ALI MACGRAW IS painted with a bold, bright stroke, in red and black: black hair, black trousers and sweater, eyes like jet, a red leather jacket and black boots with silver studs, "You don't mind if I take off my shoes, do you?" she asks. When she pulls them off, her socks are tomato red.
Out of such a richness do not expect a beige quote. Particularly when the subject is "The Winds of War," the most expensive TV series in history, in which the critics have singled out MacGraw's performance as the low. "The only really bad performance is MacGraw's," says Time, bald as a knife. MacGraw tries not to read reviews when they are bad, but she knows what they say even so. People warn her.
"How was it?" she asked when Time hit the stands. "Not good for you," the publicist said. "How was it for the movie?" she asked, but she admits she didn't listen to the reply. She was in Philadelphia then, doing publicity for the show, with one more interview to go; she felt all through it as if she had a crowbar in her guts. But today, the morning after, she feels better, stronger and better, and when the publicist seems about to interrupt, she brushes him off.
"My Pollyanna days are over," she says. "They ended last night, you know what I mean. I'm so sick and tired of saying it's okay. It's not okay to be singled out and attacked. I worked really hard on this film and I'm proud of it. I mean I'm incredibly honest and I was the first person to say I was just terrible in 'Convoy,' and 'Players' wasn't terrific, but I can't do the Pollyanna number about this project because it means too much to me, you understand? In the old days I might have said, 'No, it doesn't matter to me,' but it does matter to me. I think it's unfair . . .See MACGRAW, L10, Col. 1 Ali MacGraw; by Nancy Kaye for The Washington Post Ali MacGraw MACGRAW, From L1
"Sometimes I wonder what kind of credibility I've had for the fact that I've had such an up-and-down life, or for the instant superstar s--- of 'Love Story,' which I didn't ask for. Being the girl in 'Love Story' was like being Bruce the shark in 'Jaws'--if Bruce was a woman he would have been the big star that year. Or Willard the rat, had he been a man, would have been big news that year, okay? And then it was helped along by the fact that I married a superstar and we lived quietly ever after . . . but how much anger is there that I was on the cover of Time in 1971? I just sense there's something going on here that's like overkill."
Throughout her career, she's had problems with the critics. After "The Getaway," Pauline Kael wrote that she was "the worst actress in America." In her latest role--as Natalie Jastrow, an American Jewish girl in Europe who comes to connect with her roots--she has also been, perhaps more than anyone in the show, attacked.
"In 'Winds,' she's been encouraged to do what she does worst: smirk, flirt and have snits; indeed this may be her snittiest performance," wrote New York magazine, hitting the stands the day she began doing interviews.
In person, however, there are no irritating mannerisms. And while some actors, in life, are less than their screen personalities--smaller, shorter, mortally, disappointingly pale--with Ali MacGraw the opposite is true. The camera, perhaps because she is not certain how to control it, diminishes her, often reducing her--though she photographs as a woman in her late twenties--to a superficial tease. Off camera she has vitality and the thoughtfulness of an intelligent woman of 43. Described by one producer many years ago as "the most unmovie-star actress I've ever known," she heads across the room at ABC's New York headquarters in a comfortable lope, stretches her legs out on the couch. The corduroy jeans are old friends, the sweater a veteran cableknit.
"I'm exhausted," she says. "I just came from Philadelphia and I felt like I had been beaten up . . . like almost every day in the past two weeks I've taken off all my clothes in front of thirty strangers . . . all very nice people but when it's all just one after the other you just want to jump in the car and go to sleep . . . and eat chocolate, which today I'm watching grow to greatness on my face."
Even so, there's a wariness, a defensive irony. Ask her if her belt with the molded silver buckle is a Kieselstein and she'll answer, "Yes, sorry," aware that you know it's expensive, fearful it will be added to the lore of extravagant movie star stuff. She adds that she bought a Kieselstein belt "after six years of fighting it" because it was easier to use a beautiful belt to change an outfit than to schlep a lot of clothes, and Ali MacGraw, when she travels, takes only what she can carry herself.
She's keenly aware--as are many people in the public eye--of the brutality of compressing a personality into a neat word; or the little murder committed when a person is reduced to a six-inch headline on the entertainment page.
