Ali MacGraw Hopes War Finally Will Bring Her Peace
updated 02/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
"It was a spectacular relief to have 1982 over," Ali says, after ordering Lebanese cucumbers, Chinese pea pods and pasta for lunch at Charmer's Market, a favorite hangout in ocean-side Venice near L.A. After filming Winds in 1981, Ali spent all of 1982 (except for shooting a short TV documentary in Kenya) waiting for work. And worrying. "I had this enormous depression all year. I spent hours every day scattered, a big waste of energy. People tell me that I am well-grounded. I am sane in the New England sense of the word. But last year I was just holding on."
She looks like the flawless, well-groomed, preppy, WASP suburban wife, but her words beg to differ. Both the life and career of Ali MacGraw bear a dreamy, almost unfocused quality, as delicate as the filmy lace that adorns the fragile antique dresses she has collected. She did not want to become an actress, has been erratic in her career, and still resists the Hollywood rituals of parties and fighting for roles. She prefers New York City but lives in a personal California world of music and poetry and art and is attracted to difficult men. She once copied out and illustrated F. Scott Fitzgerald's Winter Dreams for tycoon husband Evans. She and husband McQueen used to send each other small garbage cans full of daisies.
The romanticism is inbred. Ali was born in New York City, but her parents, both commercial artists, raised her and brother Dick (now an artist) out in New York's Westchester County in sun-dappled, idyllic splendor. "My parents made no money whatsoever," she recalls, "but they really knew how to see, as artists. So a big adventure might be, on a hot, dreadful day with no place to go, to go out and draw our chickens with pastels. My parents gave me a sense of wonder."
Ali won scholarships to exclusive Rosemary Hall in Greenwich, Conn.—where she was shy and studious—and to Wellesley, where she blossomed socially while learning French, Italian, history and art. Mademoiselle discovered her in college, put her on the cover of its college issue, and she did some modeling, which she found boring. After college she married Harvard beau Robin Hoen, a banker, but they divorced after a year and a half. Ali then took a $50-a-week job as assistant to Diana Vreeland, the fashion maven at Harper's Bazaar. She jumped to $100 a week as assistant to fashion photographer Mel Sokolsky.
She lived a gypsylike existence, often owning only a mattress on the floor of a bare sublet, where she continued to fill her journals with poetry, drawings, pressed wild flowers and dreams. Sokolsky and other photographers got her back in front of the camera to model. She did not take it seriously and refused advice to have her crooked front tooth fixed. "Modeling was so fleeting it doesn't count in my life scheme," she says. "I remember at age 81 had a dental checkup and Mommy asked, 'Does she need braces?' That would have been a real economic catastrophe for us. This sweet old dentist said, 'No, it's not like she's ever going to be in the movies or anything.' "
She went on to TV commercials, which led to a tiny role in 1968's A Lovely Way to Die, which brought an invitation to read for the role of Jewish American Princess Brenda Patimkin in Goodbye, Columbus. The reaction to the movie, and to her, frightened Ali. She did not think of herself as an actress, and she fended off scripts until one day she found herself weeping while reading author Erich Segal's best-seller Love Story. She flew to L.A. for meetings about Love Story. She claimed to hate Hollywood, and she had earlier spurned advances made by Mr. Hollywood himself, producer Robert Evans. Then she went out to his house one day and just kind of stayed on. They were married in 1969, and Ali bore son Joshua just after Love Story opened. Ali, foe of fame, suddenly found herself on the cover of TIME magazine, the only woman among the top 10 box office draws of 1971 and the focus of a smarmy new romanticism. The doomed but brave Jenny part got Ali an Oscar nomination and an unshakable worldwide notoriety: forever Jenny.
After two years at home with little Joshua and with Evans' 26-phone habit, she agreed to co-star in 1972's The Getaway with Steve McQueen. Before anyone could figure out what was going on, Ali shed Evans for life with new husband McQueen and Joshua and McQueen's son, Chad, in Trancas. For the next five years Ali quit work totally. "It was exactly the right thing to do," she now says. "Joshua and Chad would have had rotten lives as little boys if they'd had publicity spotlights on them. My work would've been lousy. It never occurred to me to not do that. I know it was an insane gesture from a career point of view. But I didn't plan on five years, originally. I had really wanted to work with Steve. He was great. That would have solved a lot of problems: my need to work, our need to stay together as a family, and also, from a cynical point of view, it probably would have worked at the box office. We thought about it, but it didn't quite work out."
It clearly pains MacGraw now to talk about McQueen. They split up in late 1977 and she rented a house nearby so Joshua still could be near his stepfather. "Life with Steve was very dramatic," she says, choosing her words carefully. "It was an enormously important part of my life and involved a person whose entire persona was about privacy. So to discuss it seems a real betrayal." Of McQueen's cancer death in 1980, she says only, "I haven't recovered from it yet."
She returned to work in 1978 and was savaged by the critics for her portrayals of a photographer in Convoy and a kept woman in Players. Her natural insecurity about her acting reached flash point stage, especially when New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called her a "truly terrible actress, of the nostril school." She also felt criticized for intertwining her personal and professional lives in Players, which was produced by Evans. "My ex-husband happens to be one of the most gifted moviemakers. And what is so bizarre about working with someone like that?" Ali asks. "I guess it is bizarre to be good friends with your ex-husband."
She went back to her beloved New York for her next film and was praised for her work as Alan King's feisty mistress in 1980's Just Tell Me What You Want. Then back to California where she waited for work. And waited. Finally came The Winds of War. And new scrutiny. Producer-director Dan Curtis had already considered about a hundred actresses for the Natalie role before MacGraw's name crossed his desk. "Jastrow had to be bright," Curtis recalls. "She had to be ballsy yet vulnerable, and have frivolous, devil-may-care qualities." He finally called Ali into his office at Paramount and "fell in love with her"—but only after lengthily inspecting her face from inches away to see whether she could pass for 30 in close-ups. Now Curtis is happy: "I'm convinced I'm right. It's an incredible performance."
MacGraw, though, is still insecure about her acting. "I went into Winds with my knees knocking," she confesses as she uncorks a 1976 Jordan Cabernet in the airy living room of her Trancas house. There's a Chinese lute hanging on the wall and shelves of books and records: Mein Kampf, The Winds of War, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles. MacGraw is wearing what she calls her "exercise drag" or "pig suit": a black-and-white-striped leotard. "I was paralyzed, but it got better as Winds went along. Robert Mitchum was the best. He's such a pro that there were no accidents. Being part of Winds is unique in my short film experience in that I think I'm part of something important." Her next job is on location in Hong Kong for China Rose with George C. Scott this month. Beyond that, she's not predicting.
As for her relationships with men, Ali says airily, "I have seen a number of younger men, but it's not a conscious thing. Often it's difficult for a man over 40 to deal with the amount of independence that most women of my generation are enjoying. Nowadays I spend a lot of time by myself. I've spent a lot of time hanging out with Mr. Wrongs, but it beat that desperate Saturday night thing. Ninety-nine percent of Saturday nights, I'm in this house, eating some bizarre thing I whipped up, and reading."
She says she does not worry about life after acting, whatever that will bring. Perhaps drawing, perhaps jewelry making. She calls herself a "survivor with style" and says she's gotten stronger from "the stupidity" of making the wrong professional decisions, like taking bad roles. "I've had no time to make my mistakes by myself. It's public each time, so those mistakes are pretty lethal. But I'm a fatalist. I work as hard as anybody I know. Maybe I'm thinking about how good I would like to be."