Elizabeth McGovern: De Niro and me

She was the beautiful young actress who played opposite Robert de Niro in Once Upon a Time in America. She tells Fiona Morrow why, 20 years later, she looks back on the experience of making the film and the fame it brought her with more heartache than joy

Elizabeth McGovern stands at the top of the stairs and looks at me blankly. Then the recognition: "Oh! I completely forgot," she exclaims, before ushering me into the kitchen of her home in leafiest, lightest Chiswick. We relocate quickly into the garden where she makes haste moving the garden furniture into the shade, and the kids' play equipment out of the way. She's dressed for an anonymous afternoon at home: ribbed white T-shirt, shorts, sneakers; there's a silver Kirby grip in her dark, wavy hair. I half expect her to dash back upstairs to fling on a dress and some lippy but, happily, she's not that kind of gal.

She's more worried about her momentary amnesia. I point out that it is a stiflingly hot afternoon, the kind that can melt your brain. She breaks into a wide, sunny smile, sighs ­ "Oh I'm so glad you said that" ­ and takes a sip of tea from a pint-sized canary yellow mug.

Twenty years ago McGovern was feeling a different kind of heat: Oscar-nominated for only her second screen role (in Milos Forman's Ragtime), she was Hollywood's darling. Suddenly, every choice she made came with huge expectations: "You're put into this privileged position where everything you say or do has this added relevance," she recalls. "But part of being 20 is to go around saying and doing ridiculous things ­ you're supposed to."

McGovern was an early Hollywood achiever before the trend to make it big young had really begun. "I was sensible to know that it was more than I deserved. I was aware that it was a premature, lucky start," she admits. "But I didn't have the years of struggling to put it into perspective. I remember it as a burden, almost impossible to bear. It was a lonely time for me."

She chose to retreat from the glare a little by taking a part in a tiny theatre production. It proved a short respite: impressed by her performance in Ragtime, Sergio Leone sought her out for a part in his long-cherished project Once Upon a Time in America.

She cannot dredge up the memory of their meeting. "What I do remember," she offers apologetically, "Is that before I had ever read a script, I went to a flat Sergio was renting in New York and, as the Sun made its way across the sky, he told me, shot for shot, the entire movie. And what he told me that day was what he ended up filming." McGovern knew nothing of Leone's previous work and, she says, was completely unaware of the lengthy casting process. In fact, many very diverse actresses were considered for the part of Deborah including Claudia Cardinale, Geena Davis and Liza Minnelli.

Once Upon a Time in America is the story of a group of friends ­ Noodles, Max, Cockeye, Patsy ­ who grew up in the Jewish ghetto of 1920s New York. Told largely in flashback, the film takes place in the Twenties, Thirties and late Sixties, a sweeping, elegiac arc of love, betrayal and melancholy. It is a monumental piece of film-making, mythic, operatic; one of the greatest films ever made.

Not a bad choice, then, for a happening young actress. Cast as Deborah, the object of Noodles's obsession, McGovern found herself sharing screen time with an even hotter prospect: Robert De Niro, widely considered at that time to be the best actor of his generation.

Mention De Niro's name, however, and McGovern winces. Having had a considerable amount of input into the casting of his co-stars, De Niro was not best pleased with Leone's choice to play his love interest. "I certainly sensed that," shrugs McGovern. "I don't think anyone was crass enough to actually tell me, but it was definitely what I was picking up."

Though she hesitates to come right out and say it, clearly De Niro's ambivalence caused her considerable difficulties.

"I remember my screen test as fresh and spontaneous," she shrugs. "There was something about me in it that was probably never captured in the final film."

There was little room for spontaneity on set: Leone, a master of the image, and a perfectionist was matched in the meticulousness of his endeavours by his star. But for McGovern, De Niro's constant interventions had a negative effect on the finished film.

"When I look at it," she explains, "there's a really seamless quality to the scenes with the children, that the scenes with the adults never quite achieve. When Sergio was working with the kids ­ who were very pliable, who were going to do what he told them ­ there's a sense about the film that this is what he really wanted.

