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How female characters evolve beyond the corset in ‘The Chaperone’

Elizabeth McGovern is perhaps best known as Countess Cora Crawley from the PBS series "Downton Abbey." Now she stars on the big screen in "The Chaperone," based on the story of flapper Louise Brooks and the middle-aged housewife who accompanies her to dance training in New York. Judy Woodruff talks to McGovern, writer Julian Fellowes and producer Rebecca Eaton about her character's evolution.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Actress Elizabeth McGovern is most recently best known as Cora Crawley, the countess of Downton, from the popular PBS series "Downton Abbey."

    But, this month, she returns to the big screen with a new film from PBS Masterpiece.

    We get an inside look now, as part of Canvas, our recurring arts and culture series.

  • Actor:

    Louise has recently been accepted to study dance in New York.

  • Actress:

    She can't go without a chaperone.

  • Actress:

    We haven't been able to find anyone.

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    I'd like to propose myself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The film tells the real-life drama of one of America's first big screen bombshells.

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    It's the story of a young Louise Brooks, who traveled from her town in Kansas when she was 15 to study dancing in New York. At the time she was traveling, she is accompanied by a middle-aged housewife as a chaperone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Actor Elizabeth McGovern plays the chaperone, Norma.

    Louise "Lulu" Brooks, a flapper icon who popularized the bob hairstyle, starred in several silent and early talkie movies, and inspired Liza Minnelli in her famous role in "Cabaret."

  • Julian Fellowes:

    I was instantly attracted to it because I love things about change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Julian Fellowes, author of the "Downton Abbey" series, wrote the movie screenplay.

  • Julian Fellowes:

    This was a drama really about a child of the new age helping a middle-aged housewife who'd grown up at the end of Victorian values find herself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A teenager and her minder both unleashed in New York.

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    We watch her discovering a kind of ownership of her own sexuality by brushing up against this highly sexually charged figure, Louise Brooks, and we see that manifest in her own life. So she's the sort of the ordinary person's story who's imbibing the message of the icon. And it's a wonderful positive story.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Norma uncovers details about her own early life.

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    I have come a long way from Kansas to find my records.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Born in New York, placed in an orphanage as a toddler, and sent on a train to Wichita to be adopted. Louise becomes the star pupil and an accomplished dancer.

  • Julian Fellowes:

    These two women at completely different stages of their lives helping each other and having a mutual effect, so that by the end of their sojourn in New York, they're different people.

  • Actress:

    I'm afraid I can't help you with that.

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    I want to know who I am.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Unlike most masterpiece projects, "The Chaperone" is now in theaters.

    Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer.

  • Rebecca Eaton:

    Both Norma and Louise had been — I don't want to use the word abused too broadly, but they had been through the fire. And as they come together, they give each other strength. They give each other the nerve, first of all, to tell the truth about what's happened to them, and then to kind of go the next step to recover.

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    She takes ownership of her own sexuality, and she realizes that she has a right to have a sex life, basically. I mean, I think that's something that American women don't necessarily assume they do.

    There's a kind of a puritanical, I think, heritage that we all have in our DNA, that we don't really have the right to a sexual appetite. And this is Norma's discovery that this is a key to her happiness and sense of self.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    McGovern also produced the film, creating a happy reunion.

  • Julian Fellowes:

    I love writing for Elizabeth because she has this curious vulnerability combined with great strength. They seem like opposite qualities, but she has them both. She has a certain delicacy. And you feel she could be defeated and ground down by things.

    But she at the same time has an inner reserve of strength that fights back. At the beginning, a people pleaser, she's trying not to make trouble. She's trying to make things work. Simultaneously, you realize here is a woman capable of fighting back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Part of that fight is over her wardrobe and the corset that women wore.

  • Actress:

    Want some?

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    Better not. Corset's tight enough as it is.

  • Actress:

    Why do you wear one? I don't.

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    You will when you're older.

  • Actress:

    No, I won't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did you actually have to wear a corset?

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    I did. I did. I wore it all the way through.

  • Julian Fellowes:

    I felt that it was a good illustration of what Norma was putting herself through every day. She'd come from this not exactly unhappy background. And she felt she had to keep going with it in order to keep the show on the road. And in a way, that became the corset that she was putting herself into every day of her life.

  • Elizabeth McGovern:

    In the last scene, Louise's character asks Norma, "Did you ever put your corset on again?"

    And Norma replies, "No, I never did."

    And I'm kind of hoping, as Elizabeth McGovern, after this movie, I can reply the same way, that I never put a corset on again.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    "The Chaperone" opens nationwide today.

    "The Chaperone, as you heard.

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