Robert Windeler
July 24, 1978 12:00 PM

After Evans and McQueen, her passport, she exults, now reads MacGraw

I think, hypothesized Descartes; therefore I am. But in Hollywood, where thinking can be dangerous to your health, you star; therefore you are. That little proposition has put Ali MacGraw in double jeopardy. First, she is disturbingly cerebral. Second, after an unprecedented three movie hits in three attempts (Goodbye, Columbus; Love Story; The Getaway), she suddenly took off on a five-year sabbatical with hermitic third husband Steve McQueen. “It was like I had no persona because I couldn’t name my last movie, or my next one. Well,” says Ali half defiantly after splitting from Steve, “I’m more interesting than that. I am not my last haircut or my last divorce.”

True, a lot of ink was spilled over those topics, but now, at 39, MacGraw has returned—opposite Kris Kristofferson in Convoy—and she has a lot more to discuss with her therapist than her new coiffeur. “You can’t sit around for five years and come back to it without being traumatized,” she says. And justifiably. After Getaway, The New Yorker’s redoubtable critic Pauline Kael proclaimed that MacGraw rivaled Candice Bergen as the worst actress around. “I was obliterated,” Ali cringes. “And I’m bright enough to know that it was deserved. I expected it again in Convoy.”

But the chance to ride shotgun with the charismatic Kristofferson—not to mention $400,000, which was more than he was making—was enough to lure Ali back. To be sure, the elegant MacGraw was hopelessly miscast in the Sam Peckinpah trucker odyssey based on the C.W. McCall CB radio ballad. Yet she smiles bravely through the wreckage that critics have totaled variously as “vulgar,” “cynical,” “phony,” “ludicrous” and worse. But shooting with old director pal Sam Peckinpah eased her reentry into the business. (“It’s nice that you like the people you’re working with.”)

Ali and Kris likewise hit it off. He compliments her for “busting her ass. She really wants to do it right.” MacGraw, typically, is harder on herself. “Kris is so intelligent and a much more natural actor than I am, even though he was untrained too. At his worst, there are no outtakes to be ashamed of. Mine are all over the place,” she winces. “I see all the nervous things I loathe about myself. I am incredibly stiff, my nose twitches, and I have this huge tendon popping out of my neck.”

But just venturing the picture indicated that MacGraw is getting her act back in gear. She has just begun another film, Players, a May-September tennis romance with Dean Paul (formerly Dino) Martin Jr. Even she was “mildly surprised” that the producer was, of all people, her own second ex-husband, Robert (Love Story) Evans. The bitterness was over following their split. She left him for Getaway leading man McQueen, which cost her Mia Farrow’s role in The Great Gatsby, a pet project Ali had suggested to Evans in the first place. “We’ve had ups and downs,” Evans understates. “We’ve been good friends lately, but I didn’t hire her because she’s my friend, my ex-wife or the mother of my child. I’m too selfish to have done that. My ass is on the line. I cast her because she’s absolutely right for the part.”

Not so long ago Hollywood wags typed Ali in another part: “The Prisoner of Trancas,” the remote beach where McQueen supposedly forced her to sacrifice her career to play mother to her son, Joshua, 7 (by Evans), and his boy Chad, 17 (by first wife Neile Adams). The sexist assumption that Steve made the decision galls Ali. “It was complicated,” she explains. “But it mostly had to do with a child I take seriously and wanted to be a mother to, and with a man I wanted to be with away from the public. I was brought up to wash, make beds, cook and clean,” she goes on. “It’s natural to me. I feel okay about that life even if it doesn’t make sense to someone else.”

Last November, though, MacGraw gave her independence the truest test when she moved out on McQueen and into her own rented place down the road. The divorce will be final any day now, but Ali is staying in the neighborhood so her son won’t have to switch schools and because “Steve’s very important to Joshua.” Her transition was helped along by three years of four-days-a-week therapy. “I wonder constantly if I’m ever going to be done with it,” she sighs. “But I believe in it for dealing with fears and nonsense. I wish therapy were incorporated into the school system and that it was less expensive so everyone could have it. If we don’t know about ourselves,” she figures, “what’s the point of knowing about anything?” Of course, Ali adds, “I’m sure back East they felt that going Hollywood turned that nice Wellesley girl into a hopeless neurotic.”

