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What the Hell Happened to Kelly McGillis?

Kelly McGillis

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.

Kelly McGillis - Reuben, Reuben - 1983

Kelly McGillis – Reuben, Reuben – 1983

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.

Kelly McGillis - Sweet Revenge - 1984

Kelly McGillis – Sweet Revenge – 1984

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.

Kelly McGillis - Witness - 1985

Kelly McGillis – Witness – 1985

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.

Kelly McGillis - Witness - 1985

Kelly McGillis – Witness – 1985

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

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Posted on August 16, 2016, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actress and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. This is an excellent addition to the What the Hell Happened series! McGillis’ story really is a sad one.
    It’s actually pretty impressive that she has survived in the work as well as she has. Often, victims of the sort of trauma that she experienced will go out of their way to put a barrier between themselves and other people, which is the opposite of what a good actress should be doing. But I do remember feeling like there was a hard outer layer to many of McGillis’ performances and in-person interviews. The vulnerability she was able to allow herself in some of her other performances are a tribute to her strength as a person.

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    • This one took a long time to write for a variety of reasons. The fact that there was so much tragedy to deal with was a minor contributing factor. The sad ones tend to bum me out, so I write them in smaller chunks. They also require a bit more research. If I’m going to delve into the subject’s personal life, I feel obligated to make sure everyone is fairly represented. I read quite a bit about the making of Cat Chaser, for example, to make sure I got everyone’s point of view. If you’re Peter Weller, you’re probably more than a little frustrated that the big starring vehicle you have been pouring your blood sweat and tears into costars a woman who is clearly wrestling with demons. Knowing McGillis’ backstory, it’s perfectly understandable that she wasn’t in a good place and probably shouldn’t have been making a movie that would require her to recreate a graphic rape scene. Walking away from Hollywood was likely a solid call on her part. It is admirable how much she has endured and that she has continued to work as an actress outside of mainstream movies. It’s a sad story, but I think ultimately it is one of triumph.

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  2. Great article!

    Also, wow, I didn’t realize her story was so sad!

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  3. Very nice appreciation of Kelly McGillis’s career. It’s great to see the return of the WTHH series!

    I think sometimes it’s easy to lose sight, in our present era where coming out is just another thing people do, that as recently as the 1980s that was something that was very, very rare. I came across a list of “celebrities who came out in the 1980s” and noticed that 1) it was pretty short, and 2) of the entertainers on the list (which also included 2 or 3 politicians and tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova), virtually all of them were British, not American (e.g., Elton John, Ian McKellen).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elton John came out at the height of his popularity and then got married to a woman some time after that when he was still pretty huge. Then he got divorced and re-confirmed what we all already knew. He went through quite a lot of personal trouble and there’s no telling how much of it was connected to anxiety over his sexual preferences and how parts of society and people he knew might judge him. It could not have helped with his drug dependencies and multiple suicide attempts. Somehow his career never really suffered through all of it. Some of that can be attributed to the crazy glam imagery of many pop stars of the ’70s and early ’80s and some of it to the fact that he was already a very big star and he kept on releasing good pop music. If it ever did cost him sales/radio play all that does is make me wonder exactly how much huger could he possibly have been?

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    • At one point, I had a line in the article kind of joke-explaining for future generations that a civil union was essentially same-sex marriage before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide. Imagine how silly that debate is going to seem in 50 years. I think it will blow people’s minds that it took until the 21st century for America to allow same sex marriages. And I still know people who are behind the times on that one.

      The 80’s would have been a terrible time to come out. In the seventies, gay culture had taken a few steps forward. But with the rise of AIDS, the door got slammed in their faces. I remember rampant homophobia growing up. If anyone at my school deviated in any way from rigid gender norms, they would be persecuted. There was a witch hunt mentality. For an actor, there was a sense that if audiences knew you were gay, they wouldn’t accept you playing straight roles. And there were very few gay parts, so if that happened your career was sunk.

