It’s been a week or two now since I revisited Robert Towne’s criminally underrated neo-noir classic Tequila Sunrise (1988), and I’m still obsessing over falling in love again with both the film and Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance. A sharp Towne script, packed with crackling dialogue, along with gorgeous cinematography from Oscar-winner Conrad Hall and a stellar cast combine to create something special: A 1980s noir that more than holds up thirty-odd years later. Also, and not for nothing, but all of this obsessing has reignited my love for the refreshing cocktail that the film is named for. Costar Mel Gibson drinks them throughout the film, and even the title and cast names are done up to resemble the drink’s sunrise-inspired gradations of red and orange.
Gibson plays “Mac” McKussic, a conflicted drug dealer with a Mexican connection. He’s also a sensitive single dad raising a young son in a California beach town. Kurt Russell is his old friend Nick Frescia, who also happens to be a police lieutenant hot on the trail of his buddy’s criminal activity. Pfeiffer rounds out the main trio as Jo Ann (Giovanna) Vallenari, owner and manager of Vallenari’s Italian restaurant, where Mac can be found most nights dining on her delicious Rigatoni ai Quattro Formaggi – and getting lost in her delicious eyes, smile, and everything else. Mac is smitten, which Nick realizes is an angle he can work in his investigation. Jo Ann being played by the impossibly alluring Michelle Pfeiffer means that soon enough Nick is equally infatuated with her, and thus the film’s triangular love affair is established, and it will drive much of the narrative thereafter. Also of note, the enormously talented and dearly departed Raoul Julia shows up later in the film and completely steals every scene he’s in, whether he’s playfully joking with pal Mac about women and dating, or spontaneously bursting out into theatrical song.
What really hooks me on the film is the depth each actor brings to their parts. Interestingly, they each bring different styles to the table. Gibson’s anxious, live-wire approach drives many of his best roles, including Mac. He’s always thinking, eyes darting back and forth, a slight, wry smile to reveal the magnetic charisma that made him a star. Russell, one of my favorites, is equally magnetic, with a slicked back hairstyle inspired by Pat Riley, who was then the GQ stylish coach of the best basketball team in the world, the Los Angeles Lakers. Nick’s shifting loyalties throughout the film, from the LA Police Department to Mac to Jo Ann allow Russell ample opportunity to create a masterfully layered performance.
Have I buried the lede, though? Because if you’re reading a blog whose name references a Michelle Pfeiffer film, then you’re likely here to read my thoughts on a certain actress named…wait for it…Michelle Pfeiffer. She is simply breathtaking in Tequila Sunrise. Her excellence in the film is impressive for several reasons, including that she had a miserable experience working with Towne. They clashed over her acting style and choices, with the writer-director later complaining that she was the most difficult actress he’d ever worked with. Hopefully she takes that as a badge of honor. It is precisely what caused Towne headaches that makes the performance so enduring. Her acting style is more organic and intuitive than a controlling director might prefer. She feels the part, deeply, and builds off the script in ways that transcend literal interpretation. That’s why, from the moment we first meet Jo Ann in the restaurant, she feels authentic. The only woman with a substantial role in the cast, Michelle doesn’t just “hold her own with the boys,” as I can imagine 1980s audiences putting it. No, instead, she simply delivers the most compelling performance in the film. And she makes it look easy. You know she put in the work, but it comes off as effortlessly real. It’s quintessential Pfeiffer.
Michelle’s ability to bring a potent combination of strength and vulnerability to the screen are two of her best assets as an actor, and here she utilizes these strengths to perfection. She conveys Jo Ann’s business savvy and genuine warmth, crafting a performance of subtle contrasts and contradictions. Jo Ann is perceptive enough to realize she’s getting involved in something she’d be safer to avoid, but her kindness and compassion fuel her desire to help Mac, and then to fall deeper in love with him along the way. When she brings over some angel hair pasta for Mac’s ailing son, I want to cry it’s so beautiful.
How many actors have ever had a year like Michelle did in 1988? Three of the year’s best performances can be found in Tequila Sunrise, Married to the Mob and Dangerous Liaisons, and they all belong to the same person! She’s a noted perfectionist who never revisits her own work, but I hope she can allow herself a moment to realize that she had an amazing year in 1988. It was certainly the year her career elevated to the next level. Of those three performances, Tequila Sunrise seems to get short shrift, which is understandable, given that with Dangerous Liaisons she earned her first Oscar nomination and Married to the Mob proved she could expertly meld comedy and drama while carrying the film as the lead. But let’s stop sleeping on her majestic work in Tequila Sunrise. For all the difficulties she had on set, she still managed to gift us with a wonderfully nuanced piece of acting that only gets better with age.