Elizabeth McGovern is best known known for her major role as ‘Lady Cora’ in TV’s “Downton Abbey”. She has however had a very respectable film career also. She made her first impact on film in 1980 in Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People”. Her other films include “Ragtime”, “Once Upon A Time in America” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Born in Illinois, she is now a resident in Britain.
A stage-trained actress with a vulnerable, vibrant screen presence, Elizabeth McGovern made her film debut as the sympathetic girlfriend to Timothy Hutton in the Oscar-winning “Ordinary People” (1980), and followed it up with an Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated turn as chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit in Milos Forman’s “Ragtime” (1981). She was memorably paired with Robert De Niro in “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) and Kevin Bacon in “She’s Having a Baby,” (1988), as well as impressed as a lesbian rebel in the dystopia-set “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990) and in the unusual romantic comedy “The Favor” (1994). She moved to Great Britain to marry English producer-director Simon Curtis in 1992 but returned to the States for work, appearing in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wings of Courage” (1995), various theatrical productions, and starring with Hank Azaria on her own sitcom, “If Not for You” (CBS, 1995). The actress took supporting roles in a string of highly acclaimed, literary-inspired projects, including the Oscar-nominated “The Wings of the Dove” (1997) and “The House of Mirth” (2000). She landed big screen roles as mothers to the heroes of “Kick-Ass” (2010) and “Clash of the Titans” (2010) but dazzled critics on the small screen with her masterful portrayal of the Countess of Grantham on the international smash “Dowtown Abbey” (ITV, 2010). A fascinating talent, Elizabeth McGovern brought a unique intelligence and beauty to her roles that only deepened and improved with age.
Born July 18, 1961 in Evanston, IL, Elizabeth McGovern moved with her family to Los Angeles when her father was hired at UCLA as a professor. Growing up, she appeared in many theatrical productions and was spotted by an agent in a performance of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Determined to hone her craft, McGovern began her formal training at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco before transferring to Juilliard. She dropped out, however, when she earned her first film role, as Jeannine, the supportive girlfriend of the suicidal Conrad (Timothy Hutton) in the Oscar-winning “Ordinary People” (1980). McGovern’s luminous beauty and vivid intelligence helped her stand out on screen, and she followed up her initial success with a stunning turn as Evelyn Nesbit in Milos Forman’s adaptation of “Ragtime” (1981). Playing a willowy chorus girl sexually and emotionally enmeshed in a murder, McGovern earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination as well as a Golden Globe nomination.
Established as a fascinating new talent, McGovern played the object of Robert De Niro’s obsession in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) and soldier Sean Penn’s sweetheart in “Racing with the Moon” (1984), with the latter onscreen romance becoming a brief, real-life engagement. Mainstream audiences were more familiar with McGovern’s work as Kevin Bacon’s pregnant wife in John Hughes’s “She’s Having a Baby” (1988). She stood out in the chilling film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990), with an earthy performance as a lesbian rebelling against a futuristic, misogynistic society, but all too often delivered memorable turns in underperforming or lower-profile projects. She took supporting roles in the 1950s-set comedy “Tune in Tomorrow ” (1990) and Steven Soderbergh’s Depression-era drama “King of the Hill” (1993). McGovern nabbed a bigger role opposite Harley Jane Kozak, Bill Pullman and a young Brad Pitt in the romantic dramedy “The Favor” (1994), but it failed to achieve its hoped-for sleeper hit status.
Part of the reason for the slowing of McGovern’s mainstream professional momentum was her move to England in 1992 after she married producer-director Simon Curtis, but she continued to work in a variety of interesting projects, including the groundbreaking “Wings of Courage” (1995), Jean-Jacques Annaud’s period adventure and the first dramatic film shot in the IMAX 3-D format. Showing her flair for comedy, McGovern charmed opposite Hank Azaria as a pair of accident-prone but destined-for-each-other co-workers in the short-lived romantic comedy sitcom “If Not for You” (CBS, 1995) and guested as a mysterious woman who repeatedly crosses paths with a jewel thief in and out of his dreams in an especially memorable episode of “Tales from the Crypt” (HBO, 1989-1996). Supplementing all of her screen work, McGovern continued to grace the stage in various productions, including “Painting Churches,” “A Map of the World” and a Central Park performance of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
She notched an acclaimed supporting role opposite Helena Bonham Carter in the Oscar-nominated Henry James adaptation of “The Wings of the Dove” (1997) and delighted as Richard E. Grant’s wife in the TV series version of the classic “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (BBC, 1999-2000). Enjoying a lower-profile stardom but high-quality roles in challenging projects, McGovern essayed well-received supporting roles in the Edith Wharton adaptation opposite Gillian Anderson in “The House of Mirth” (2000) and the Martha Coolidge comedy “The Flamingo Rising” (CBS, 2001). She booked a series regular role on the David E. Kelley dramedy “The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire” (CBS, 2003) and the lead role on the aggressively quirky fantasy series “Three Moons Over Milford” (ABC Family, 2006). Active in the U.K. entertainment industry, the actress played Ellen Doubleday, a love interest of the famed author Daphne Du Maurier in “Daphne” (BBC Two, 2007), as well as appearing as an American expatriate actress in the semi-autobiographical, three-part comedy series “Freezing” (BBC, 2007-08) opposite Hugh Bonneville.
Continuing to work in literary-themed projects, she played Lucy Honeychurch’s free-spirited mother in the TV adaptation of “A Room with a View” (ITV, 2007) and returned to the U.S. to play a teacher hiding secrets in an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (NBC, 1999- ). She guested in an episode of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (ITV, 1989- ) and earned two small but memorable roles as doomed mothers to an unlikely superhero in “Kick-Ass” (2010), as well to Perseus (Sam Worthington) in the remake of “Clash of the Titans” (2010). It would be back on television, however, where McGovern would once again dazzle critics and audiences alike as the good-natured but long-suffering Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, on the international smash “Downton Abbey” (ITV, 2010- ). Presided over by the prickly dowager Dame Maggie Smith, the series told the sprawling tale of a British country estate and the legal complications of its inheritance after the death of its male heirs on the Titanic. A fascinating panorama of upstairs and downstairs life in a dying class and service system, the series was rapturously received, with McGovern earning an Emmy nomination for her masterful portrayal.
The above TCM overview can also be accessed online here.