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  4. Good Bad Flicks: Stake Land (2010)

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  5. Great to see the return of What the Hell Just Happened. Hope it isn’t long before the next one. It would be interesting if you made other carrear assesment. Perhaps along the lines of How The Hell Did they successfully navigate there carrear and keep on top for so long?

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  6. I knew Kelly McGillis came out a few years ago, but I had no idea that she & her girlfriend were raped in the early 1980’s. Like what Daffy said, she’s a strong woman to set aside the issues of sexual identity & an extremely traumatic situation to continue pursuing acting.
    And what mainstream acting that was for McGillis: “Witness” (love, it, love it) “Top Gun” (never cared a lot for it, or the NES game either) and “The Accused” (powerful, and it can be understood why she’s be interested in the material). I also viewed “The House on Carroll Street” and thought it was really good (like it more than “Top Gun”). That’s quite a run.
    So, that home invasion just happened a couple of months ago? Geez, like she she needed another experience like that. Poor lady; I hope she has a sense of happiness and fulfillment in other areas of her life.

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    • When The Accused came out, I saw the magazine covers in which McGillis talked about being a rape survivor. So I was aware of that. I was vaguely aware she came out a few years ago. But until I dug in, I didn’t realize the full extent of what she was dealing with. The fact that she was raped following a divorce while experimenting with her sexuality created a sense of guilt. She blamed her rape on the fact she was gay. Imagine what that does to you!

      The home invasion was just this past summer. The article was already in flight and I was kind of kicking myself for not having finished it already. There was another angle to that story that I left out of the article but I will mention here. The NRA crowd latched on to comments McGillis made about getting a concealed carry to protect herself. For at least one news cycle, she became an unlikely hero of 2nd amendment advocates.

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      • After I read this article, I read another article that said she was gang-raped when she was 12 too, and another time she was mugged! Yeesh, there’s no wonder why she felt she was being punished. She surely has experienced the dark side of the human condition much too often.

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    • It seems like she let herself go quite a lot (Kelly McGillis wasn’t really a delicate beauty in the first place), probably because all of her troubled life: being raped, then getting into alcohol and drugs because of that, and then still the same alcohol and drugs story because of being unhappily married to a man before getting married to the woman she loves.

      During her “Top Gun” prime, she had a mature look to her, not a conventional “hot” look. Something like that is perfect for an intelligent character role. Her cheekbones gave her a distinct look, but her face doesn’t have that definition since she’s gained weight—that’s probably why she looks so incredibly different to me.

      Then again, Kelly McGillis has long been out of the public spotlight and so there is no need for her to bend to the never ending pressure of looking young when she no longer is.

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      • Kelly McGillis is a real “What The Hell Happened?” for me, since I kind of forgot about her for the longest time (beginning in the early 1990’s) until I began re-watching “Witness” or remembering “Top Gun” (I actually just took an online survey quiz in which the questions pointed a lot to McGillis’ Charlie character, and I got most of them right. For someone who doesn’t really like “Top gun” all that much anymore, I was surprised. I suppose I was channeling my inner Tom Skerritt). Some of the other subjects I’m still pretty familiar with, but until recently that not the case when it comes to Kelly McGillis.

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    • Who was on their way to the big time and then got fired from a film set and never got work again…

      https://www.datalounge.com/thread/8463938-who-was-on-their-way-to-the-big-time-and-then-got-fired-from-a-film-set-and-never-got-work-again

      I think Kelly’s bad marriage came from her being gay and lying to hubby. I remember reading that her husband got busted with a prostitute on the day Kelly gave birth to their first kid. Ouch.

      Plus, didn’t she just get married because of the gay rumors? She was trying to stop it from hurting her career. So why did she leave?

