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Films of Sergio Leone => Once Upon A Time In America => Topic started by: Noodles_SlowStir on June 01, 2007, 08:11:28 AM

Title: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Noodles_SlowStir on June 01, 2007, 08:11:28 AM
I was searching....came across this old interview with Elizabeth McGovern on OUATIA from 2003 just prior to its release on DVD. She talks about her experience on the set, her thoughts on her performance; on the rape and dressing room scenes.  

De Niro And Me
Independent, The (London)  Jun 20, 2003
Fiona Morrow

Elizabeth McGovern stands at the top of the stairs and looks at me blankly. Then the recognition: "Oh! I completely forgot," she exclaims, before ushering me into the kitchen of her home in leafiest, lightest Chiswick. We relocate quickly into the garden where she makes haste moving the garden furniture into the shade, and the kids' play equipment out of the way. She's dressed for an anonymous afternoon at home: ribbed white T-shirt, shorts, sneakers; there's a silver Kirby grip in her dark, wavy hair. I half expect her to dash back upstairs to fling on a dress and some lippy but, happily, she's not that kind of gal.

She's more worried about her momentary amnesia. I point out that it is a stiflingly hot afternoon, the kind that can melt your brain. She breaks into a wide, sunny smile, sighs - "Oh I'm so glad you said that" - and takes a sip of tea from a pint-sized canary yellow mug.

Twenty years ago McGovern was feeling a different kind of heat: Oscar- nominated for only her second screen role (in Milos Forman's Ragtime), she was Hollywood's darling. Suddenly, every choice she made came with huge expectations: "You're put into this privileged position where everything you say or do has this added relevance," she recalls. "But part of being 20 is to go around saying and doing ridiculous things - you're supposed to."

McGovern was an early Hollywood achiever before the trend to make it big young had really begun. "I was sensible to know that it was more than I deserved. I was aware that it was a premature, lucky start," she admits. "But I didn't have the years of struggling to put it into perspective. I remember it as a burden, almost impossible to bear. It was a lonely time for me."

She chose to retreat from the glare a little by taking a part in a tiny theatre production. It proved a short respite: impressed by her performance in Ragtime, Sergio Leone sought her out for a part in his long-cherished project Once Upon a Time in America.

She cannot dredge up the memory of their meeting. "What I do remember," she offers apologetically, "Is that before I had ever read a script, I went to a flat Sergio was renting in New York and, as the Sun made its way across the sky, he told me, shot for shot, the entire movie. And what he told me that day was what he ended up filming." McGovern knew nothing of Leone's previous work and, she says, was completely unaware of the lengthy casting process. In fact, many very diverse actresses were considered for the part of Deborah including Claudia Cardinale, Geena Davis and Liza Minnelli.

Once Upon a Time in America is the story of a group of friends - Noodles, Max, Cockeye, Patsy - who grew up in the Jewish ghetto of 1920s New York. Told largely in flashback, the film takes place in the Twenties, Thirties and late Sixties, a sweeping, elegiac arc of love, betrayal and melancholy. It is a monumental piece of film- making, mythic, operatic; one of the greatest films ever made.

Not a bad choice, then, for a happening young actress. Cast as Deborah, the object of Noodles's obsession, McGovern found herself sharing screen time with an even hotter prospect: Robert De Niro, widely considered at that time to be the best actor of his generation.

Mention De Niro's name, however, and McGovern winces. Having had a considerable amount of input into the casting of his co-stars, De Niro was not best pleased with Leone's choice to play his love interest. "I certainly sensed that," shrugs McGovern. "I don't think anyone was crass enough to actually tell me, but it was definitely what I was picking up."

Though she hesitates to come right out and say it, clearly De Niro's ambivalence caused her considerable difficulties.

"I remember my screen test as fresh and spontaneous," she shrugs. "There was something about me in it that was probably never captured in the final film."

There was little room for spontaneity on set: Leone, a master of the image, and a perfectionist was matched in the meticulousness of his endeavours by his star. But for McGovern, De Niro's constant interventions had a negative effect on the finished film.

"When I look at it," she explains, "there's a really seamless quality to the scenes with the children, that the scenes with the adults never quite achieve. When Sergio was working with the kids - who were very pliable, who were going to do what he told them - there's a sense about the film that this is what he really wanted.

