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Pfeiffer wins acclaim in return to films

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Michelle Pfeiffer has been bracing herself for it all summer, that moment when a reporter would use "the c-word" to describe her re-emergence in the movies.

"I thought I'd be hearing that a lot more these past few weeks," she said. "But nobody's saying 'comeback.' It surprises me that I haven't been hearing that because I would think that, too, about me."

Absent from the screen for five years, she departed with a bang — a dishy, mean, murderous mom in "White Oleander." But one of the most beautiful women in the movies followed that acclaimed villainous turn by practically retiring, raising children with her husband, TV producer David E. Kelley ("Boston Legal").

The phone didn't stop ringing. But Pfeiffer learned to say "no." And how. "I was reading things, not really finding anything that made me want to go back to work," she said from Beverly Hills. "That's kind of my fall-back position, now: 'No.' I got kind of busy with life. Years went by, and I had to say to myself, 'I'd better go back and see if I even want to do this anymore.'

"It wasn't like I was afraid. But I knew I was rusty. And I found out how rusty. It wasn't like getting back on a bike, I tell you."

But she did get back on that bike. This summer may have begun as the Summer of Shia (LaBeouf) at the movies, but it is ending with the March of Michelle. Her wicked turn as the ruthlessly hilarious Velma Von Tussle in "Hairspray" has earned acclaim.

"Pfeiffer plays this vaudeville (rhymes with witch) to the hilt," David Denby wrote in The New Yorker. Add to that another comically evil character, as an actual witch in the fantasy "Stardust," which opened Friday.

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If she wanted to announce her Hollywood return with a splash, Pfeiffer couldn't have done it better. She may say that being in two of the best-reviewed movies of the summer was "just luck," but there's something canny about her selections. "It's just as important to wind up in something that you think will be extraordinary as to find a great part to play," she said. "In both of these movies ... they were going to be something special, and in both cases, I was impressed with the cast they'd already lined up, people I respected and wanted to work with."

So she let the fact that John Travolta and Queen Latifah had agreed to do "Hairspray" take the risk out of signing up, and Robert De Niro's participation in "Stardust" tipped the balance. "He was willing to play this kind of out-there, outrageous character, this pirate captain — well, who was I to worry?" she said with a laugh.

Pfeiffer, 49, had "Fabulous Baker Boys" singing chops and dance credibility from "Grease 2," way back at the beginning of her career. But her feline turn as Cat Woman in "Batman Returns" was what director Adam Shankman said made her "the first, the only choice for Velma" on "Hairspray."

Stardust director Matthew Vaughn had the trickier job. Even though she had played a spell-binder in "The Witches of Eastwick," how do you tell an actress of a certain age, even a gorgeous one, that there's something about her air, her cheekbones, that said witch?

"OK, yeah. I guess I'm believable as a witch, either a singing witch or a witch witch," Pfeiffer said, laughing. "I don't even want to think about why!

"You can enjoy villains if they're the least bit humorous. It depends on the movie. For instance, in "White Oleander," it wasn't any fun at all. But in "Hairspray" because it's a musical and in "Stardust" because it's a fantasy ... the humor and that heightened reality gives you freedom to go places I wouldn't normally want to go."

Getting back to work frightened her. And the roles scared her, which was a big reason she was willing to leave Kelley and their teenage son and daughter behind to make the films. She hadn't danced since her "Grease 2" (1982) days and hadn't sung since "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (1989), "so rusty doesn't begin to cover it." She hired coaches, rehearsed, got the legs and the vocal cords back in shape.

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