From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

My Sister, the Star

When she was eighteen, my older sister Elizabeth was cast as Timothy Hutton’s girlfriend in Ordinary People. A year later in 1981, her picture was on the cover of Newsweek, and she had dropped out of the acting program at Juilliard to make two more movies. By the time she was twenty she had been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Ragtime.

I distinctly remember my own life at that time. I was eighteen; I worked as a supermarket cashier and wore a polyester smock that I never once washed. On my fifteen-minute breaks, I read magazine interviews in which my sister, who is two years older than I, talked about the “grounding influence” I had on her life.

For my sister, becoming famous at such a young age was an overwhelming and often isolating experience. It meant embarking on an adult life at the same time most of her friends were partying their way through college. It also meant being under constant scrutiny: in grocery stores, in restaurants, on the subway.

As my sister was adjusting to and resisting her own stardom, I was loving every minute of it. My first year in college, I decorated my room with lobby-size posters of movies she was starring in. Everyone at school knew who she was and many of my conversations had to do with what it was like to be a movie star’s sister. I never grew tired of this; in fact, I was grateful. It meant trotting out stories no one else had, even making some up. Had I been on sets? Did I know famous people? In truth, not really, but in the moment, you bet. In some inexplicable way, I believed that I did know them, that these were the people I should be friends with. So much so, that when I graduated from college, I rushed to New York with no job or career ambitions other than parking myself solidly in the shadow of my sister’s fame.

Now that I look back on it, I have to wonder what I was thinking. Part of the explanation had to do with my relationship with my sister. I’d stood in her shadow ever since I could remember. When we were young, she was the brave one and I was the homebody, the scaredy-cat. I spent my childhood with her in my sights, trying to keep up. My desire to be with her was insatiable. I actually gave her my allowance to get her to sleep in my room at night.

She seemed to love my adulation until she got to high school. By that time, she had discovered acting and the crowd that came with it—intense, handsome guys; beautiful, enigmatic girls. We lived in Los Angeles, and many of her friends were already professional actors. I hated all of them, hated that she was growing up without me, hated that I wasn’t included in her life.

Then, in her senior year of high school, everything changed again. Success tapped my sister and none of her friends, most of whom disappeared within a few months of her making Ordinary People. That year was probably the loneliest of my sister’s life. She was living by herself in New York. Suddenly, she was calling me all the time, suggesting trips together, begging me to visit her. I would feign hesitation for a while, and then, because some part of me will always be the younger sister who paid good money for her time, I’d agree to whatever she suggested. It has to be said: most of the reason I loved her fame was that it ended the battle for her attention and brought her full-square back to me.

For five years after I graduated from college, our lives were completely enmeshed. I visited her on every movie set, flying to France, England, Italy, New Orleans and Toronto. “My sister has to come,” she’d say, stipulating in her contracts that an airline ticket be provided for me. To this day, I’m not sure why we both thought it was so important that I keep her company. Practically speaking, no star on a set has a chance to get lonely; she isn’t left alone long enough.

In retrospect, I suppose I was there to register it all; the enormous hotel suites, the gigantic fruit baskets, the trailers stocked with candy. How can you savor that kind of luxury without a piece of your past standing there with you, screaming with amazement and reminding you that you’re still the girl who grew up in a one-car family? And reminding you, empathetically, that you deserve none of this?

Over time, I became good at being on sets. I no longer had to make up stories about famous people because I started getting to know some. I’d hang out in make-up trailers and tell beautiful women how beautiful they looked in new and original ways, as if it were my job. I gained a reputation for being easy to talk to. Once, I sat with Susan Sarandon while she showed me a stack of pictures of her baby. Afterward, she hugged me and told me how “amazingly together” I was. For what? For not having a real job or life? For never accepting work I wasn’t willing to quit to hang out on a set? I never questioned such compliments.

Instead I loved easily surpassing the world’s low expectations of someone like me—a hanger-on, a star’s sister. If I mentioned a book, no one could get over how intelligent I was. If I ventured a joke, everyone would tell me I should be a stand-up comic. What wasn’t to love about a world that sang my praises for doing nothing more than making conversation?

