Aging grandly: Elizabeth McGovern

The Earl and Countess of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)

By Bob Hicks

One of the lasting impressions of Ragtime, director Milos Forman‘s 1981 version of the E.L. Doctorow novel, is of the ravishing freshness and physical innocence of the young actress Elizabeth McGovern, playing Evelyn Nesbit. Her beauty was dreamlike, the beauty of a creature only just discovering self-awareness.

Elizabeth McGovern in "Ragtime," 1981.Beauty fades, of course, or rather, it changes. Now, at 49, McGovern is still beautiful, but in a fully mature, more experienced, less unnerving way — which, from some vantages, makes her even more beautiful: It’s a beauty anchored by reality.

McGovern has lived in England for the past 18 years, and has recently co-starred in a hit period television series, Downton Abbey, which will be broadcast in the United States beginning Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic. Sarah Lyall has a good interview with her in this morning’s editions of the New York Times.

McGovern has got into the habit of acting the way English actors do: sometimes on film, sometimes for television, sometimes on the stage. She even, Lyall reports, sings and plays guitar (and writes the songs) in a London pub band. How does the acting life differ on the two sides of the Atlantic? Lyall quotes McGovern:

It’s more of a craft here. In America people work day and night  to create their public personality, and then they hang their professional life on that. It’s a full-time job to convince people that you’re such and such a thing — that’s why you’re hired, and great careers are made of that. But here there’s more of an acceptance that you do your work and then take off your makeup and go home.

And what about that aging thing?

There’s a tradition here of older actresses being actresses and not striving to pretend they’re young. I’m finding that as I get older, the parts are getting more interesting. When I was young, I was very much the ingenue, and I’m very happy to leave that behind.

Certainly that distinction seems true. American movie actresses tend to play sexy as long as they can, and then, if they’re lucky, they become Betty White. British film, television and theater is rich with sophisticated roles for actors and actresses of all ages. Think of Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith (who plays McGovern’s mother-in-law in Downton Abbey). Think of the roles Emma Thompson has tackled since her early, heady days with Kenneth Branagh. Where are their American equivalents? It’s not that American actresses of a certain age suddenly can’t act anymore: Often, as performers, they’re just coming into their own. It’s more that English film — and English theater, which has a 500-plus year tradition that the American stage, for all of its glories, can’t approach — hasn’t succumbed in the same way the American entertainment machine has to the dictates of adolescent taste. That means that in British stage and film, actual adults are still considered to be interesting beings.

In a way, McGovern is living an expanded, more commercially successful version of the sort of life American stage actors in regional cities such as Portland live — a life of steady (if they’re lucky), lower-key work, moving from project to project, immersing themselves and then re-emerging, and leading semi-anonymous lives when they’re not onstage. In other words: a world in which actors and actresses are part of their communities, not gods and goddesses.

The situation gets tougher for American actresses, both regionally and in New York and  Hollywood, as they age: at a time when many are hitting their stride as performers, the available roles start to shrivel up. The ratio of good older stage actresses to good roles for older stage actresses in Portland is downright depressing: all that talent, and nowhere to show it.

Few American actors move regularly between stage and film the way English performers do: once they’ve gone to Hollywood, they’re pretty much lost to the the theater. And American television does have a place for mature actresses, although that place is generally in a sit-com where they play either hyper-efficient moms or comic-relief harridans. Onstage? Well, it’s tough to make a whole career out of Lady Bracknell and Big Mama.

In the meantime, if you’re home Sunday night, turn on Downton Abbey and watch an American actress who seems to have beat the odds. All she had to do was move to England.