MISSOULA, Mont. — Andie MacDowell turned 60 in April. When you are a woman and still working in Hollywood, an anniversary like that is more than a personal milestone, it’s a cinematic miracle, particularly when you are an actress stretching out in toothsome, age-appropriate roles.
Ms. MacDowell will appear in a small independent film called “Love After Love” on Hulu next month, as a middle-aged woman finding her way after the death of her spouse. It may be her finest performance since she played a sexually dormant housewife in “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” Steven Soderbergh’s weirdly prescient 1989 classic about a man (played by James Spader) who could be intimate only through the lens of a video camera.
This early examination of digitally mediated relationships is worth a revisit: The success with which the protagonist’s camera unzipped his subjects makes the Kardashians seem like pikers.
The sex in that film was suggested. But in “Love After Love,” which entranced reviewers during an earlier theatrical release, Ms. MacDowell has the first nude scene of her long career.
“Everybody made such a big deal of the nudity,” she said, “and it was embarrassing that everyone made such a big deal. I wish I’d done it sooner. But no, I had to wait until I had an older body. I wish I’d done it when I had a shockingly gorgeous young body, but I had a lot of fear when I was younger.”
The critical praise, some of it backhanded — Andie MacDowell can act! — reminded the actress of the year she turned 40, and colleagues asked her, as she recalled recently, how it felt to have hit an age when she’d never work again.
Hearty chuckle. With projects including playing a madcap American in the fifth season of “Cuckoo,” a British farce, out later this year, and a bohemian hippie sidekick to Richard Dreyfuss and Chevy Chase in “The Last Laugh,” for early 2019 (both on Netflix), Ms. MacDowell can afford to relax this summer. If only she could.
It was teatime late last month, and Ms. MacDowell was sitting on a well-worn sofa upholstered in a faded cabbage rose print in the living room of her modest ranch house, mildly exasperated by her inability to recall the names of two current movie stars.
A wheezy, nervous, rescued Chihuahua-Boston terrier mix named Ava Gardner clung to her lap as the actress, whose beauty still startles, explained how a 2016 film, “Certain Women,” was an exemplar of the kind of work she’d like to be doing. Though she couldn’t actually remember the title.
“It’s a terrific movie,” she said, “Laura Dern is in it and that girl from the vampire movies, what’s her name? And that actress from Montana. Names! What the hell is that all about?”
(Why not Google? Because at a certain age, there is honor in eschewing that mnemonic short cut.)
While this reporter tried and failed to produce the name of the actress whose organization has been clocking the number of women’s roles in the movies and has developed a Nate Silver-like data tool to do so — it is Geena Davis, she realized a week later — Ms. MacDowell was engaged in her own mental excavation.
“Michelle Williams!” she said triumphantly, referring to a star of “Certain Women.”
Ms. MacDowell herself has passed in and out of stardom, as a model turned actress who never quite got her due, especially for her calm comic presence (she was marvelous in “Groundhog Day”).
Often she was cast as a somewhat elusive, well-scrubbed ideal (as in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” in which she somehow made a fisherman’s sweater seem sexier than a bikini).
As has been the case for many beautiful women, Ms. MacDowell’s extraordinary face has sometimes confused those seeking to employ her as an actress. Born in Gaffney, S.C., she came up as a model in the late 1970s, her rosy cheeks and untamed hair a welcome alternative to the sleek blondes — Cybill, Christie and Cheryl — who had dominated that decade.
Since 1985, she has been under contract to L’Oréal, that company’s longest reigning spokesperson. In ads for Calvin Klein jeans, Ms. MacDowell improvised a naughtier sort of down-home girl.
Shy and solicitous in person, Ms. MacDowell plays herself on social media. Her Twitter bio quotes the Emily Dickinson poem “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” She posts photos of her dogs; inspirational quotes from authors (Anne Lamott is a favorite); and selfies of her shadow. “I figured it out,” she said. “I’m the kind person on Twitter.”
She is proud that Ram Dass is one of her over 45,000 followers and amused that Deepak Chopra followed her for one day. (He wanted to invite her to an event by direct message, she said. “Then he unfollowed me. Whatever. I don’t care. I have Ram Dass!”)
Yet in 2016, she was slammed as an elitist when she posted a selfie from an American Airlines flight that carried this caption: “HELP, I paid for first-class and they put me in tourist because of my dog that I pre-booked and paid for.”
She was carrying Ava Gardner, whom she had just rescued, from Los Angeles to Charleston, S.C., and a steward bumped her to coach, saying there wasn’t enough room in first class. Twitterers didn’t like the word “tourist,” nor did they like a complainer, they complained.
Ms. MacDowell’s gracious response, offering to donate her refund to charity and noting how she’d let the flight attendant’s rudeness rub off on her, may serve as primer for more impulsive celebrities.
She is lately more sanguine about the trolls, she said.
“People tell me I’m not relevant anymore, blah, blah,” she said. “But who wants to be relevant? It’s a lot of work, to stay in that place forever. I’ve never wanted to sell myself. All I ever wanted was for someone to take me seriously.”
