What the Hell Happened to Kelly McGillis?
With Witness, McGillis captured the attention of Hollywood. But the following year, Top Gun made her a household name.
Tom Cruise starred as a maverick Naval Aviator in training. McGillis played an instructor with a thing for her students, especially cocksure bad boys. Anthony Edwards played Cruise’s best friend and Val Kilmer costarred as his rival. A pre-fame Meg Ryan had a supporting role as Edwards’ soon-to-be-widow.
Top Gun was inspired by an article that ran in California magazine. The article included aerial photography which sparked the imaginations of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. They hired screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. to adapt the article about the lives of the pilots at “Fightertown USA” into a script. The Navy insisted on making several changes to the original script in order to secure their involvement. For example, the movie’s big death was originally written as a midair collision, but the Navy disapproved, so the scene was rewritten.
McGillis’ character was inspired by an actual flight instructor. Christine Fox worked her way through the Pentagon before retiring in 2014 as Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense. In the original script, her character was written as an officer. But when the Navy objected to the depiction of two officers being romantically involved, she was demoted to a civilian.
The original script lacked a love scene for Cruise and McGillis. Following test screenings, the decision was made to add a love screen during reshoots. But by that point, the actors had started preparing for other projects and no longer looked the same. McGillis’ hair was longer and dyed brown. Since she couldn’t cut it, they stuck her in a baseball cap for the elevator scene and filmed the love scene in silhouette so her hair color wouldn’t be noticeable.
Top Gun opened to mixed reviews. Critics agreed that the aerial fights were spectacular but the rest of the movie was less impressive. Audiences didn’t care. They made Top Gun the highest grossing movie of the year. Not only that, but according to the US Navy, their recruitment went up 500% after the movie’s release. The movie tapped into the jingoism of the Reagan 80’s and the music video sensibilities of the MTV era. More than thirty years later, even Top Gun‘s biggest fans are likely to admit it hasn’t aged all that well. But that hasn’t prevented rumors of a long delayed sequel. If that should come to pass, don’t expect McGillis to return. She has gone on record that she is too old for Top Gun 2.
According to McGillis, she wasn’t ready for the kind of fame Top Gun brought her:
It made me very unhappy, very untrusting of other people. I think you’d call it living terror. I was scared when I got recognised on the street. There are enough wacky people in the world, and I’d had enough crappy things happen to me before I was famous. When you’re recognisable, think how the chance of that multiplies.
Everyone knows that if you want to be a movie star, you have to capitalize on a massive hit like Top Gun. Coming off of the biggest hit of 1986 not to mention Witness the year before, McGillis was primed for the A-list. All she needed was one more box office smash to secure her status. But instead of starring in another adrenaline charged action picture, McGillis choose a quirky romantic comedy about reincarnation.
McGillis starred opposite Timothy Hutton as a couple who finds true love in the afterlife. Unfortunately, their eternal bliss is short-lived. McGillis’ character still has unfinished business left on earth. When she is sent back to earth to live out another life, Hutton bargains with a mysterious and androgynous figure played by his then-wife Debra Winger. The deal is Hutton can go back to earth as well, but neither he nor McGillis will have any recollection of their time together in heaven. It will be up to them to find each other and fall in love all over again.
If this all sounds schmaltzy, it is. But it’s directed by Alan Rudolph who elevates the material along with his strong cast. Most critics thought the movie missed the mark, but audiences with an appetite for cheesy love stories have discovered Made In Heaven‘s charm on video. They sure didn’t see it in theaters. Made in Heaven debuted in 13th place behind Dirty Dancing which had been in cineplexes for three months already. Seven other movies opened that same weekend including the reincarnation-themed rom-com, Hello Again, which opened in second place behind Fatal Attraction.
Later that year, McGillis starred in the Israeli drama Ha-Holmim (aka Unsettled Land). McGillis portrayed an Austrian doctor in a group of European pioneers who travel to Palestine in 1919 in order to establish a kibbutz in Galilee. Not only was Unsettled land a period drama costarring John Shea, it was set in the Middle East. It’s hard to think of a project with less commercial appeal. The movie premiered in the International Competition at the Tokyo Film Festival and showed at the Israel Him Festival in New York. But outside of Israeli cinema, the movie went largely unnoticed.
Next: The Accused