"I don't know how men feel, but as a woman I hold Betty Ford in a special place in my mind," Gena Rowlands says. "She taught us that we don't have to cover up our weaknesses, our humanity."
Rowlands plays the former First Lady in "The Betty Ford Story," a two-hour TV movie depicting Mrs. Ford's battles with cancer as well as with drug and alcohol dependency. It will air Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC.
Based on Mrs. Ford's autobiography ("The Times of My Life"), the film covers the years of the Ford presidency and the period just following, when Mrs. Ford's substance abuse became so apparent that her family finally confronted her. She sought treatment, eventually recovered and then helped start the Betty Ford Center, a rehabilitation clinic in Rancho Mirage.
"Betty went through an amazing amount in front of the world and made no attempt to hide anything," Rowlands says. "She took the image of 'the President's wife,' sitting in the back seat like Little Miss Perfect, and threw it away.
"She was always getting into hot water, saying truths that anyone in her right mind would not have said, and the American public loved her for it. People forget what a mastectomy meant before she had one (in 1974). She was the first one who spoke out. Before then, doctors did the operation and the woman shut her mouth about it and was ashamed."
The opportunity to play Mrs. Ford offered Rowlands, 52, the type of challenge she likes. "I like to play people who have a very strong emotional commitment to something," she explains.
"Also, drug and alcohol addiction has always been painted as such a hopeless situation. To find out that it's treatable is very encouraging. Betty is responsible for a lot of good things. Talk about a national treasure!"
Rowlands, a two-time Oscar nominee, has chosen her roles very selectively since she became a mother 27 years ago. She is married to writer/actor/director John Cassavetes. They have three children, the youngest 16.
"When you're in your early 20s and you've never played anything, everything looks interesting," she observes. "Now I'm inclined to avoid doing a subject I've done before because I'll have thought about it at great length."
Rowlands had already played a woman dependent on drugs and alcohol in "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974). "Mabel was an extreme case," the actress says of the character that brought her an Oscar nomination. "She had no idea of herself at all, except for her love of her children and this man.
"Betty Ford isn't like that. She's outgoing, sociable, well adjusted and popular. She's a sensible woman, the kind you wouldn't expect to get into any kind of trouble at all. If she could get addicted to drugs and alcohol, anyone could."
Like many others, Rowlands was impressed with Ford's candor about her addiction as well as her successful treatment. The former First Lady is credited with giving hope to thousands, if not millions, who never thought they could overcome their own addictions.
"It is rather a responsibility to play a real person who's alive and loved by many," Rowlands notes. "Betty's been through a lot, and we have to show it. I hope her kids don't get upset."
The two women met once but spoke several times by phone. What did Rowlands think about while preparing to play Ford?
"The way life can sneak up on you sometimes. How much your family means to you. How women married to workaholic husbands often have this unrealistic idea that some day their husbands will stop working so hard and spend more time with them, so they put their lives on hold and wait for something that's not going to happen.
"I'm sure Betty's addiction slipped up on her. She had a bad case of arthritis and a pinched nerve. In those days, if a doctor gave you pain pills you didn't ask what was in them.
"In her position it was very difficult to go without some social drinking. She never drank secretly. She took her pills openly. Those two things just met up. She said, 'When I think back on it, I could have ended it any night. Pills and alcohol lead to death.' "
Rowlands gravitates toward characters whose lives do not run smoothly. She was seen on TV last season as the mother of an AIDS victim in "An Early Frost," and in the current film "Light of Day" she plays the deeply religious mother of Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett.
Most actors talk about how life experiences help them with acting. Rowlands sees it the other way around. "You'd be surprised how much answering the questions when you're acting influences your life. You're never the same--especially if you've had the chance to play in really important issues like love, life, death and God.
"It must be fun to play comedy. It would be nice to do musicals. You arrive at the theater and hear the orchestra warming up. I don't miss it."
She mentally runs down her list of parts, looking for a laugh, and lights on "Gloria," a 1980 gangster picture written and directed by her husband, for which she got a second Oscar nomination.
"I wouldn't exactly call 'Gloria' a comedy," she says. "It was more of a fantasy or wish-fulfillment, especially for women who live in a city and realize they're not as strong as they'd like to be.
"But even in something like that, you're thinking about issues. Is the instinct to protect the child built-in, even if the woman never had children or ever wanted them and has to go against her friends? Those things came up."
Until the last few years, much of Rowlands' work has been with Cassavetes as writer and director. "When I started in pictures, almost all of the women's parts were glamour girls," she recalls. "John is largely responsible for giving me the wonderful parts I've had"--"Faces," "Minnie and Moskowitz," "A Woman Under the Influence."
Their last project together was "Love Streams" (1983). "John is finishing a wonderful screenplay," she says, looking forward to working with him again.
Of the years she spent mothering instead of career-building, she says, "I couldn't have done it any other way. I just led my life the way I could enjoy it. Other women have the pressure of doing everything rather young.