Ms. MacDowell still gratefully remembers the film critic Pauline Kael, who gave the fledgling actress a gentle plug in her excoriation of “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” the wildly pilloried 1984 film in which Ms. MacDowell, playing Jane, had her lines overdubbed by Glenn Close because it was felt her Southern lilt was inappropriate for the English character.
“She was of the stature and the sort of person I wanted to impress,” Ms. MacDowell said. “Anyway, I don’t want to sell myself now, either. I’m 60, for godsakes! There’s this artist I saw at the Tate, a video artist, and she was so like me. She’d set up her camera and come down in the morning and lean in like this,” — Ms. MacDowell leaned forth, solemnly, and dropped her voice an octave — “and say, ‘Good morning.’ And then in the evening she’d come back and say, ‘Good night’. If I knew how to do my Instagram, I’d be just like her. And if I could remember her name and meet her, I think she would like me and we’d be friends.”
(A week later, Ms. MacDowell called with the name of the artist: Joan Jonas, the octogenarian performance and video pioneer.)
Memory issues notwithstanding, mature actresses bring richness to movies, as European directors know. But Hollywood has been slower to cotton to that fact, a situation that Ms. Davis and others hope to remedy. Reese Witherspoon, for example, has a new media company, Hello Sunshine, devoted to “female authorship and agency,” in books and films.
Ms. MacDowell has quietly been part of this flowering.
The experiences of her character in “Love After Love” — her sexual explorations, her sometimes hapless dating encounters and adult sons — dovetail somewhat with her own. Her son, Justin Qualley, who works in real estate in Montana, is 31; her daughters Rainey Qualley, a pop singer, and Margaret Qualley, an actress, are 28 and 23. Their father is Paul Qualley, a former model and contractor from whom Ms. MacDowell has been divorced for nearly two decades.
She was married briefly to Rhett Hartzog, a businessman, whom she divorced in 2004. Having raised her children first here in Montana, and then in Asheville, N.C., where she was known as Rose Qualley, she is newly an empty nester and experimenting with life in Los Angeles, her first true immersion in that company town.
“You know what’s great?” she said. “I’m a nobody there. Nobody cares that I’m a movie star, whatever that is. Because everyone else is, too.” Regarding solitude, she said, “I do know from experience what’s it like to be alone, but I am good at it. And I do know sadness. You can’t get to my age without having felt some kind of intense pain.”
At 23, Ms. MacDowell was working as a model in Paris when her mother died of heart failure. She was 53, and had been a severe alcoholic. Ms. MacDowell, the youngest of four daughters, had been her mother’s caretaker: plucking the smoldering cigarettes from her fingers when she passed out on the floor and covering her with a blanket.
When Ms. MacDowell was 16, she staged an intervention, which failed, and when her mother was fired from her job at the McDonald’s where they both worked, it was Ms. MacDowell who drove her to work on that last day because her mother had lost her driver’s license.
She had been a music teacher until the drinking took over, Ms. MacDowell said. “I thought she was sober enough to work that day, but I misjudged. Because I never saw her sober, I never knew what was sober enough.
“Interestingly enough,” she went on, “we had a good relationship. I had a lot of empathy for her. I was the last one home, and I didn’t want to leave her like that.”
A few months before she died, Ms. MacDowell’s mother wrote her a letter. “She told me she quit drinking,” she said, “and that she was very proud of me and that I deserved to have a mother who was sober. I was supposed to go home for Thanksgiving, but I did not. I really regret that. I’m always trying to grab ahold of my children and spend time with them. I have to remember it’s natural at that age to want to experience the world on your own.”
A few years ago, Ms. MacDowell was on another flight and began talking with her seat mate. “We had a nice chat,” she said. “And at the end she told me, ‘I’m a mindfulness therapist and I just wanted to tell you that you have a lot of anxiety.’ Yeah, no kidding!” Indeed, she said, being anxious is her legacy and that she’s been amusing herself by trying to break down her tics (the constant motion of her hands, for example), so she can use them in her work.
Russ Harbaugh, the 34-year-old director of “Love After Love,” said his first choice for the role was a more conventional bet, an older actress with three Oscar nominations who left before he was able to secure financing. There was some pressure to cast a surer box office wager, but all along Mr. Harbaugh felt that Ms. MacDowell would be, as he put it, transformative.
On the night before filming was to begin, she called him into her hotel room.
“I can’t do this,’” he recalled Ms. MacDowell saying.
“I think she was honestly feeling not good enough,” Mr. Harbaugh said. “So I told her the story of how she was cast. In this business, you don’t want people to feel like they’re not your first choice but she didn’t need me to lie to her. I wanted her to know that I sought her out.”
Ms. MacDowell remembers the exchange differently. “It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could do it,” she said. “It was that the relationship between Russ and Chris” — O’Dowd, who plays one of her sons — “was so strong, I felt left out. There didn’t seem to be any room for me. I didn’t have any reservations about the role. I needed to know that he wanted me. I wanted to know that I was supposed to be there. I felt like the seventh child in a family that nobody notices. I guess I wanted to know that he loved me, and once I had that, I felt safe.”
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