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Shirley MacLaine - Premiere Magazine
Shirley MacLaine - Premiere Magazine

It would be easy to call her a legend. After all, this is a woman who danced for Fosse, was directed by Hitchcock, ran with the Rat Pack, and has worked in films for half a century. But how many legends do you know who are still working this much? And having this much fun doing it?

I’ve been making movies for fifty years this year and I’m not at all surprised that I’m still here—it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t just keep working. But that’s not from the point of view of “Oh, I’m so good!”, it’s that it’s just meant to be: It’s destiny. If I live into my nineties I’ll be working ‘til then.

I’m interested in the experience of being other people for a little while—I consider it almost a retreat. Also, I enjoy going into those parts of myself that I haven’t been yet, because I think every part you play is part of yourself. And I enjoy the familial environment on the set—the sense of respect and appreciation that everybody working on a picture has for somebody who’s being asked to get up every morning at five A.M. and go be somebody else. Especially after having fought the traffic.

I’m also enjoying the experience of aging: There’s something to do with getting older that gives you the right to express any feeling you have. When you’re younger, you’re not really sure of what your feelings are so, therefore, you can be, let’s say, pixie-ish, the way I was—I was constantly surprised and full of wonder and that showed in my acting. But when you get older you not only have the right to express yourself completely, but the duty to do so.

In fact, I wanted to play Ouiser in [1989’s] Steel Magnolias because I wanted to feel how free it would be to be like her when I got older. It felt fabulous—God, I loved it!—and I think I’ve been employing that tactic pretty well frequently now.

When you have a sense of experience and wisdom you realize that life itself is, basically, a theatrical manipulation of mostly bullshit and so you have a certain reaction to that. Which could be called ‘cantankerous.’ I think a better word is ‘direct,’ and that’s an easy thing for me to play—it’s who I am now. But the interesting question is what happened in between the ‘pixie’ to what some call ‘ball breaker.’

Back in 1954 I was in the chorus on Broadway doing The Pajama Game. I was understudying the role of Gladys who had the big Steam Heat number, knowing that Carol [Haney] would go on for it with a broken neck. But one night I showed up late because the subway got stuck and there, all lined up at the stage door, were [MacLaine’s future Sweet Charity director and Pajama Game’s choreographer Bob] Fosse and [producer] Hal Prince and [director] Jerry Robbins saying, “You’re on!” The conductor asked, “What key do you sing in?” I said “I don’t know.”

I’d never had a rehearsal and I was worried about dropping my hat in the number. Which I did and said “Shit!” But when we took our bows the audience stood and [movie producer] Hal B. Wallis happened to be there. Warren [Beatty, her brother] and I had always gone to see Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis pictures that read in the credits, “Produced by Hal B. Wallis,” and that’s all I remembered about him.

He said that I should make a screen test and I had no idea what a screen test was (by the way, Hal Prince said, “Get more experience—don’t go to Hollywood.” They joke about that now.) But I got to the studio and back then they’d always use the same scripts for screen tests, but I’d never learned Voice of the Turtle so I wasn’t gonna act in the test. So I said, “Let’s get a stool and somebody get me a scarf” and began to do some little dance moves with the scarf and then the director interviewed me on camera. From then on they began to test people as a personality rather than playing a part: The personality test was born.

I signed a seven year contract with Hal B. Wallis and then went back to the chorus in Pajama Game. Then Carol was out once more in the fall and that time Hitch’s people were there [as in Alfred Hitchcock, who directed MacLaine’s first film, 1955’s The Trouble With Harry].

I wasn’t scared of Hitchcock at all: When I first met him at his suite at the Waldorf I was mainly interested in how he could move around with such fat legs. So I asked him to do some moves for me. And he did—he put his leg and foot up on the chair and went “La!” I kept asking him to do that because it was so cute. Then we did a reading of The Trouble With Harry with Mildred Dunnock and John Forsythe and I read the part and that’s when he said I had “the guts of a bank robber.” He never said a thing to me on the movie, though. Well, except “Dog’s feet.” “Dog’s feet” mean for me to pause. That’s how he directed.

The idea of being in movies was, like, secondary to me—like a little hobby that went along with being in this place called Hollywood, California. I was mostly concerned with “What is it like living where there are no seasons?” [Her classic, movie-ready ‘big break’ didn’t] make me feel anything. It happened to me so that’s all I knew. Later, when I began to examine it I realized that this was my destiny—that it was what I’d signed up for, basically: I don’t have a question with the concept that you choose your parents before you’re born. That’s why it makes so much sense to me that I chose a mother who wanted to be an actress and a father who wanted to run away and join the circus—but who both chose, instead, marriage and children. That left me and Warren the technique of fulfilling their disappointed dreams. It was who I was and was supposed to be. But I also was supposed to be traveling and I felt this need to go out and see the world at the same time that I was adjusting to the fact I was becoming this star in Hollywood (though I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘star’—I can go with ‘iconic’ and ‘legendary’ a little bit now, because of my longevity).