      —JF

      reply 50 10/26/2009

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  7. That “Bonds of Love” tv movie sounds a lot like the Australian film Tim that Mel Gibson was in before he was famous in the US. He plays a mildly retarded young man who gets hired to do some yard work for an older American business woman played by Piper Laurie. The two grow close and fall in love, but Tim’s family thinks he doesn’t have the capacity to consent and thinks Laurie’s character is a dirty old woman taking advantage of his innocence. I’m pretty sure the American tv movie had to have been based on it, the description is too similar to be a coincidence.

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    • The movie you are referring to is Tim (released in 1979). It was based on the novel of the same name by Colleen McCullough. “Bonds of Love” was based on a real life couple. The events took place in 1991 which was several years after the book was written. But there are definite similarities. I wouldn’t be shocked if the makers of the TV movie had seen Tim.

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      • I just looked up “Bond of Love” on IMDB and the one external review states in the beginning that he thought it was going to be a TV remake of “Tim” until realizing it was a true story. I viewed “Tim” about four year ago; I liked it.

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  8. How the 1980s Defined the Look of Movie Sex Scenes

    http://www.vulture.com/2016/10/how-the-1980s-defined-movie-sex-scenes.html

    Picture a movie sex scene — not one in particular, but the archetypal notion of one. Does it involve a tastefully topless actress throwing her head back in ecstasy as our leading man nibbles down the length of her neck? Is the romp shot in slow-mo and bathed in cool blue light, our actors’ hair backlit like golden halos? And is there a sensitive plinking of piano on the soundtrack to signify tender lovemaking, or, if the fucking’s real good, a wailing saxophone?

    If so, the 1980s did a number on you … and, it must be said, everybody else. As the last film decade before celebrity skin became easily search-indexed online, the 1980s offered love scenes galore in just about every type of genre. And while a loosening of film standards meant that sex and nudity had become almost commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s codified how a sex scene ought to look in ways that continue to filter down into modern-day movies and the sexually explicit world of premium cable.

    Think of Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, who interrupt the macho theatrics of Top Gun to start Frenching to “Take My Breath Away.” Shot like silhouettes and backlit by blue moonlight, they hook up in front of billowing bedroom curtains that undulate along with the stars’ heaving bodies. (In the 1980s, there was always something billowing.) It might as well be a music-video set, which was one of the primary, lasting innovations of the 1980s sex scene: As MTV and pornography both became booming businesses, movies found a way to fuse the tropes of both.

    At the time, the sex scenes in films like 9 1/2 Weeks and Risky Business were derided as over-the-top bouts of stylization. Did anyone truly make love like that, artfully choreographing each move in mood lighting pitched just so? But as those iconic scenes claimed more and more pop cultural real estate, they became not the exception to the rule but the de facto template for onscreen sex to come. Watch the sex scenes from 1984’s The Terminator and 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey back to back, for example, and you might be surprised by how much they have in common — from the lighting to the choreography to the similar indications of orgasmic pleasure — despite being two very different movies made 30 years apart.

    How has that awfully specific rubric lasted so long? Don’t credit the big screen for it: Since the 1990s, major movies have been almost literally denuded of their sex scenes, with Fifty Shades of Grey standing as both a notable exception and an homage to a bygone era. (It’s telling that The Terminator stops in its tracks for a scene of gentle lovemaking, while 2015’s Terminator Genisys keeps the same characters so far apart, you’d think they were chaperoned.) But into that vacuum came television, where the format of the 1980s sex scene persisted and even flourished. NYPD Blue broke network-television barriers with fantasy-lit sex scenes that were at odds with the cop drama’s usual grit, and on premium cable, late-night Skinemax entries tried to peddle soft porn with tricks learned from ’80s directors like Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne. True Blood’s frequent sex scenes wouldn’t have looked out of place a few decades earlier, and if you tune into the latest sex-and-violence drama on Starz or Showtime, the lovemaking might feel a little familiar.

