A Long-Lost Love

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

As Ali Macgraw sits down in a corner booth of Trattoria Dell’Arte, having come straight from rehearsal, she wants to make one thing immediately, abundantly clear. She’s absolutely terrified of bombing on Broadway. “I am not being coy,” she says. “I’m scared shitless.”

MacGraw, now 67, vanished from public sight long ago, in almost Greta Garbo–like fashion. And depending on your own age, it is both nostalgia-inducing and a little startling to see her again, as if the earnestly beautiful heroine of Love Story had just woken up from a 36-year coma. Back in the Nixon era, she was one of the most famous actresses on the planet, the “It” girl on the covers of magazines who became a tabloid favorite, too, after walking out on her husband, producer Robert Evans, for macho star Steve McQueen. And then it all went wrong: Her marriage to McQueen tanked, critics savaged her performances, movie work dried up, her Malibu house burned down, and she eventually fled California in 1994—“I had to leave L.A. so I wouldn’t feel like such a loser”—for Santa Fe.

But now she’s about to star in Festen, which opens on April 9 and won high praise in London two years ago—and how this came about still seems a tad improbable to her. In fact, when her manager called to say the producers wanted her to audition, MacGraw replied, “You have to be crazy. I haven’t worked in ten years; I’ve never been onstage in my life.” She turned for advice to her director-writer son, Josh Evans, who said, “Mom, you have to do it.” MacGraw had liked the Danish movie Festen (“The Celebration”), on which the play is based, and “I felt on some level I was meant to consider it, because it came with absolutely no longing or planning.” She quickly apologizes for this New Ageism—she apologizes a lot for a woman who will always be associated with the line about never having to say you’re sorry, as if in penance for the phrase—and then adds, “This was so off the wall.”

Not really. MacGraw joins a long list of actors on Broadway who seem to have been cast more for box-office drawing power than theatrical experience. And Rufus Norris, the director who mounted Festen in London, admits that he resisted even auditioning her. “I went into the meeting thinking, frankly, this is a daft idea that the producers have come up with as a last-ditch attempt to get one more name on the poster,” he says over the phone. “I thought, Okay, she’ll be a bit crazy, she’ll be one of those people who haven’t come out of hiding in years, or she’ll have had 23 face-lifts. And then I’ll get back to the theater actors I feel comfortable with.” But instead, “she looked fantastic, and, more importantly, fit into the family picture. She was totally disarming.”

Festen is a dark drama about a family celebrating its patriarch’s 60th birthday; the festivities come undone after a son gives a toast in which he reveals a wrenching family secret. Theatrical veteran Larry Bryggman (Proof) plays the father, TV stars Julianna Margulies (ER) and Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under) and Tony nominee Michael Hayden play the three siblings, and MacGraw is cast as the mother, a pivotal what-did-she-know, when-did-she-know-it part. In London, Jane Asher—star of the original Alfie—approached the mom as “an ice queen,” Norris says, adding that MacGraw interprets the role quite differently. “Ali is more someone who’s survived by the skin of her teeth. She’s a lot more damaged.”

“She was this great beauty who staggered men. I think she thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy.’ ”

This may be a case of stagework imitating life. As she talked for several hours, over spaghetti pomodoro and a large bottle of mineral water (a recovering alcoholic, she’s done time at Betty Ford), MacGraw came across as exceptionally vulnerable—so bruised by past criticism that she puts herself down constantly as if to get in the first, preemptive shot. Merely ask when she last appeared in a movie or on TV, and she replies, “Who remembers? Nothing good, that’s for sure. I was horrible in everything.” She describes herself as “a dinosaur celebrity” and even makes a point of saying that her best-selling 1991 autobiography, Moving Pictures, was “not well written.” Maybe this is partially an act, but if so, it’s highly effective: You can’t help but root for her, hoping that she can master this complex part.

For Macgraw, coming back to New York means a return to her youth. She grew up in Westchester, the daughter of a sporadically employed illustrator-father who she says was violent to her and her brother; she’s also expressed anguish that her mother didn’t protect them. Given the passive mother she’s now portraying, I can’t resist asking whether this is theater as therapy. She looks startled. “I had a wonderful, brilliant, loving, damaged, scary father whom I’ve completely forgiven, because I understand him, after a lot of work.” A few minutes later, she says that if she took the part to work out demons, “that interests me. It was so unconscious.”

After graduating from Wellesley, MacGraw worked as Diana Vreeland’s gofer at Harper’s Bazaar and put in six years as a stylist and model before being plucked to star in Goodbye, Columbus. In 1969, she flew to L.A. to meet with Evans, then Paramount’s production chief, to discuss her role in Love Story, spent the night with him, and moved in, setting off a series of Ali-in-wonderland experiences that ultimately left her displaced and miserable. Ruth Ansel, a freelance art director who befriended MacGraw in the sixties, says, “She was this great beauty who staggered men. I think she thought, Oh, this is going to be easy.”

Watching the trajectory of today’s young stars, MacGraw says, “There’s a horror in seeing little girls becoming more famous without having a life, a craft. That wind blows quickly over you—you’d better have something of your own so you don’t feel, when they stop clapping, that you’re a cipher.” She did not take alimony from Evans or McQueen, a decision she now regrets. “I thought it was ladylike and honorable. I’m not sure I think that now.” She lives alone with a dog and a cat and explains that she is between romantic partners. “When I am on my own, it’s because I have some very specific growing to do, and it might be nice to spare somebody else that experience.”

Since moving to Santa Fe, she’s done various things to get by, from producing a yoga video to (briefly) selling a line of high-end pashminas in department stores. Three years ago, her retired agent, Sue Mengers, urged Laina Cohn, a manager at Evolution Entertainment, to take on MacGraw. “Sue told me that Ali was ready to work again—but I’m not sure Ali was ready,” says Cohn. To date, the actress has turned down the easy-money stuff like guest shots on sitcoms. “She wanted to do something smart.”

Unlike so many older actresses, MacGraw doesn’t seem vain, announcing with a wry smile, “I live in such a dry climate that my face is a road map. I’ve lived in my face.” She pauses. “In rehearsals today, Rufus said, ‘You suddenly look like an old woman.’ ” This wasn’t insulting? “No, it was a compliment. I knew what he was talking about. In this scene, it was not possible to look like a 45-year-old who had just gone jogging on the beach.” For MacGraw, it meant that she’s not just sliding by on her looks anymore—this time around, she’s acting.

A Long-Lost Love