The Rat Pack happened pretty quick after: Frank [Sinatra] had seen me on a TV show and called the studio and said “I want that girl [for 1958’s Some Came Running].” And let me say that, during their time, The Rat Pack were so outrageous that the likes of them won’t come along again—we’re living in such a climate of fear and in such a curtailed society now that those people would probably be sent to jail. But, anyway, Some Came Running’s Ginny is still one of my favorites. Her care for other people, her ability to love, just everything about her moved me. I saw that hooker with the heart of gold thing right away.

By the time the 60’s were up I guess I’d done a lot of those loose women. But here’s the thing: They do all kinds of pictures with men that have nothing to do with sex, but in pictures with women they always feel they have to bring in the sexual component. Why? Because they just don’t understand women. I mean, look at the pictures today: There are very few with women stars and even with the ones that do exist, sex is a big deal.

If I’m not doing a couple of things at once I get very tired—so on [1977’s] The Turning Point’s set I wrote one of my books and on [1979’s] Being There I wrote most of Out on a Limb. Popularizing the “New Age” movement, I made it okay to take it seriously. And I think it goes hand in hand with being an actor: To be metaphysical, to be interested in the exploration of the spirit, is to be a true artist—we’re creating our own reality every moment and that’s what the actor’s job is: We create what we think of the script, we create the temperament, the tempo, and sometimes we create falling in love with the opposite character.

And so if I didn’t have a love affair with my co-star I was usually having one with the director. It’s not the love scenes, it’s in-between shots when you fall in love and it’s involved with so many things—with being tired, being controlled, rebelling…..and if you have a co-partner questioning the same things it’s easy to go there. Now I could never fall in love with Jerry Lewis because he was so self-centered. Brilliant, but self-centered. I never fell in love with Dean [Martin] and Frank—well, a little more with Dean because he let me see insecurities and that’s something to love because it’s honest. I did with the others by virtue of the fact that we were on a movie set—but it’s three months and that’s that: I remember having had an affair with one of my directors and one day the film and ‘it’ were over. Period. On my way home I was crying so hard I thought it was raining and turned on the windshield wipers.

[One co-star MacLaine didn’t have an affair with was Being There’s Peter Sellers…] But he thought we were—people came to me and said, “We walked in when he was talking with you in this sexual way on the phone.” He could go in and out of reality and was so living his part that he was in love with my character, Eve, and honestly believed he had this affair with me. You see what I mean about brilliant acting being so metaphysical? That’s why it’s so funny to me when people say ‘Oh, she’s so wacky’, because it says a lot about how un-wacky I actually am that I don’t go into these characters like so many of the brilliant ones—like Nicole and Meryl—do. I don’t consider this a compliment to myself, but I’ve never been involved so much in a character that I didn’t know who I was—but I’m a Taurus, I’m too routed for that!

I’ve been involved with so many pictures that had problems—like, Terms of Endearment was a disaster and look what happened [It won multi-Oscars including Best Actress for MacLaine]. But at one point I quit it. When [director] Jim Brooks found me at the airport I said, “Take my Oscar and shove it! It’s all too amateur night in Dixie for me.” But Jim’s thing is working with chaos and he’s a genius. And before Terms I couldn’t get a job in Hollywood so he saved my career. I’d work with him again in a shot!

[Twenty two-years later, MacLaine appeared in Bewitched in July and still has the much-buzzed about In Her Shoes and Rumor Has It un-spooling by year’s end.]

I know there’s Oscar buzz about In Her Shoes, but I’m gonna leave it alone. Though when you have psychic talent, you’re very tempted to use it so it’s hard to! But also I think it’s very important to not care about the outcome of anything, basically—it’s about caring about the process. And, anyway, I loved the idea of playing a contained portrayal of a grandmother, one not over-the-top in her presentation of herself. I also loved the idea of working with Curtis [Hanson] and Toni [Collette] and Cameron [Diaz]—Cameron’s a delightful actress and this is the part for her.

Okay, we’re done. When I look back at my career I think, “My God, did I DO all this stuff?” I can’t believe I did all that, because, my God, I did a lot of work, didn’t I? I still find interesting scripts and have two I want to do next year. But when people ask, How would you like to be remembered?, it’s funny: I probably want to be remembered for not bothering with being remembered. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ll be back again.

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