of Ingrid, Pfeiffer turns in a career-defining performance which juxtaposes narcissism with vulnerability and traces the facets of a complex, manipulative character. Although behind bars, Ingrid’s influence constantly hovers over her daughter Astrid, and Pfeiffer perfectly captures this control with mesmerizing precision.

Ingrid is an iconic character, a manipulative, selfish, and unhinged mother figure, and Pfeiffer’s performance is a masterclass in understated intensity. Her ability to give depth and complexity to such a fundamentally unsympathetic character is testament to her skills as an actress. Her performance earned her praise and accolades, affirming her status as one of the leading actresses of her generation.

10. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

IMDB Rating: 6.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 76%

Storyline:
This dark fantasy-comedy stars Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher as three bored women living in the picturesque town of Eastwick, who inadvertently summon the devil (Jack Nicholson) after wishing for the man of their dreams.

Major Performance:
Pfeiffer provides a solid performance as the sweet, naive single mother Sukie Ridgemont. Among a powerhouse cast, Pfeiffer holds her own, bringing vulnerability and warmth to her character while also standing up to Nicholson’s devious charm. The air of innocence Pfeiffer imparts on Sukie adds a layer of complexity to the storyline.

Pfeiffer’s performance demonstrated her ability to excel in different genres, including comedy and fantasy. It also showed her strong ability to maintain a distinct character even among an ensemble cast, showing that she could hold her own against the scene-stealing performances of Nicholson, Sarandon, and Cher. The Witches of Eastwick was an important addition to Pfeiffer’s already diverse list of roles and highlighted her talent for delivering powerful performances in any genre.