Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist

Elizabeth McGovern



Wide Eyed and Innocent, Me?

Daily Mail 1991

Elizabeth McGovern boasts an unusual Hollywood asset and that's contentment. Or so she says. Might it not be that she's talking miles away from the Tinseltown rat run?

She muses on that a moment. Yes, she is in Portland, Oregon, where most people's prime concern is the freshness of the vegetables. Yes, it is raining. 'And I've been hiking. I'm in heaven really.'

McGovern is very much an American version of our Jenny Agutter. She was a star from the start - -in Robert Redford's 1980 Oscar-winner Ordinary People playing Timothy Mutton's girl­friend - and has never really compromised.

Sean Penn's one-time wife-to-be - until Madonna came on the scene - she's worked con­stantly this past decade and is rather pleased at where she finds herself: 'I feel that I'm blessed. I have enough notoriety, that I keep working but I'm not so famous that it is an incredible hassle. It's just right.'

So is she. Her eyes are electric blue pools and there is a softness about her round face and figure ('She looks as if she takes naps in a mink-lined crib,' said one director) that implies sweetness. And a modesty that may be shyness.
I’m a little, sweet cotton puff?'

Her track record differs. She won an Oscar nomination as Evelyn Nesbit, the scandalous socialite who carried on business deals naked in Ragtime, and was Robert De Niro's sexual obsession in Once Upon a Time in America.

'It's boring" to play only characters you con­done. I like to portray people and attitudes that I don't particularly agree with and then let the audience come to their own conclusions.'

She's asking audiences to think? Surely that's Hollywood heresy? But her way of life sets her orders: 'I live in a subdued style. It's the choice I make. My requirements financially are not much so that releases me from the burden of having to make a lot of money. I can't help making the choices I make about my films because just the idea of making a sort of Top Gun type movie would be so uninteresting to me.'

What is interesting is very interesting.

She's the rebel lesbian Moira and the friend of heroine Natasha Richardson in the film version (a Harold Pinter script) of Margaret Atwood's chilling world of programme procreation The Handmaid's Tale.

'It was fun for me. It wasn't a big long-term commitment - only three weeks' work. It was a different sort of part than I had ever been given before. She refuses to change because she's a lesbian and she refuses to participate in the insane, tyrannical government system. She is really angry and not at all inhibited about who she is or what she felt.

"With the script we discovered that every time we wanted to change something it ended up better the way Pinter wrote it. His work is so disconcert­ingly simple on the page yet everything was there in the words he had chosen. Every time we tried to depart it was not so good. That's what's so great about being an actress. You can get inside those words. It makes me appreciate, writing in a whole new way.'

Which brings us to the dark comedy 'A Shock To The System, a delightful surprise of a film about cutthroat office politics which in time become literally cutthroat.

Michael Caine stars as the New York marketing executive who misses his expected promotion but is not about to allow his screeching wife (Swoosie Kurtz) or smug shark of a new boss (Peter Riegert) the satisfaction of seeing him downtrodden.

Enter McGovern as the junior executive to whom Caine takes a fancy. Hers is not a showy part but she took it because there was a chance of failure: There's a fine line in black comedy and I thought this would be very hard to pull off- and -that was sort of intriguing in that you don't know where the next step is going to take you. It wasn't a predictable movie. We didn't even know what was going to happen because the script was changing every five minutes.

'If I can't tell right away what the outcome is going to be then someone's trying to be different.  Even if they fail I'd rather be in a film that tries something different than in just the same old formula.

And with Michael Caine in the lead 1 was easily won over. My Stella in the story is warm and helps humanise it. I've never been the type of person who is "actressy" in real life and natural performer. You know, not the class clown. Being given a role like Stella gives me the licence to be free and very expressive – something for some reason I don't feel I have the right to take in real life.'

Real life has been rather charmed. Her father teaches law at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and her mother is a high school English teacher.  'We always read stories aloud and that’s where it started, I think.'

Her early years were in the San Fernando Valley but she was never, she says, a Valley 'A girl's place is in the mall' Girl.

She went to school in north Hollywood. An agent saw her in a school play, Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (one she'll never forget), and told her to call her if she needed work. McGovern needed money to go to Juilliard School in New York. The agent got her a 'cattle call' for a new movie. Fairy­tale time: she got Ordinary People, went on to Juilliard but left after a year to star in Milos For-man's Ragtime.

Then came Lovesick with Dudley Moore and Racing With the Moon with Sean Penn. Since then there have been lots of others including Johnny Handsome with Mickey Rourke and The Bedroom Window with Steve Guttenberg and She's Having a Baby with Kevin Bacon.

She's a sort of Brat Pack moll but has kept her distance: 'I believe that old adage that success is as hard as failure. Both are traumatic in their own way, I think if I had had a chance to grow and develop as an actor in a little bit more of an anonymous fashion it would have been preferable. But then, of course, many actors have a chance to develop all their lives in an anonymous fashion and that's another problem.'

She's a regular stage performer from her base on the Upper West West Side of New York, a few blocks from Central Park.

'The one thing my parents have given me that is such a source of strength is a set of blinders as far as what the world thinks. They taught me how to define what success is and isn't. It was never ham­mered into me at an early age that I had to "be" anything to be successful. They gave me freedom to follow my own heart in a lot of ways.

This way I can take time and go to Alaska Rep and do Major Barbara even if it's not necessarily the most career-smart move to make. In some ways maybe I would have had a much different career if I had been raised a different way. But I'm glad I was raised the way I was.'

The rain is still falling in Portland where she's filming The Favour which she says is 'about the choices we make in life. It's about two women and their friendship. We're both approaching 30. She has found herself with a husband and children and in a situation where she's frustrated by a lack of freedom and excitement.

'I'm her best friend who has nothing but wild crazy affairs and has a flourishing career but lacks any real intimacy or stability with a man and family.

'It's about the choices we make and the good and bad that comes with both options.'

I ask where she sees herself in a decade's time, approaching 40.

To tell the truth if I were doing exactly what I am doing now I'd be happy. I feel very lucky at this point and I still am free to go back and forth between theatre and film and if I were doing that in ten years I would be very happy.

'I would also like to have a family. That's sort of what I'm looking forward to doing but that would be the only difference.'

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