Actress Kelly McGillis struggled with early fame and personal identity in the years that followed her breakout roles in two of the most popular films of the 1980s. Still in her final year at the famous Julliard School of Drama, McGillis was cast in the quirky black comedy “Reuben, Reuben” (1983). And while her debut may not have been a box office hit, it would attract the attention of the director of her next film, “Witness” (1985), which most certainly was a success. As well received as McGillis’ pairing with Harrison Ford was in that Oscar-nominated film, her next appearance – this time alongside heartthrob Tom Cruise – in “Top Gun” (1986), was an unprecedented smash hit and catapulted her to stardom. Although it garnered co-star Jodie Foster more accolades than it did her, McGillis’ dedicated turn in “The Accused” (1988) was satisfying for the actress on a deeply personal level. Her early successes proved hard to duplicate, however, as features like “Winter People” (1989) failed to find an audience. Ultimately, McGillis found gratification with live stage work, balanced by occasional film projects such as “The Monkey’s Mask” (2001) and “The Inkeepers” (2011). Refusing to be pigeonholed as the starlet du jour, McGillis chose her own path, one that while not leading to box-office gold, allowed her to find herself as an actress and as a person.
Born Kelly Ann McGillis on July 9, 1957 in Newport Beach, CA, she was the daughter of Joan and Donald McGillis, an acting coach and general practitioner, respectively. Having inherited the acting bug from her mother, McGillis received her first drama award for an early performance in a production of “The Serpent” while attending Newport Harbor High School. She vigorously pursued her chosen vocation when – much to her parents’ dismay – the teenage McGillis left high school and began studying at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. Within a few years she made another bold move – this time to New York City, where she enrolled at the Julliard School of Drama, and later served as an understudy with the New York Shakespeare Festival in a production of “Don Juan.” It was during her final year at Julliard that McGillis, who was making ends meet as a waitress at the time, auditioned for a role with director Robert Ellis Miller. Much to her surprise, she won the part, that of a younger woman involved in a doomed relationship with an older, alcoholic poet (Tom Conti) in the dark romantic comedy “Reuben, Reuben” (1982).
Following her low-profile feature film debut, McGillis made her first television appearance in the military-set pot-boiler “Sweet Revenge” (CBS, 1984), alongside newcomer Alec Baldwin. She followed with a turn as a young nymphomaniac in “Private Sessions” (NBC, 1985), a failed series pilot starring Mike Farrell as a caring psychoanalyst. Just as McGillis began to think that “Reuben, Reuben” had been nothing more than a fluke, a fan of her performance in that film, Australian director Peter Weir, cast her in his upcoming crime-drama “Witness” (1985). In one of the year’s best thrillers, McGillis convincingly played the mother of a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) under the protection of an honest Philadelphia cop (Harrison Ford) after he witnesses a murder. The pivotal scene, in which McGillis quietly slow danced with Ford in a lantern-lit Amish barn, became one of the decade’s most romantic film moments. Despite her early success, the self-doubting McGillis was so convinced she would never act professionally again, that she asked for her old waitressing job back prior to the release of “Witness.” Even after that film’s success, the actress could have hardly been prepared for the notoriety she would soon garner with her next film, a high-flying romantic adventure.
Directed by Tony Scott, “Top Gun” (1986) not only turned actor Tom Cruise into a bona fide star, it became the year’s highest-grossing film and boasted one of the most popular movie soundtracks ever. Additionally, it introduced actors like Val Kilmer and Meg Ryan to mainstream audiences in a verifiable cultural phenomenon. Cast as the no-nonsense flight training instructor who falls in love with the aptly-named “Maverick” (Cruise), McGillis also became a star overnight as a result of the film’s remarkable success. Not surprisingly, producers immediately set about positioning her to headline a film of her own. She starred opposite Timothy Hutton in the fantasy-romance “Made in Heaven” (1987) as one of two souls who cross paths in the hereafter, only to lose track of each other after being reincarnated on Earth. She then shared screen time with Jeff Daniels as the lead in “The House on Carroll Street” (1988), a period thriller in which McGillis played a woman, herself a victim of the 1950s Communist-era blacklist, who uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Unfortunately, while the latter project met with relatively positive reviews, neither performed satisfactorily at theaters and McGillis’ star began to fade just as quickly as it had risen.