Her niche in the East was the leafy New York suburb of Pound Ridge, where Alice (the childhood contraction stuck) grew up surrounded by books, trees and affection. Her parents (until her father’s sudden death last month) were genteel if never modishly successful artists. Ali worked part-time from 15, including summer waitressing in Atlantic City, and had the smarts to win scholarships to exclusive Rosemary Hall prep and Wellesley College, majoring in art history. After graduation she married her Harvard beau (just like Love Story’s Jenny Cavilleri), but they were divorced within two years. (“He was starting in banking; we were growing fast in different ways.”)

Parlaying part-time college stints as a Mademoiselle guest editor and an Eileen Ford model, Ali snagged a job as editorial assistant to fashion maven Diana Vreeland, then of Harper’s Bazaar. She left to become a photographer’s assistant, but by 1967 had moved to the other side of the cameras. She became a successful if unconventional cover girl—a face too full, shoulders too wide and a wayward incisor.

Ali resisted calls from Hollywood until, entranced by Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (she’s still a voracious reader), she fought for and won the Jewish Princess role despite her shiksa rearing. The movie with Richard Benjamin made her an instant phenom—and introduced her to shrinkdom. (“I thought I wasn’t worth all that attention.”) MacGraw’s next two movies were also accompanied by personal watersheds. In 1971 Love Story became the biggest-grossing movie of the year, while she and Evans became Hollywood’s glamor couple—until The Getaway (1972) proved to be Ali’s own with Public Enigma No. 1 the following year. McQueen, who lately has shed his beard as well as some excess weight, hasn’t been seen in movies either since The Towering Inferno. His long-completed version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is now apparently unreleasable, though he’s getting $3 million for his upcoming The Hunter. His current lady is model Barbara Minty.

As for herself, MacGraw occasionally sees producer Larry Spangler, whose B-credits include Joe Namath’s The Last Rebel and The Life and Times of Xaviera Hollander, based on the “Happy Hooker” exploits of his erstwhile girlfriend. “He’s a nice friend, a nice person,” says Ali, noting that until lately “I was just reading and listening to music. I spent weekends looking at the ocean. There’s a certain comfort in knowing my reality—going to the market, the dry cleaner, the dentist, getting a note from Joshua’s teacher that he talks too much.” Neighbors include the Jack Lemmons and a couple of the Beach Boys, none of whom she ever sees.

Entertaining is similarly low-key. “I’m a great cook,” she boasts, “healthy food—vegetables, fish, bouillabaisse. I like to spend an enormous amount of time at the table. I go to nightclubs rarely, and I’m not comfortable at parties for 75 people. I always go off in a corner with one person anyway.” Her penchant for collecting antique dresses—”I hang them on the walls”—is another constant. After a Convoy promo trip to Japan, she brought back not Nikons but 20 ancient kimonos.

Despite her new determination, Ali still jokes uneasily about “my monumental lack of training” and frets, “I’m not sure I will ever be comfortable in movies. It must be great to be Jon Voight or Jane Fonda after Coming Home and to know in your closet how brilliant you were.” Though an audition is unthinkable for a star of Ali’s magnitude, she personally read for Sidney Lumet to nail down her next part, in his forthcoming adaptation of Jay Presson Allen’s Just Tell Me What You Want. She calls it “the most difficult role and the biggest bite I’ve taken yet.”

By her own lights, Ali is finally getting what she wants. “I’ve decided since I turned 39 that there is no point in presenting myself with protective covers, trying to please everyone at the expense of my own truth,” she says. “I’m sure even my good friends got bored with my act.” But now, apparently, her therapy has taken. “I don’t want to be any age or in any place than the one I am right now. This is the first time I’ve been on my own in my whole life,” she says. “I’m having my passport, driver’s license, everything changed to Ali MacGraw. That’s who I am legally—and in reality. Finally.”

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