The Rise and Fall of a Goddess

Op Art

The Egyptians deified cats expertly, but they could have taken a cue from the Hasty Pudding Club. The Pudding does it with style. Michelle Pfeiffer's coronation as 1995 "Woman of the Year" Monday exemplifies the clever, tongue-in-cheek adulation that greets one unfortunate woman every year.

She is blown up to the status of a demi-goddess as she is paraded down Massachusetts Avenue, only to be knocked off her over-blown pedestal, cut down to size, and made personal and palatable for the exclusive consumption of Pudding guests. How delightful!

Let's take a ride with Michelle down this venerable roller coaster ride, from set-up to roast to press conference.

The Crimson team--a news reporter, a photographer, and myself (the editorialist)--join forces at the corner of Harvard and Quincy Streets, right outside the Inn at Harvard. We arrive on the scene, and immediately I think that the O.J. Simpson trial has been transferred to the Cambridge district.

What a circus! Press from across the country--The Globe, Associated Press, Reuters, People magazine--have set up camp on the sidewalk and in the middle of the street, with cameras, notebooks, videorecorders, and even a portable satellite dish strapped on one radio DJ's belt. The press corps looks as if an entire photographic enthusiasts' convention has taken the wrong turn on its way to the Hynes Convention Center.

As if the mob of standing press members is not enough, a huge press truck carrying an expansive, coarse-looking wooden platform and frame cage is full to the brim with photographers and videographers, milling about on the platform like cattle being taken to the slaughter.

Twenty minutes before Ms. Pfeiffer arrives a flock of four-foot tall girls from the Gymnastic Academy of Boston Team--each sporting cute black jumpsuits with the Team logo--appear from nowhere and begin to do somersaults and backflips on the cold, rough pavement.

Half a dozen dancers in brightly mottled Mexican-looking garb prance upon the scene, offering contrast to the sea of tiny black jumpsuits. A disc jockey from a local station, his instantaneous live transmission equipment strapped onto his waist, starts to harass the kids with questions about why they are here to see Michelle Pfeiffer. The cattle truck suddenly starts to back up, almost crushing the little girls. They are rounded up by their teacher, who flails her arms wildly in an attempt to rein in the class.

The Harvard Band emerges from the Freshman Union and takes up formation on one side of the street, just as the real cast, fourteen men in drag--one in a scuba suit, another in an exquisite white wedding gown--pirouette down Mass. Ave. and into the den of reporters. These remarkable beauties are photographed like zoo animals and interviewed sarcastically. The little gymnasts become so excited that they start to jump up and down in tandem, forming a huge black wave on Harvard Street. Two juniors dressed as cows, complete with rubber udders, saunter onto the scene.

The stage is set, and the divine vehicle arrives--a shiny red Saab convertible. The deity's muses, those fourteen drag queens, surround the Saab like the presidential Secret Service. We await for Catwoman's descent from the heavens.

A big black limousine pulls alongside the convertible. The anticipation reaches a feverish pitch. People stand on the balconies at the Inn at Harvard hoping to catch a glimpse of the deity. About eight television cameras in the cattle truck are powered up.

Ms. Michelle Pfeiffer, 1995 Woman of the Year, now steps out of the limousine to the thunder clap of one thousand camera shutters. Sporting a black beret and black sunglasses to set off her shiny blonde locks, the goddess is hoisted into the back seat by a jealous drag queen. She looks stunned. One reporter yells, "Michelle--give us a wave!" and she obliges, as another thunder clap of shutters captures the divine moment for posterity. Her devotees, the clowns of this star-gazing circus, go crazy.

She is now snugly in place, flanked by the president and vice-president of the Pudding (both in drag, and both willing to take a bullet for her). The police chief feigns true annoyance as he warns people to clear away. No one budges. The cattle truck is the first to go, and pulls away toward Mass. Ave. The cattle start to yell, because the Pfeiffer-bearing Saab has yet to move and they're being dragged away from her against their will. Finally, the Saab lurches forward.

As we follow the slow-moving Saab down the street, the feathers of one drag queen's dress brush us in the face. We're that close.

Hundreds of people line the streets with cameras and video cameras, smiling and screaming compliments at the deity. People are waving from their balconies above. It reminds one of Queen Elizabeth's royal visits to Commonwealth countries and the receptions she gets. But whereas ERII is merely dei gratia regina--Queen by the grace of God--Michelle is dea, Goddess, and will not stop (stoop?) to receive the bouquets of flowers from little girls. Not even from the eight year-old acrobats.

Like a post-war victory celebration, the parade continues down Dunster Street. (I think I see a joyful Italian woman crying from her balcony as she throws a sprig of oregano down to welcome the soldati back home.) Bank managers at Cambridge Savings stick their heads out of their windows and cheer fervently. Ticker-tape in red, white and blue lands on our faces and on the faces of the fourteen Secret Service drag queens. As the band blares a triumphant rendition of "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard," I almost break down in tears. I am part of it: the descent to earth of the deity Michelle Pfeiffer.

As we approach the Hasty Pudding building, the cows, the little gymnastic girls, the dancers in traditional Mexican garb, and the cattle truck arrive first to herald the onslaught of the Woman of the Year. People are packed like sardines outside the Pudding; office workers are standing on the overhang at Holyoke Center and in the little coves above Harvard Real Estate. The sea of black-robed acrobats start to do back-flips to public accolades.