    So while naturalistic bouts of sex, like the hungry assignations in Blue Is the Warmest Color, might sometimes find fanfare, it’s fair to say that the more stylized hallmarks of the 1980s sex scene are here to stay, now permanently embedded in our cultural consciousness as the ideal notion of how screen lovemaking ought to look. Allow me to craft my own homage, then: Instead of ending this article on a sharp observation or humorous quote, I’ll simply pan away, land on a bedside table, and fade out.

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  9. The Accused is garbage. This 04 review on imdb is worth pasting. I completely agree with it except for the sidenote about Silence:

    “Cheap exploitation flick. Wretched performance by Foster. Shot in an annoyingly pedestrian, TV docudrama style. Make no mistake about it: the protracted flashback near the film’s end is there for the sole purpose of titillating the audience. How “The Accused” garnered so much respect from the press eludes me. Foster even won an Oscar for her performance! (Which was followed by a statue for her so-so work in the god-awful “Silence of the Lambs.”) This is a shameful effort. That it masquerades as a sincere piece of social commentary makes me hate it even more. (I’ve met a great many feminists that were somehow bamboozled into lauding this dreck.) “The Accused” is downright fraudulent.”

    Forget about the fact that it has the feel of a Lifetime movie. It’s total exploitation. I don’t buy the sincerity for a second. It has one of the worst screenplays ever to be adapted on film. The lines are incredibly cringy and Foster’s delivery of them sucks. I doubt even she would be offended by these comments since she went on record saying she thought her own performance was awful.

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    • Yeah, I think “The Accused” is overrated, and that rape flashback was unnecessary; I think words would’ve been fine.

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      • I saw potential chemistry between JF with the actor who played her boyfriend, Tom O’Brien. Which for her is unheard of. The movie would’ve benefitted from expanding his character. He’s barely in it at all.

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        • Yeah, I thought he was pretty good and played a useful character in the limited screen time he had; The film features mostly only McGillis & Foster, so I guess that’s what the script was going for. Still, his character could’ve lasted a little longer.

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  10. What the cast of Top Gun looks like today

    http://www.looper.com/39154/cast-top-gun-looks-like-today/

    Kelly McGillis (Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood)

    Kelly McGillis was already well on her way to becoming a star by the time Top Gun flew into theaters, having starred opposite Harrison Ford in Witness the previous year. While McGillis wasn’t personally recognized among the nominations, Witness received Oscar nods in a total of eight categories and put the actress on the map. She followed up her successful turn as Maverick’s love interest Charlie with a role as an assistant district attorney in 1988’s The Accused, a film that won the Best Actress award for her co-star Jodie Foster but once again left McGillis empty-handed.

    Unlike her Top Gun co-star, McGillis slipped off the radar, eventually turning to Syfy originals for work (she’s seen above in a still from a 2014 episode of the network’s Z Nation in which her character fought a “zombie bear”). Her career hit its lowest ebb in 2007 when she was “reduced to taking a thankless supporting role” in dreadful creature feature Supergator.

    Like

    • Re: Kim Basinger at the Los Angeles Premiere of Universal Pictures Fifty Shades Darker at the Ace Hotel Theatre. 2/2/17

      http://www.lipstickalley.com/showthread.php/1140143-Kim-Basinger-at-the-Los-Angeles-Premiere-of-Universal-Pictures-Fifty-Shades-Darker-at-the-Ace-Hotel-Theatre-2-2-17?p=29668017&viewfull=1#post29668017

      Kim was sexy; but white women tend to have masculine features that don’t age well; which is ironic since they are presented as being the most feminine women. You can tell even this photo that she probably wasn’t going to age nicely.

      Same with Kelly McGillis. Attractive but masculine; you could tell she would age to be masculine and unattractive like most white women, and she did….

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      • The posters in that thread are clueless regarding Basinger. Posting photos taken when she was 37 and 35 to argue that she “was never a beauty” or “you could tell she wasn’t going to age well” is just ridiculous.

