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Ali MacGraw, Defining Beauty

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.

"So often I wish I could work in Europe because in Europe there's more reverence for people over 35," she says. "And we get to look like women over 35 really look. Which I think is important because there's a whole generation coming up who better understand that they don't have to completely surgically alter themselves by 32 to even show up to work. [In Europe] they have people like Vanessa Redgrave and all these great older brilliant beautiful actors working. It's very rare in America that a major studio really goes that way."

2Besides, she says, there's more to life than acting.

"I've had to pay my rent in many different ways and my overnight 'celebrity' based on a couple of movies was unexpected, unprepared for, and I'm so grateful that before I was in my late 20s I had to work for 15 years doing so many things in the arts and in fashion," she says. "I'm a great waitress, and I'm a very good maid. I just love knowing I'm not above anything it will take to keep the roof from leaking."

"You are an icon for a generation," I remind her. "You owe me for all those boxes of Kleenex I used up while crying during 'Love Story.'"

"And you obviously never listened to that sentence about 'Love means never having to say you're sorry,'" she teases back.

MacGraw says that even today, more than 35 years after "Love Story" was released, anywhere in the world she goes people come up to her and say, "Oh my God, you made me cry."

"I call it a freak," she says, "because I was in this movie that was the 'it' movie of its moment. So it was a movie that has nothing to do with 'the greatest actress.' It was the right time and the right place and we all gelled, I guess. It's afforded me unbelievable access. I'm very, very blessed, because I know brilliant, gorgeous actresses who have not had the luck I had in being in a huge motion picture."

Looking at today's troubled young starlets - and politely not naming names - MacGraw observes that she was able to hold her own because stardom came to her when she was already almost 30.

"We're watching now all these kids who get shot out of a gun at 16 looking cuter than anybody and then two years later they have great bodies and they're sex objects," she says, acknowledging that she's making a generalization. "They're babies and they've never had grounding. Nowadays I think the paparazzi are so frightening and the assumption is that this job includes access to your private life, too. It's a tough time."

Perhaps a little time in Santa Fe would do some of these young stars some good. For MacGraw, it's a place where she has found a peaceful way of life that is also her secret for ageless beauty.

"I live a very healthy lifestyle that would probably bore the daylights out of people," she laughs. "I do yoga every day. I meditate. I walk my dog for 40 minutes even if it means getting up at 5:30 in the morning because I want the stillness. I do all the things we were told as kids: I don't smoke or do drugs, I don't drink. It's not to be prissy; it's just that it's healthier for me."

The interview over, MacGraw graciously says goodbye and gets ready to leave. She throws on a black wool jacket, wraps a long grey scarf around her neck, places a - what else? - matching knit cap on her head and strides off into the cold New Mexico night.
By Judy Faber

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