What the Hell Happened to Kelly McGillis?
In the mid-eighties, Kelly McGillis was a rising star. Early in her career, she had a couple of hits one of which turned out to be one of the most iconic movies of the entire decade. Top Gun made Tom Cruise a mega-star. But McGillis’ career went in a different direction. A few years after her star-making role, McGillis became dissatisfied with Hollywood. While McGillis has continued working steadily. she has largely avoided the spotlight.
What the hell happened?
In the early eighties, McGillis was studying acting at Juilliard. During that time, something happened that changed her life forever. In February 1982, two teenagers broke into McGillis’ apartment and raped her and her girlfriend. The attack was brutal, but because the assailants were under-age they could not be tried as adults.
McGillis has said that she felt like the attack was a punishment for having taken a same-sex lover. She had recently been through a short marriage to a fellow student which ended in a messy divorce. McGillis’ lesbian relationship had been a closely guarded secret. She took the attack as a sign that it was wrong. Afterwards, she began self-medicating with alcohol:
I drank a lot. I couldn’t eat. I twitched incessantly and I had nightmares. Because I was so afraid to go to sleep at night, I would drink.
Shortly after graduating from Juilliard, McGillis made her movie debut in the comedy-drama, Reuben, Reuben.
Tom Conti starred as a Scottish poet going through a protracted bout of writer’s block. At the start of the movie, he is a drunk who leeches off of wealthy patrons while trying to seduce their wives. But he decides to get his act together when he falls for a college student played by McGillis.
Critics were kind to Reuben, Reuben. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that McGillis was “a find.” The movie was nominated for two Oscars; Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. Not bad for McGillis’ first outing.
The following year, McGillis starred in the TV movie, Sweet Revenge. She played the wife of an Army Major (a then-unknown Alec Baldwin) who recognizes her husband’s commanding officer as the man responsible for her brother’s death. She vows to avenge her brother any way she can.
The following career, McGillis got her big break in Peter Weir’s dramatic thriller, Witness. Harrison Ford starred as a police officer who goes undercover in Amish country to protect a young boy (Lukas Haas) who is the sole witness to a murder. McGillis portrayed the boy’s mother who has been recently widowed. Danny Glover and Viggo Mortensen costarred.
The script for Witness, originally titled, Called Home, was inspired by an episode of the TV show Gunsmoke. It was over 180-pages long and devoted a lot of screen time to Amish traditions. It told the story from the point of view of the young widow instead of the under-cover cop. Producer Edward S. Feldman thought the script had potential, so he offered the screenwriters $25,000 for an option and a rewrite. Six weeks later, William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, who also wrote the episode of Gunsmoke the movie was inspired by, handed in their revised screenplay.
Feldman took the script to 20th Century Fox with whom he had a “first-look” development deal. Fox passed on the script telling Feldman “We don’t do rural movies.” So the producer sent the script to Harrison Ford’s agent. Four days later, Ford was committed to the project, But the Fox studio head, Joe Wizan, still wasn’t interested. After Fox passed on the project, Feldman began shopping the script around to other studios. Several passed on Witness before Paramount finally agreed to make the movie.
The next step was to find a director. Feldman wanted Weir to make Witness his American film debut, but Weir was already committed to The Mosquito Coast. John Badham passed on what he considered to be “just another cop movie”. Several other directors were unavailable or uninterested. Eventually, when the financial backing for The Mosquito Coast fell through, Weir became available to direct.
In preparation for their roles, Ford accompanies the Philadelphia Police Department on several raids while McGillis lived with an actual Amish widow and her seven children. She observed life in an Amish community and tried to learn the speech patterns. The scene in which Ford and McGillis dance in a barn was actually filmed in the middle of a hot summer day despite being set at night. The barn was blacked out to give the appearance of a romantic evening, but the actors are sweating because they were actually filming in a hot barn withe a kerosene lantern adding to the heat.
Witness was well-liked by most critics, but not unanimously so. It opened in second-place at the box office behind Beverly Hills Cop. It trailed Beverly Hills Cop for four weeks. In its fifth week in theaters, Witness finally claimed the number one spot. Of course by that point, Beverly Hills Cop had spent an impressive thirteen weeks at the top of the box office. After one week at the top, the two movies flip-flop with Beverly Hills Cop reclaiming the #1 spot.
The movie was a dark horse candidate come award season. Witness received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Ford. McGillis wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but she did receive a nod for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes. She lost to Meg Tilly who was nominated for Agnes of God.
Next: Top Gun