"My tag lines are really priceless, you know," she laughs. " 'Ex-model,' which I wasn't for more than fifteen minutes because I was terrible at it and nobody wanted to look like me until after I go in 'Goodbye, Columbus,' but all of a sudden it becomes part of the legend and goes into the publicity machine. 'Mother of a 12 Year Old.' 'Wife of Whoosie and Whoosie.' "
The tag line she would prefer?
"Survivor," she says; and in her explanation, once again, carefully avoids mention of the names of her former husbands, former Paramount executive Robert Evans and the late Steve McQueen. "Because I've had--in no order of their importance--difficult relationships that ended unhappily; some very significant deaths in my life, including both of my parents and my ex-husband in a period of two years; the insanity of instant stardom followed by horrific criticism . . . it's a lot harder than one might suppose; it's hard sometimes on a grim day to separate criticism of work from self . . . it's the hardest part about being an actor."
She discusses what she feels to be the misconceptions: that she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, though her parents were suburban New York artists who "never made it commercially." That she was "a dilettante," maybe because "when I'm not working, I'm not suicidal--I'm really interested in being somebody's girlfriend, somebody's mother, real life."
She suggests again that there was a certain backlash to being an overnight sensation in "Goodbye, Columbus" in 1969. Particularly when she was almost totally untrained. Her venture into films, after all, was a fluke: She was working as a stylist for New York photographer Mel Sokolsky. Sokolsky began using her as a model. She was apparently unmoved by the glamor--and as self-critical in her twenties as she would be at 43. "Posing was not an ego thing for her," Sokolsky told Good Housekeeping years ago. "In fact, she was always putting herself down." She was seen by an agent. She did not study acting seriously. She very quickly became a hit in "Goodbye, Columbus," followed by "Love Story." Meanwhile, she was falling in love with Robert Evans and moving out to California. She had started studying with Sandy Meisner in New York and when she went west, she says, "He left me with the immortal words, 'There's nobody worth studying with out there.' And I believed him."
It probably would have been better if she hadn't. Her performance in her third picture, "The Getaway," after the birth of her son, Joshua, was panned by the critics.
She fell in love with McQueen, her costar, and left the business for five years, living in Trancas, Calif., near Malibu. That she left acting because McQueen forced her to, or because she was discouraged, is a misconception she has been trying to deal with for years: She left because there were two children, her son, and McQueen's, she says, and because they had both gone through divorces, and because she thought it was very important "to be a parent to these kids and to try and make my marriage work."
But the way that McQueen--whom she prefers not to discuss--had been able to protect himself from the press was "of course" part of the attraction, she says.
"The idea of--in all that heat--being able to have a private life come first; it was the first time I'd see anyone do that and I've tried to do that ever since."
The marriage failed. If she had been single, she "would have been on the first plane back to New York," but she was the mother of a 12 year old, and she believed a normal, suburban community, with people who were not all Hollywood people, and with bicycles, and public school, and ball games on Saturday afternoon, would be best. So she stayed in Trancas and went back to work.
The next two pictures brought even more disastrous criticism, the third, "Just Tell Me What You Want," brought her good notices, but the movie did not do well. When she saw the script for "Winds of War," she knew she wanted to play Natalie. There "was a tremendous independence about Natalie--that she was enjoying her life and trying to grab as much as she could." MacGraw spent nine months on the project and fretted publicly about the role. "I have a terror, this great yawning hole in my stomach," she told TV Guide. "What if everyone says, 'It was great, but she was godawful?' The thought terrifies me. I'd be so ashamed."
Now, some of that's come true. The critics are all over her--and the movie. She says, when asked what it's like to be creamed publicly, that it's "disappointing." But she tells a story of a fancy critics' dinner that goes a bit more to the heart of the thing.
"A big critics' dinner--three glasses per person times ten per table to give you an idea," she says. "And a certain person--no name--said to another person--no name--'There was a ZIP code on a letter--and there were no ZIP codes in 1938.' Can you imagine watching 18 hours, 4 1/2 years' work, and all someone mentions is the ZIP code? And the reaction of this person--the story gets very blue, I can't really tell it--but he hit his fist on the table so that all 30 of those glasses shook and he suggested to this person what he could do with this letter with the ZIP code, where he could put it . . ."
"Once in a while, just once," she says with intensity, "I wish I had the guts to do that."
A final question: Does she ever, in the middle of the night, wonder if the critics might be right about her acting ability?
"I never address myself to that," says Ali MacGraw.