Elizabeth McGovern: my daughters helped me understand sexism in Hollywood

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Aged 19, in 1980, before she’d even graduated from New York’s Juilliard School, McGovern was cast in Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford, which she views as “a total fluke” – she was there at just the right time. She broke the news to her parents, saying: “I’m going to meet Robert Redford, and I’m probably gonna do this movie.” Redford turned out to be the perfect first director, with a “warm, reassuring presence.”

McGovern quickly became one of the most sought after actresses of the 80s and early 90s, playing Robert DeNiro’s love interest in Once Upon a Time in America in 1984, Brad Pitt’s girlfriend in The Favor in 1994 and Kevin Bacon’s pregnant partner in She’s Having a Baby in 1988. She racked up awards instantly, including a 1981 Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Evelyn Nesbit in the film Ragtime. Did she identify with Gardner?

“I did very much so. I felt as though I had more of a right to try to interpret and tell her story than probably any other, and I did feel that I could bring elements of my own experience to it.”

Most Hollywood movies, as she sees it, “are very much a male gaze at a woman, and most of the time my job was to recreate some kind of version of it.

“First, it was the perfect girlfriend, then it became the perfect wife, then the perfect mother.”

McGovern says that she, like many of her generation, only became aware of sexism in the film industry as a result of the #MeToo movement. Although nothing directly happened to her, it made her reflect on her past life in Hollywood.  “Listening to my own daughters, they have a different attitude and I feel like I’m learning from it and looking back on things that I used to accept without any questioning.

“My daughters see right through all the crap in a way that I wouldn’t have done at their age. I was more sort of looking for somebody to sweep me off my feet in a romantic way.”

I wonder if the romance refers to Sean Penn, to whom she was briefly engaged when she was 22. It’s a life that seems very different from her current one, married to Curtis and living in west London, still a big name but one who has won over the British public as opposed to being a Hollywood player.

“You get through all that and then you find a guy who is like your best friend,” she says. “If you’re really lucky.”


Ava: The Secret Conversations runs from January 14 to April 16 at Riverside Studios, London. Tickets: riversidestudios.co.uk. Downton Abbey: A New Era is out on March 18

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