In one scene in The Front Runner, the upcoming film by director Jason Reitman that dramatizes the 1987 sex scandal that shut down Democrat Gary Hart’s presidential campaign, a Hart aide worries aloud about the blind-sided and scared young woman at the center of the firestorm: “This is never going to be over for her. She’s alone.”
That woman was Donna Rice, 29 years old in May 1987 when reporters and a photographer from The Miami Herald, tipped off by one of her girlfriends, staked out the married Hart’s D.C. townhouse in an investigation of his reputation for womanizing.
Today, she is Donna Rice Hughes, 60, and she was not alone when she settled into a private Sony Pictures screening room in August to see those long-ago traumatizing days replayed on the screen. (The Front Runner opens nationwide on Nov. 21.) Her husband of 24 years, tech-industry businessman Jack Hughes, 66, was at her side.
“Without Jack holding my hand, I would have been a basket case,” Donna tells PEOPLE in an interview for the new issue. As it turned out, she found actress Sara Paxton’s portrayal of young Donna—a model and pharmaceutical sales rep — to be authentic.
“It’s been 31 years,” says Donna, her eyes filling with tears as she sits at the kitchen table in her D.C.-area home. “But as a 60-year-old grandmother watching it on film now, I was moved with great compassion for the 29-year-old person that was me.”
Donna had no role in the making of the movie—and only found out about it through a Google Alert—but she says she subsequently spoke at length with Reitman and felt confident the film would handle her part in that 1987 story with sensitivity. “I appreciate how Jason treated my character with compassion and dignity,” she says.
For much more on Donna Rice Hughes’s story and the upcoming film version, pick up the new issue of People on newsstands Friday.