"But with the adults, there was this feeling that Sergio and De Niro were on slightly different tracks. De Niro was so interested in realistic detail and was often concerned that there wasn't enough of it, and Sergio could not have been less interested..." she tails off, then rallies with a slightly more positive spin: "They were both after creating a good piece of work, so I suppose it was the best kind of fight."

But such distinctions make little difference when you're caught in the middle: all McGovern's scenes are with De Niro, we only see Deborah through Noodles's eyes. "I did feel pulled between them, De Niro was such a strong presence and Sergio's English was not so good," she admits. "Sometimes I think I lost track of who I was and what I wanted to do. It's such a male film and Deborah, on top of that, is blatantly a man's vision of a woman - a very hard thing to know how to fulfil if you're not the one having the vision, if you're the object."

I ask her if De Niro had a strong idea of what he expected from her and McGovern gives a refreshingly disparaging laugh: "Yes, well I don't know if he had an idea, but he certainly had an opinion." Ouch.

We move on to one of the film's controversial scenes, in which Deborah is raped by Noodles on the back seat of a car. It's a scene which caused considerable outrage at the time of the film's release (1984) and which remains, as so it should, shocking.

"In terms of acting, that scene was, in some ways the easiest of all," McGovern says, surprising me. "There was something very clear to react to. It was incredibly easy to understand, incredibly easy to do."

She leans forward, as if to impart a guilty secret: "My feeling about that scene - and I hate to admit it - was just 'Oh thank God, I don't have to do any acting, at least I know what I'm doing here. At least I don't feel confused about what I'm supposed to play.'"

It was a different story when it came to filming one of the final scenes, in which, 35 years on, Noodles and Deborah meet again. "That was the most difficult for me because I simply did not have the technique," she pronounces bluntly. "I wasn't old enough and I was vaguely aware that visually I wasn't pulling it off and if I were Sergio, I might have been thinking about getting in another actress."

She notices my look of horror and relents a little, obviously pleased that I'm not concurring with her self-criticism: "I think that now I would be able to lasso the qualities that scene needed, but then it was like I was playing an instrument without knowing which notes to hit."

She returns, unprompted to the rape scene: "In some ways I feel as though the entire experience of making the film - or maybe that entire period of my life - was represented in that scene. I was this young person, incredibly like Deborah - I had a lot of ambition and drive - and I was in a position where I was viewed by the world in a way that had nothing to do with reality, much the same way as Noodles has this image of Deborah.

"You're being used and you feel used. I suppose many young girls would think of it as the most wonderful thing in the world, to be this hot young movie star that people have sexual or romantic fantasies about, but in fact you learn very quickly that who you are is nothing to do with what their projection of you is.

"I look back on that whole period of being an object, being someone else's fantasy, as not very nice. I'm relieved not to be that any more. I look back on that period of my life, and the rape was sort of a metaphor for what it felt like."

No wonder, then, that McGovern should have finally opted for a lower profile, a happy marriage and a couple of kids this side of the Atlantic. She did give Hollywood a bit of a spin first, in films such as She's Having A Baby and The Bedroom Window, and was briefly gossip column fodder as Sean Penn's pre-Madonna fiancee. But of late, she's stuck to television (The Scarlet Pimpernel) and small, spiky roles in Wings of The Dove and The House of Mirth.

Currently, she's most proud of the forthcoming Buffalo Soldiers a "fine piece of work" that has languished in distribution hell due to its anti-war stance. "I find it mind-boggling that everyone in America is so unbelievably chastened about having an anti-government opinion," she notes, crossly.

