Top Fifty Films of the 80s – Number Forty-Two


#42 — The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves, 1989)
Michelle Pfeiffer had been working regularly in television and film for ten years before The Fabulous Baker Boys came around. And she’d certainly been noticed, giving performances of increasing prominence and accomplishment, including a justly Oscar nominated turn in Dangerous Liaisons the year prior. Yet when she first stumbled through the door as Susie Diamond, introducing herself to the piano playing siblings of the film’s title by barking out “Goddammit!” as she fell to the ground, it was uncannily like seeing a star flare into life.

A compelling argument for the merits of The Fabulous Baker Boys can be made by doing little more than writing a mash note to Pfeiffer’s performance. She completely commands the screen, artfully showing the ways in which Susie’s toughness is a actually a manifestation of her vulnerability and uncertainty. Those qualities aren’t just intertwined, they’re effectively one and the same. She’s sexy, smart, brash, hard and lovable in the role. And it may be the first strong example of Pfeiffer developing an arc in which her character changes in a measurable fashion and yet is clearly the same person at the end as she was at the beginning. It’s a surprisingly rare achievement–most great performances focus so much on the change that they forget the unifying details–and Pfeiffer does it better than most.

But there’s more to The Fabulous Baker Boys. The plentiful accolades piled on Pfieffer at the time–she basically won every Best Actress prize except for the Oscar, because this was still an era when Academy voters were terribly susceptible to sentiment in marking their ballots–obscured just how good Jeff Bridges is as Jack Baker. He’s the more talented pianist of the two siblings and the lifelong process of ignoring his artistic instincts to soldier on in the dispiriting lounge act with his brother has hollowed him out. Bridges doesn’t stoop to playing him tragically, honing in instead on the corrosive attitude he’s developed as a bulwark against his own self-loathing. It gives the relationship that develops between Jack and Susie a stronger grounding than the usual movie motivation of simply pushing the two leads (meaning usually the two prettiest people onscreen) together. As ill-considered as their coupling may be in the context of the film story, it’s also wholly understandable. These are two wounded people drawn to one another, holding out some timid hope that being with someone else may finally be something more than a salve for the pain. It may finally provide some actually healing.

The screenplay by Steve Kloves has the depth and insight of a beautifully crafted short story. He masters the art of creating dialogue that is funny, natural and revealing. Nearly every line is telling, carrying a message beyond its face value meaning. He understandably uses his direction to highlight the words, but also shrewdly enhances the mood of the film with the way he captures the environments the characters move through. They’re not seedy and rundown, but are instead largely the benignly neglected lounges and hotel ballrooms of a bygone era of glamor. This land of fresh tarnish is somehow even more depressing that places that have been battered beyond recognition. The long, slow fade of cultural classiness suits the dilemma of watching time slip away faced by the characters. The whole film is cast in a lovely, melancholy tone.

But seriously, that Michelle Pfeiffer performance really is sensational.

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