Eventually though, I realized something was wrong. I remember Alec Baldwin asking me one day if I wanted to be an actress. “Oh, God, no,” I said. It wasn’t such a farfetched question. This was on the set of the one movie I acted in, She’s Having a Baby, in which I played my sister’s sister. Sitting there in full costume and makeup, I was embarrassed that anyone would think I was trying to make a career out of the same thing my sister did. “So what do you do?” he asked.

It was a simple question, but it caught me off guard. “I work as an administrative assistant,” I said, referring to one of the temp jobs that made up my career. An awkward silence hung in the air until my sister looked up and spoke. “Really, she writes,” she said.

I wanted to kill her—I felt she had humiliated me in front of Alec Baldwin. I had always wanted to be a writer, but that was my secret. Instead, I told people I wanted to teach, study marine biology, anything to masquerade my real desire. But Elizabeth knew the truth. She knew I’d spent my childhood filling up diaries and writing terrible stories, all romance about handicapped people falling in love. She knew about my first book (a collection immodestly titled Cammie) that had been the center of a childhood fight: She twice vandalized the shirt cardboard cover—once to write I HATE above the title, the second time to write I LOVE. In that moment of silence with Alec Baldwin, Elizabeth announced my most private fantasy and, in so doing, very gently insisted that we start thinking about me instead.

Later that week, we had what I still think of as the worst fight of our lives. I told her I thought she was dismissive of the crew and spoiled; that I was tired of people fluttering around her, coddling her. “You take everyone for granted,” I yelled, meaning the production assistants—but of course, I really meant me. The fight was teary and emotional and went on for hours, filled with accusations that dated from years back. But, by the end, I understood: Maybe the state of my life wasn’t exactly her fault.

For years, I thought not having a job or accomplishments was okay if I appeared “together” to the famous people and hairdressers I was at my best around. As Elizabeth was trying to build a life despite her stardom, I was tugging at that fame, stretching it to see if I could wear it, too. It fit neither of us very well. I think I wanted my life to be about her in those days so that it wouldn’t have to be about me. If I was never called upon to rise to my own challenges, I’d never be put on the spot and fall.

When we returned from the set of She’s Having a Baby, Elizabeth helped me form my first writing group. Even though she didn’t write, she came to all of our meetings and told people she just liked to listen. “I’m a fan,” she’d say.

To this day, I suspect I became a writer because my sister believed I could and should be. I also think she was tired of being the center of attention and wanted to sit in the audience for awhile. In the beginning, she was far more ambitious for me than I was for myself. She gave my first play to her agent, who helped set up a reading, and she called all of her friends to get a crowd to show up for it. I distinctly remember listening to her on the telephone, telling them, “This play is so good. It is better than Arthur Miller.”

It wasn’t; trust me. And when I look back to that reading, what stands out is not the play but an image of my sister at the end, when it was my turn to stand up and, for the first time in my life, take a bow. I was embarrassed and thrilled, and I turned to her beside me. To my surprise, her face was red and puffy with tears.

I don’t know if it was painful for her to watch me shift from being an appendage of her life to having a life of my own. Probably she felt a little sad and also relieved, just as becoming less famous has been sad and also a relief to her. In the end, we both realized that her being famous was neither sustaining nor interesting for either of us.

Now Elizabeth lives in London, is married to a British director and has two daughters, and is acting in plays and movies there.

I’m in Massachusetts with my husband and son, working on a novel. Our lives are very separate these days. Her last five movies were all shot without me perched on the set, working my magic. Although we talk on the phone regularly, we see each other once a year, at most. Sometimes this scares me. She has been such a constant presence in my life, a figure on my horizon. If we aren’t hovering like magpies in the backgrounds of each other’s lives, then who are we, exactly?

Last Christmas, my mother kept remarking on how much I sounded like Elizabeth when I talked to my baby; this, I confess, irritated me. I’m still a child about this. I may have spent five years following her everywhere, but, please, I wasn’t trying to imitate her.

Then, it occurred to me: My mother was right. I do sound like Elizabeth, for the simple reason that I love the way she is as a mother, and I do imitate that. Even far apart, it seems, we are still inside each other. Perhaps, after all these years, the tables have turned and she has become the grounding influence for me.

Cammie McGovern

“What’s-her-name-here claims she’s always lost in
Renee Elizabeth Alexandria’s shadow.”

Reprinted with permission of Jonny Hawkins.

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