Before we wrap up, I must ask her if she likes Leone's film about her homeland, this film that I love, even a little bit. She tries to let me down gently: "It is probably the piece of work that represents the most personal struggle for me, but I'm certainly proud to be in it," she proffers before adding quickly - and plaintively: "I think it's a beautiful film, but I can't watch it objectively. I really can't."
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: moviesceleton on June 01, 2007, 08:59:11 AM
Thank you for this! O0
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: mal247 on June 01, 2007, 09:50:07 AM
Many thanks, SlowStir, for sharing this with us.  It's a pity Robert De Niro hasn't been able to give such a frank and candid interview.  "The Hoods" seems to be now widely available in paperback at a fairly low cost and a copy is in the post to me.  I'm not expecting much but it may help me to expand my knowledge and understanding of the film and the story on which it is based.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Noodles_SlowStir on June 01, 2007, 11:35:32 AM
I really think it was just one of those things.  Most likely a personality clash involved.  In defense of De Niro, everything I've read about De Niro is that he's a consummate professional and very generous on the set, and in scenes with other actors.  James Woods tells the story of how De Niro bought him caps for his teeth with his own money for the OUATIA production so that it would add to his characterization.  Woods asked him why he would do that....he answered that it would enhance his characterization, positively affecting the overall production and De Niro's own performance.  I don't doubt that De Niro may of had apprehensions about the Deborah casting.  He would of been 40 at the time and McGovern was a young newcomer.

He also wouldn't of said too much in interview about his perspective because that's the way he is.  He's an extremely quiet and private person.  

Things I found interesting......

Her description of her meeting with Leone and his verbal retelling of the OUATIA story shot by shot.  She remarks the film pretty much ended up the way he told it.

How harsh she is about her own performance.  I really think all in all she was fine.  There were moments in the dressing room scene that were not effective (interestingly she has that point of view as well),  but overall I think she held her own quite well.

Her "relief" from an acting and working perspective on the rape scene; how she relates her experience of early fame and being "objectified" with that scene.  

Her perception on the back and forth between Leone and De Niro.  I would of thought that Leone would of been quite thrilled with De Niro's insistence on attention of detail.  Leone is notorious for that.  Maybe Leone felt that he was being one upped at times. Everything I've seen in print from Leone on De Niro was that he was the only actor that could play the part of Noodles and they worked very well together.  De Niro was to be the lead in his next project.  He told an interviewer, Jean Gili, "We worked in perfect symbiosis; everything went marvelously.   I have my rhythms, he has his and at certain times they coincide: so, there weren't any problems." (Italian Filmmakers, Jean Gili , pg 119)

 
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Noodles_SlowStir on June 01, 2007, 11:53:45 AM
"The Hoods" seems to be now widely available in paperback at a fairly low cost and a copy is in the post to me.  I'm not expecting much but it may help me to expand my knowledge and understanding of the film and the story on which it is based.

That's great mal.  I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts after you've read it.  I haven't read it myself, and hope to read it sometime just to make my own comparisons.  I read someone's comments on the book on another thread.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: dave jenkins on June 01, 2007, 04:08:50 PM
"When I look at it," she explains, "there's a really seamless quality to the scenes with the children, that the scenes with the adults never quite achieve. When Sergio was working with the kids - who were very pliable, who were going to do what he told them - there's a sense about the film that this is what he really wanted.

"But with the adults, there was this feeling that Sergio and De Niro were on slightly different tracks. De Niro was so interested in realistic detail and was often concerned that there wasn't enough of it, and Sergio could not have been less interested..." she tails off, then rallies with a slightly more positive spin: "They were both after creating a good piece of work, so I suppose it was the best kind of fight."
This is one of the most astute things I've ever seen an actor say about a film he/she was in. McGovern's take on the film as a whole is good, and she's right about her own performance. I've always thought she was the weak part of the film (in marked contrast to the amazing Jennifer Connelly). The dressing room scene doesn't play at all.

Anyway, I'm really glad to have read this and I'm glad it's been posted to the board for future reference. O0
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Juan Miranda on June 01, 2007, 06:14:17 PM
Very interesting read Noodles_SlowStir. Thank's for sharing it. I always though McGovern was a bit of a weak point in this film, indeed in any film she has been cast (an unkind reviewer once described her as "the kiss of death to every film she's in" (possibly Joe Queenan, I can't remember the source)), however her role in the OUATIA script is clearly underwritten and would have been hard on any performer to do much more with it.