That same year, however, McGillis surprised everyone with both her role and her reasons for taking it, in the courtroom drama “The Accused” (1988), co-starring Jodie Foster. In the film McGillis played the initially skeptical assistant district attorney assigned to prosecute the men who gang raped a woman (Foster) at a working class Massachusetts bar, while a group of spectators drunkenly cheered them on. In interviews leading up to the release of the uncompromising film, McGillis made the shocking revelation that she had been raped herself in 1982, just prior to her feature film debut, and felt that portraying the prosecutor would be a cathartic experience for her. For her act of bravery and transparency, she was often criticized for what some in the press viewed as using the tragic anecdote for publicity reasons. While McGillis endured such inappropriate speculation, it was Foster who garnered the lion’s share of the rave reviews in addition to an Academy Award for Best Actress, the film’s sole nomination. McGillis returned to the stage later that year playing Portia in the Folger Shakespeare Theatre production of “The Merchant of Venice,” and continued her association with the company in consequent mountings of “Twelfth Night,” “Mary Stuart” and “Measure for Measure,” among others.
Kelly McGillis in Top Gun
Back in movie theaters, McGillis co-starred with Kurt Russell in “Winter People” (1989), a period drama about love, deception and murder in a 1930s-era Appalachian community. Although the film did little business, it was another project that same year that McGillis found most regrettable. The production process of “Cat Chaser” (1989), an erotic thriller co-starring Peter Weller and directed by notoriously tempestuous helmer Abel Ferrara, proved to be so intolerable, that once the film wrapped, the actress seriously considered never working onscreen again. After an extended sabbatical, McGillis starred in and produced the telepic “Grand Isle” (TNT, 1992), adapted from the novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and returned to theaters that year as the woman who married and sought to tame John Goodman’s legendary baseball slugger, “The Babe” (1992). Other work on television included a turn as a woman in love with a mentally-challenged man in “Bonds of Love” (CBS, 1993), and as a wrathful ex-wife in the miniseries “In the Best of Families: Marriage, Pride and Madness” (CBS, 1994).
Continuing her struggle to find worthy film material, McGillis reunited with “Witness” co-star Alexander Godunov to parody their earlier roles as an Amish couple with a cameo in Rob Reiner’s much derided comedy misfire “North” (1994). McGillis at last made her Broadway debut in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “Hedda Gabler” in 1994. The years that followed saw McGillis in a string of made-for-cable and direct-to-video releases that included the thrillers “Perfect Prey” (HBO, 1998) and “Ground Control” (1998), in addition to a supporting role as the protective sister of a blind man (Val Kilmer) in the romantic melodrama “At First Sight” (1999). Moving into the new millennium, she played a reclusive woman held captive by a charismatic escaped convict (Billy Zane) in “Morgan’s Ferry” (2000), and later portrayed a mysterious lady suspected in the disappearance of a young girl in the lesbian erotic thriller “The Monkey’s Mask” (2001). Clearly not at the apex of her career, McGillis played a prosecutor intent on bringing a modern day Bluebeard to justice in the salacious, fact-based crime drama “Black Widower” (Lifetime, 2006), followed by a turn as a scientist trying to bring down a gigantic toothy reptile in the Roger Corman-produced “Supergator” (Syfy, 2007).
McGillis found a more respectable role on a pair of episodes of the acclaimed lesbian-themed drama “The L Word” (Showtime, 2003-09) in 2008. Then, in 2009, McGillis – thrice divorced and the mother of two children – confirmed longtime speculations about her sexuality when she revealed that she was gay in an interview with the lesbian lifestyle website, SheWired.com. The following year she married her longtime partner, Melanie Leis, in a civil union. McGillis later employed her melodic voice as the narrator of the affecting cancer survivor documentary “1 a Minute” (2010). She turned to genre material with supporting roles in a pair of low-budget horror films – the vampire apocalypse adventure “Stake Land” (2011), followed by the haunted house thriller “The Inkeepers” (2011).
Kelly McGillis movies
CAST: (feature film)
1. Innkeepers, The (2011) Leanne Rease-Jones
2. Stake Land (2011) Sister Anna
3. Supergator (2007) Kim Taft
4. Black Widower (2006) Nancy
5. Monkey’s Mask, The (2001) Diana
6. At First Sight (1999) Jennie Adamson
7. Painted Angels (1998) Nettie
8. Perfect Prey (1998) Audrey Macleah
9. Ground Control (1998) Susan
10. We the Jury (1996) Alyce Bell
Among many others.
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Filed Under: Actor Profile