The Saab chariot pulls up and Michelle floatsout of it and into the theatre. Her fans onHolyoke Street have glimpsed the face of thegoddess and now return to the payroll department,the bakery, the dean's office.

I am relieved to get off the street and intothe civility of the theatre. The crossing of thisthreshold, I am aware, is where a strangemetamorphosis takes place. Outside the theatre,Ms. Pfeiffer is the deity and her followers aremerely a mass of salivating, brainless puppy dogs.Once inside the theatre, our roles reverse. Thisis the moment in which the true beauty of theHasty's tradition comes sharply into focus.

The theatre is an urbane place. Michelle entersafter the audience has been seated, and sits in anoff-center, third or fourth-row seat. Then theshow begins. In her last graceful moment, shewalks on stage to receive the shiny pudding potand a thorough roast.

In the course of the roast, Pfeiffer isrelentlessly knocked down form her pedestal.Forced into an impromptu audition for the role ofStephanie Zanoni, leader of the Pink Ladies in"Grease II," the tumbling deity garners onlycriticism. Tears form in her eyes, and she startsto cry. Is she having too much fun?

Next, she is handed a long leather bull-whipand ordered to demonstrate her Catwoman skills.She snaps it lamely, and is criticized. The twohosts of the show bend over and ask the fallendeity to serve as their dominatrix. She whips themfor kicks. Their kicks, of course. Oh, how themighty have fallen. It's hard to describe. Youjust had to be there.

The roast concludes, and Michelle--cut down tosize, human, fallible--slinks back into theaudience. As she sits there in her off-centerseat, nobody seems to be paying a great deal ofattention to her. Not even the press, who areunusually respectful of her at this moment.Respectful? Or have they just come to theconclusion, thanks to the Pudding, that she isonly human?

The Crimson is unceremoniously left outof the press conference, until our resourceful,zesty news reporter makes a brilliant argument inour favor to the hefty guards. We flash our presspasses and barely catch the last few moments ofthe conference.

The deposed Catwoman sits alone at a longtable, fielding questions from the three-tieredstacks of reporters and videographers. The firstquestion we hear is, "Ms. Pfeiffer--will you`meow' for us?" The human refuses to meow. This isnot ancient Egypt, and meowing might furtherdebase her species rank: deity, human, cat.

She tells everyone how much she likes JackNicholson, that she wishes she could go toHarvard, that she missed out on the collegeexperience, and that being in show business hasits ups and downs.

To this point, a charming frivolity, a merrynon-importance, a complete lack of any consequencehas marked the entire affair. This is my moment togive some substance to the Pfeiffer visit. I ask,"Ms. Pfeiffer, what's your view on the role andresponsibilities of the artist as citizen?" Myquestion elicits a little chuckle from thecognoscenti. Those reporters who don'trecall last week's goddess-visit look at me inpity and anger. Their eyes ask me, Do you reallythink she'll answer a question like that?Why not be useful, and ask her to meowagain? Feeling a bit stigmatized by these people,I qualify the question: "It's a question thatBarbra Streisand addressed here not two weeksago."

The cut-down deity ducks with a coy chuckle andsays, "Barbra answers that kind of question muchbetter than I do. She's really good at it." Herwords pay homage to a goddess never scaled-down bythe Pudding--only by The Crimson.

Still, I pursue: "But do you feel aresponsibility as an actress to serve as any typeof social force?"

I've cornered the cat, and she must answer."You know, I feel some responsibility in terms ofthe kinds of roles that I choose, the kinds offilms that I choose." Instead of answering, shegoes on for a while, even telling us about thedebate she and her husband got into with theirfriends about the movie "Pulp Fiction." On that,she concedes: "It's one of my favorite movies.Now, do I know what it's about? Nooooo... Youknow, is it violent? Yeeessss... Um, did I loveit? Yeah! I really liked it, and I liked it morethe second time through, once I knew kind of whatwas coming up. The first time it's just soshocking! But you know, I look at things a littlebit differently, you know, just from a craftsman'spoint of view." What was I expecting? ANobel-Prize-in-literature acceptance speech? Ishould have asked her to meow again.

Some words from the mouth of the Womanof the Year crystallize my day's encounter chasingMichelle through the Square. Also in response tomy question, Michelle muses, "Some movies are justmeant to be entertaining. They're not supposed tomake any social comment, and that's okay, too.Sometimes it's okay to be scared."

At points in the day, I was scared. Likewhen the cattle truck almost ran over 35 littlegirls in black jumpsuits. Like when I was so closeto the deity's Saab, an assassin could have missedher and hit me instead. Like when the reporterfrom the Associated Press growled at me for askingMs. Pfeiffer about her social responsibilities.But, she tells me, it's okay to be scared. Somethings are just meant to be entertaining, like thesurreal circus that descended onto Harvard Squareto give Michelle Pfeiffer a shiny brass pot.

She looked so happy parading down MassachusettsAvenue that afternoon, glowing with pride andwaving like a monarch to her adoring fans. Shelooked exasperated after the Pudding had finishedwith her. Michelle Pfeiffer never did `meow' forus; that would have been giving away the lastshred of humanity that the Pudding, in itsextraordinary tradition, had seduced from her.