When Michelle Pfeiffer purred the words to Makin' Whoopee while sprawled across a grand piano in 1989's The Fabulous Baker Boys, the scene went down in history as one of cinema's sexiest moments.
"Oh it was the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus," Pfeiffer defers, initially citing the camera's dizzy circling as the reason. She then reconsiders. "I guess it is one of my finest moments. I know it took a lot of courage to get up on that piano and sing."
Now 20 years later, Pfeiffer at 51 is still stunning. Today wearing tight blue jeans, a V-neck top and little jewellery or make-up, she is doing nothing to accentuate her beauty, but it startles nevertheless. She seems to be just pushing 40, though to her credit she has embraced passing a half-century.
"If you think hitting 40 is liberating, wait till you turn 50," she muses. "You dread it for years, then it happens and it's no big deal."
Outspoken against the wide use of plastic surgery she prefers to work out in the gym to keep fit. She radiates health. "You know I'm fit when I'm working and maybe not so fit when I'm not filming," she says, flashing a megawatt smile.
"It's just the older you get the less you can eat. Isn't that horrible? I figure that by the time I'm 70 I will just be a breatharian. I won't have to eat anything to keep going the way I am.
"I remember my grandmother used to survive on the craziest thing. She would literally have the same thing every day - half a piece of toast with something on it - and she was very, very lean, strong and very fit. I used to think, 'how could she eat so little?' "
She pauses, lowering her voice in that haunting way only Pfeiffer can. "I know now."
Strong genes or not, the three-time Oscar nominee (for Love Field, Baker Boys and Dangerous Liaisons), whose 1992 version of Catwoman (in Batman Returns) left Halle Berry with impossible shoes to fill in the recent incarnation, possesses a rare show-stopping presence - especially when it comes to period dramas.
She was unforgettable as Madame de Tourvel in Stephen Frears's classic Dangerous Liaisons, she was impressive as Countess Olenska in Martin Scorsese's The Age Of Innocence, and now she reunites with Frears (and writer Christopher Hampton) for Cheri, playing Lea de Lonval, an ageing courtesan during the belle epoque, a decadent moment in early 20th century French history.
The story is based on a 1920 novel by Colette, who chronicles the risque mores of her time. The film opens on July 23.
"I didn't know about this period at all and I was really surprised when I read how Colette describes the character," Pfeiffer notes. "You sort of have your ideas about what a high-class prostitute or courtesan is, and what I love about Colette's writing is that there was nothing undignified about Lea.
"The story's really about her feelings and about a woman making a choice to sell sex. Everyone's going to have different feelings about that, but Lea really has a lot of integrity, is very smart and thinks about other people. I hadn't seen that character before."
Pfeiffer's comfort with her age made her one of just a handful of contenders for the role, Hampton has said. "You needed an actor who was about 50, who was clearly very beautiful, and was sufficiently relaxed in herself to give herself to the story and not be made anxious by it," he told Canada's The Globe And Mail. "It's a tough subject for a woman turning 50 . . . and Michelle had absolutely no provisos about being shot in a way that made her look as if she was ageing."
As she had done so convincingly in 2007's I Could Never Be Your Woman with Paul Rudd, Pfeiffer is again paired with an even younger man in Cheri. Initially she is meant to just keep the wayward youngster in line, yet, as she lolls around on satin sheets with up-and-coming British actor Rupert Friend (Keira Knightley's beau off-screen) it seems impossible to imagine they're not meant for each other.
"It's really up to the individuals," Pfeiffer says of having a successful relationship with a younger man. "I know a couple with a 20-year age difference and they couldn't be more suited. In fact he's probably more mature. Colette herself had a relationship with a younger man. I think it was actually her stepson. She also appeared naked on stage. She was really scandalous and broke taboos."
Pfeiffer is hardly interested in being scandalous, let alone in seeking attention. She stays away from prying eyes as much as possible, having moved her family from Los Angeles five years ago to a ranch in northern California to escape the paparazzi. In her own way, though, she has defied conventions.
After a failed marriage to actor and director Peter Horton in her twenties and relationships with Fisher Stevens and John Malkovich (whose marriage to Glenne Headly broke up as the result of their Dangerous Liaisons affair) she adopted a baby on her own at the age of 35.
Incredibly she met her current husband, lawyer-turned-television-producer David E. Kelley, two months into the adoption process of her baby daughter, Claudia Rose. They married eight months later in November 1993, had their own son, John Henry, the following year, and couldn't be happier.
Pfeiffer's essential attributes in a man, she says, are humour and intelligence. "My husband has both of those in spades. But you can find plenty of men with humour and intelligence and if they're not the right personality type; it's not going to work out.
"Obviously, there's also the question of character and that you have similar goals in life. Those things get my attention, but I'm not saying that they are the things that may make it last."
Kelley, who after their marriage went on to create and write Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal, is one of mainstream television's most wry social observers. The couple has appeared together at the Golden Globes ceremony, with Kelley looking adoringly at his wife.
Does he tell her she's a great actress? "I mean he's supportive, but you know, you know," she hesitates, as if to say "we're an old married couple". "He likes me in this movie. He's so busy, we're both busy, and by the end of the day the last thing we want to talk about is work.
"If I can get his attention for long enough I can harangue him for some advice or run something by him, and certainly I'd like to work with him one day, because he writes great stuff for women. But for the moment it's healthy to keep it separate. I haven't had a lot of good experiences mixing work with relationships, and I really cherish my marriage. That's the most important thing."
Pfeiffer in fact spent four years away from the cameras at one stage to concentrate on her family. "For a while there it seemed like I was working a lot," she says of the period when she delivered one of her best performances in White Oleander.
"I decided I wanted to see my kids at night. At a certain point it just hits you that you have a finite amount of time left with them. I really just wanted to slow down, but I never thought about quitting."
- Sydney Morning Herald