Her point that another woman should have played the "older" Deborah is still one of Leone's most controvertial choices in shooting the picture. That she realised this as they were filming it on the day is a great piece of insight for an actor, as they are by nature egocentric folk who want more scenes, never less.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Man with no dame on June 01, 2007, 06:27:52 PM
... egocentric folk who want more scenes, never less.
Juan, she's never struck me like that. She seems to be a very giving actress in everything I've ever seen her in. She fit in fine in Ragtime.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Tucumcari Bound on June 01, 2007, 07:00:39 PM
Great interview! Thanks for that! :)
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: dave jenkins on June 02, 2007, 06:23:02 AM
That she realised this as they were filming it on the day is a great piece of insight for an actor, as they are by nature egocentric folk who want more scenes, never less.
Juan, Juan, Juan . . . "fewer" for countable nouns. Sorry, to pick on you, but I see this more and more and it just has to stop. What will become of marmota's English if the proper forms are not observed here?
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Man with no dame on June 02, 2007, 07:00:08 AM
Juan, Juan, Juan . . . "fewer" for countable nouns. Sorry, to pick on you, but I see this more and more and it just has to stop. What will become of marmota's English if the proper forms are not observed here?
   I have no problems with some of the European diction. Some of the English speaking people butcher its up more often as not that! ;D
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Juan Miranda on June 02, 2007, 03:28:35 PM
Juan, Juan, Juan . . . "fewer" for countable nouns.

I'm shocked, shocked that a Colonial is picking on me because of graaanmaar.

As my origional post was made after enjoying half a bottle of Teacher's Scotch I think I made a fair observation.

(Back onn topic now puleezeee (as New Yowkers would say).
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Groggy on June 03, 2007, 04:36:45 PM
I agree with Slowstir. For all the Elizabeth-as-Deborah detractors out there, I think she did a very good job in the part - certainly making her fairly brief appearance memorable. I don't even think her 1968 scenes were that bad.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Man with no dame on June 03, 2007, 04:53:33 PM
I agree with Slowstir. For all the Elizabeth-as-Deborah detractors out there, I think she did a very good job in the part - certainly making her fairly brief appearance memorable. I don't even think her 1968 scenes were that bad.
   She reminds me of another great actress of that era(not looks or anything)  Jenny Aguter, who was in lots of great films, for big directors. She never really is remembered like she should be. Veronica Cartwright is another.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Groggy on June 04, 2007, 05:17:12 AM
I think the failure of OUATIA pretty much doomed her big screen career. Not that she's not done any film work by any means, but she was going to be the "next big thing" if this film had been successful.

Last I heard, she was starring in a stage production of "The Scarlet Letter". So she's still working.

Come to think of it, James Woods and Treat Williams also came very close to being super-stars, but never quite got there. Woods became one of America's premiere sleazy character actors while Williams is remembered for. . . "Hair", I guess.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: dave jenkins on June 04, 2007, 05:16:26 PM
   She reminds me of another great actress of that era(not looks or anything)  Jenny Aguter, who was in lots of great films, for big directors. She never really is remembered like she should be.
Well, if you've ever seen Walkabout you can never forget her. She does a nude scene, and I think she was only 14 at the time. Impossible to do that kind of thing these days.....
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Noodles_SlowStir on June 05, 2007, 02:28:49 PM
Walkabout is a beautiful film.  Jenny Agutter was quite beautiful in it.  She was born Dec 1952.  The film came out in 1971, so she was probably somewhere between 17 or 18 when the film was in production.  She was definitely playing younger.  The scene of her swimming is quite memorable.  Really nice score by John Barry.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Man with no dame on June 05, 2007, 05:49:47 PM
Sweet William is another good film of her's.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: cigar joe on June 05, 2007, 08:23:40 PM
thanks for the interview
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Tucumcari Bound on June 14, 2007, 07:33:47 PM
I wish McGovern did more work. She's a great actress with an extraordinary look in my opinion.
Title: Re: Elizabeth McGovern 2003 Interview
Post by: Juan Miranda on June 15, 2007, 03:18:06 PM
Well, if you've ever seen Walkabout you can never forget her.

I saw Jenny Agutter just a couple of days ago. I was helping an ex-girlfriend install an exhibition of her work in an incredibally posh shop in the West end of London (The General Trading Store). Anyhoo, I walked out of the customer toilet and almost bumped right into a woman in a cardigan and jeans, shopping for stationary with a much older lady. Bugger me, it was Jenny herself.

I didn't say "hello" as it would have been a bit intrusive, but it was great to see her none the less. Apparently Pierce Brosnan had been in the shop too that morning, but I didn't spot him.