        Kim was in her prime between ages 27 (when she started lightening her hair, sometime in 1981) and 32. Blind Date was the first movie where facially she was anything less than perfect. The film she looked best in, IMO is a toss up between Mother Lode and Never Say Never Again.

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        • I think there are many posters out there (excluding present site) who have comments that aren’t very objective or constructive.

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        • In the case for “Blind Date”, I wonder if Kim looking “less than perfect” was kind of intentional on her or the producers’ part. Maybe it’s because it was one of the rare cases in which Kim doesn’t sport her trademark platinum blonde hair (“Even Money”, which has Kim as a redhead, ironically like Vicki Vale in the comic books, is another one) Also the whole point of that movie if I’m not mistaken, was that Kim played this passive, unassuming girl who suddenly “turns crazy” when she has even the slightest taste of alcohol.

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  11. What Happened to Kelly McGillis – News & Updates

    http://gazettereview.com/2017/02/happened-kelly-mcgillis-news-updates/

    By Brooke Carter – Feb 23, 2017

    California-born actress Kelly McGillis starred in several high-profile films during the 80’s including Witness (1985), Top Gun (1986), and The Accused (1988). Having always gravitated toward the performing arts, she moved to New York City to study acting at New York’s renewed Julliard School after graduating from high school in 1975. While honing her skills at the institute, she starred in a production of Love for Love, a comedy by William Congreve. At one point, she also studied at Santa Monica’s Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts. In 1983, the then twenty-six year old made her big screen debut in the romance comedy, Rueben, Rueben, where she co-starred alongside Roberts Blossom and Tom Conti. Branching out into television, she appeared in the TV film, Sweet Revenge (1984) the following year. Determined to make it big, she later appeared in an episode of Live from Lincoln Center (1985), prior to landing a breakthrough with the crime drama film, Witness that same year. A major blockbuster, the movie not only launched her career, but it also earned her a BAFTA and Golden Globe Award nomination.

    Gradually rising to prominence, McGillis subsequently starred alongside Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise in the fighter pilot film, Top Gun in 1986. Following that, she was cast as the female lead in the Oscar-winning drama film, The Accused (1988). Although it was widely successful, the actress later confessed that she in fact, despised the movieーwhich was based loosely on the gang rape of Cheryl Araujoーbeing a survivor of rape herself. Over the next decade, she appeared in over a dozen titles including Grand Isle (1991), The Babe (1992), Dark Eyes (1995), Painted Angels (1998), and Perfect Prey (1998), to name a few. After playing various roles in The Outer Limits (2000), The Monkey’s Mask (2000), No One Can Hear You (2001), and Morgan’s Ferry (2001) in the early 2000’s, McGillis took a prolonged break from acting before returning to television in 2006.

    After making her big return in the TV film, Cold Shoulder (2006), she starred in a number of movies including Stake Land (2010), The Innkeepers (2011), What Could Have Been (2011), We Are What We Are (2013), and Grand Street (2014). While she kept her focus mainly on the big screen, she did go on to appear in the made-for-television movie, Love Finds You in Sugarcreek (2014) and in an episode of the action comedy series, Z Nation (2014). Outside of acting, McGillis has also been in a number of TV specials over the years such as Donnie & Marie (1999), Journey to Planet Earth (2003), Biography (2005), Breakfast (2010), Gyline Tider (2010), and The Innkeepers: Behind the Scenes (2012).

    What has the Golden Globe Award-nominated star been up to since then? What new projects can we expect from her this upcoming year? What new credits have she added to her filmography as of late? What happened to Kelly McGillis? Where is she now in 2017?

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  12. Cannes: ‘Top Gun’ Star Kelly McGillis to Play Midwest Crime Queen in ‘Annie Cook’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    http://variety.com/2017/film/global/cannes-top-gun-kelly-mcgillis-crime-queen-annie-cook-1202424633/

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  13. Time for a birthday gallery!

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