"But with the adults, there was this feeling that Sergio and De Niro were on slightly different tracks. De Niro was so interested in realistic detail and was often concerned that there wasn't enough of it, and Sergio could not have been less interested..." she tails off, then rallies with a slightly more positive spin: "They were both after creating a good piece of work, so I suppose it was the best kind of fight."

But such distinctions make little difference when you're caught in the middle: all McGovern's scenes are with De Niro, we only see Deborah through Noodles's eyes. "I did feel pulled between them, De Niro was such a strong presence and Sergio's English was not so good," she admits. "Sometimes I think I lost track of who I was and what I wanted to do. It's such a male film and Deborah, on top of that, is blatantly a man's vision of a woman ­ a very hard thing to know how to fulfil if you're not the one having the vision, if you're the object."

I ask her if De Niro had a strong idea of what he expected from her and McGovern gives a refreshingly disparaging laugh: "Yes, well I don't know if he had an idea, but he certainly had an opinion." Ouch.

We move on to one of the film's controversial scenes, in which Deborah is raped by Noodles on the back seat of a car. It's a scene which caused considerable outrage at the time of the film's release (1984) and which remains, as so it should, shocking.

"In terms of acting, that scene was, in some ways the easiest of all," McGovern says, surprising me. "There was something very clear to react to. It was incredibly easy to understand, incredibly easy to do."

She leans forward, as if to impart a guilty secret: "My feeling about that scene ­ and I hate to admit it ­ was just 'Oh thank God, I don't have to do any acting, at least I know what I'm doing here. At least I don't feel confused about what I'm supposed to play.'"

It was a different story when it came to filming one of the final scenes, in which, 35 years on, Noodles and Deborah meet again. "That was the most difficult for me because I simply did not have the technique," she pronounces bluntly. "I wasn't old enough and I was vaguely aware that visually I wasn't pulling it off and if I were Sergio, I might have been thinking about getting in another actress."

She notices my look of horror and relents a little, obviously pleased that I'm not concurring with her self-criticism: "I think that now I would be able to lasso the qualities that scene needed, but then it was like I was playing an instrument without knowing which notes to hit."

She returns, unprompted to the rape scene: "In some ways I feel as though the entire experience of making the film ­ or maybe that entire period of my life ­ was represented in that scene. I was this young person, incredibly like Deborah ­ I had a lot of ambition and drive ­ and I was in a position where I was viewed by the world in a way that had nothing to do with reality, much the same way as Noodles has this image of Deborah.

"You're being used and you feel used. I suppose many young girls would think of it as the most wonderful thing in the world, to be this hot young movie star that people have sexual or romantic fantasies about, but in fact you learn very quickly that who you are is nothing to do with what their projection of you is.

"I look back on that whole period of being an object, being someone else's fantasy, as not very nice. I'm relieved not to be that any more. I look back on that period of my life, and the rape was sort of a metaphor for what it felt like."

No wonder, then, that McGovern should have finally opted for a lower profile, a happy marriage and a couple of kids this side of the Atlantic. She did give Hollywood a bit of a spin first, in films such as She's Having A Baby and The Bedroom Window, and was briefly gossip column fodder as Sean Penn's pre-Madonna fiancée. But of late, she's stuck to television (The Scarlet Pimpernel) and small, spiky roles in Wings of The Dove and The House of Mirth.

Currently, she's most proud of the forthcoming Buffalo Soldiers a "fine piece of work" that has languished in distribution hell due to its anti-war stance. "I find it mind-boggling that everyone in America is so unbelievably chastened about having an anti-government opinion," she notes, crossly.

Before we wrap up, I must ask her if she likes Leone's film about her homeland, this film that I love, even a little bit. She tries to let me down gently: "It is probably the piece of work that represents the most personal struggle for me, but I'm certainly proud to be in it," she proffers before adding quickly ­ and plaintively: "I think it's a beautiful film, but I can't watch it objectively. I really can't."

'Once Upon a Time in America' Special Edition DVD is released by Warner Home Video on Monday, £19.99

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