Ali MacGraw, Defining Beauty

Ali MacGraw poses backstage at the 8th Annual Santa Fe Film Festival awards held at the historic Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, N.M. on Dec. 1, 2007.
Gabriella Marks/Santa Fe Film Fest
By's Judy Faber

Actress Ali MacGraw inspired a generation of teenage girls to roll their hair in frozen orange juice cans before they went to sleep, top their newly-straightened do with a cute little knit cap the following morning, and tell their boyfriends that 'Love meant never having to say you're sorry' - even if they themselves weren't quite sure what that really meant.

It was MacGraw's iconic turn as the ill-fated college student Jenny in the 1970 weepfest "Love Story" that inspired the "Ali cap" craze, and the tagline from the movie that the girls were quoting.

The Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning role catapulted the then 29-year-old actress into what she refers to as the "insanity" of superstardom. Along with that came two tumultuous marriages, first to studio executive and producer Robert Evans, with whom she had her son Josh, and then to actor Steve McQueen. As work began to wind down in the 1980s, MacGraw spent a month-long stint in The Betty Ford Clinic and began a journey of self-discovery that eventually led her to Santa Fe.

"I've lived here since 1994," she tells me during a quiet interview for TheShowBuzz in her dressing room after the Santa Fe Film Festival Awards Saturday night. "I was living in Los Angeles when one of those wildfires took my house to the ground and I always thought - not having a victim mentality - that was a cosmic kick in the butt to get out of there. And I happened to have just bought a little tiny getaway house in the hills of Tesuque. Suddenly it became apparent that I was meant to live there."

Photos: Santa Fe Film Festival Awards
Dressed in a simple black turtleneck and slacks, her hair long and still orange juice can straight, the 69-year-old actress exudes a sense of calm that's very un-Hollywood. She opens up a bottle of mineral water, pours a cup for me and then one for herself before discussing the differences between Santa Fe and Los Angeles.

"First of all there's the obvious: there's the air and the traffic," she says. "But I'll tell you that for a woman in L.A., it's really a struggle. And there's so much interesting stuff to do and so many wonderful people there and so much talent and my son and my closest friends and my doctors and lawyers and blah, blah, blah. But I think it's really important to live somewhere where what you look like or what your latest 'project' is doesn't sort of designate whether you're still fit to live on planet earth. And I find [Santa Fe] a place where so many people reinvent themselves with huge enthusiasm."

She goes back to Los Angeles all the time, but she says she has a better sense of herself now that she no longer lets herself be defined by whether she is or is not in a movie.

Now she focuses on other kinds of "projects."

"I'm involved in so many things but off the top of my head, an enormous amount of them are community-based work," she says. "This is a funny time of year, because anybody who needs anything touches your heart and we all show up for it. I do a lot of work in documentaries and stuff like that."

Last year, MacGraw made her Broadway debut in the drama "Festen." The play received tepid reviews and closed after a month, but MacGraw says it was a valuable experience.

"That was my first time on stage ever! It was a bath of fire but very thrilling," she says. "It was just jaw-droppingly scary but I worked through it. It was an ensemble piece of wonderful actors and I learned so much. I loved it in a way that I don't love the movies because I never felt that it was about 'Well, what do you look like? Let's get her a turtleneck because her neck is too crepe-y.'"

MacGraw also found that she loved the immediacy of playing to a live audience and the opportunity to adjust as the performance goes along.

Would she ever consider working on a feature film again?

"There's two answers to that. Just to be able to say, 'I did it, but I got so much money and here's a list of places that I gave it,'" she says. "Or something with a director who believed I could do it, and about something that really mattered."

The roles for women in her age group exist, she says, but in Hollywood they are few and far between.