No fear, no regrets
A young Shirley MacLaine was cast in her first film by Alfred Hitchcock and hung out with the Rat Pack. Now 83, she’s hot property for filmmakers who are courting cashed-up seniors. She talks to Chrissy Iley about open marriage, brother Warren Beatty and
The first time I met Shirley MacLaine, I was a little afraid of her. She’s fiercely intelligent and also just fierce. She has a way of looking through you. You feel she can read your every thought. And sometimes she really can. If I try to navigate a difficult question, she stops me before I get there. “You’re good, Chrissy, but not that good.” She gets to those questions in her own time. For instance, when brother Warren Beatty and co-presenter Faye Dunaway announced La La Land was Best Picture when he’d been given the wrong envelope at this year’s Oscars and it was actually Moonlight.
It’s also taken her quite a while to process the rift in her relationship with her daughter, Sachi. In 2013, Sachi Parker published a memoir Lucky Me, a kind of Mommie Dearest tome that Shirley assures me is mostly fiction. It was deeply critical of her as a mother and it came over as petulant and jealous, but nonetheless it hurt.
It’s not easy to hurt Shirley MacLaine, or maybe she just wants you to think that. She’s very selfcomposed. She says she’s never had her heart broken, that she would kill anyone who broke her heart.
She had an open marriage with her husband, Steve Parker, in the days when open marriages didn’t really exist as a concept. Being married to him prevented her marrying anyone else. “I was a serial monogamist. I learned what I needed to learn, then I would move on. Or rather, I fixed it so that they would move on, not me. I didn’t like the guilt of leaving.”
Shirley always said the only thing that could break her heart would be if her beloved rat terrier, Terry, had to be put down. From a young age she always felt mystic and believes in reincarnation. “I had a cat once who liked to go swimming in the ocean. In another life, my cat was a dog.” She felt such kinship with her dog, Terry, she believed they knew one another in a previous life. She also felt she shared past lives with her parents. She’s never been ashamed of her beliefs, though she has been mocked. During this year’s Oscars ceremony, she got a standing ovation. “That’s the nicest reception I’ve had in 250,000 years,” she said.
Before we talk about her latest film, The Last Word, she tells me that
Terry has recently passed away.
Her worst fear, but she seems unbroken. She wants to talk about it, not because she’s maudlin, but because she learnt from it.
“Terry had come to the end of her time. I’d not really acknowledged that. I was full of guilt about it – was I going to have her put down? But she let me know that she was ready to go, so I finally did it.
“She began to disintegrate. She tried to do away with herself. I wouldn’t let her and she resented that. She actually died on my mother’s birthday. I feel this story will help a lot of people heal after they put their pets down. Don’t dread it. They’re just following their destiny.”
Is she waiting for Terry to come back? “It’s up to you to recognise their souls and if you want to reconnect with them. Dogs are actually not permitted to come back as people, or people as dogs. There’s no transmigration of souls.”
Destined to shine
Shirley believes her whole life has been destiny. She was working in the chorus of a Broadway show The Pajama Game. She was also understudy for the lead, Carol Haney, a woman who was never sick – except twice. The first time she was ill,
Shirley went on and she was startling. Someone from Paramount Pictures happened to be in the audience. At that time – the early 1950s – women were very lacquered. In contrast, Shirley had her standout short swingy haircut and moved unselfconsciously. The second time Carol Haney was sick, Alfred Hitchcock was in the audience. He immediately cast Shirley in 1955’s The Trouble With Harry.
“Hitch wanted me to be his eating partner. I couldn’t really afford much food when I was in the chorus, so I thought, ‘No, I’m not giving this up’,” Shirley says. Apparently she gained so much weight, the studio insisted she go on a diet. She refused. She was never going to be told what to do, not by anybody.
Shirley was one of the boys, even though she had killer legs – she was adopted as the only female member of the Rat Pack, making films and being best friends with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr. She was a success in 1958’s Some Came Running. Frank Sinatra decided to change the ending, where her character would take a bullet, to “get the kid an Oscar nomination”, and she did in 1959. Her sixth nomination was for Terms Of Endearment in 1984. Her character, Aurora, was demanding and dysfunctional. Shirley won the Oscar. In her speech she said, “I deserve this.”
Her most recent film, The Last Word, has many real-life parallels.
It’s the story of Harriet Lauler, a self-made advertising executive, now retired and super-controlling. She asks the obituary writer at her local newspaper to write hers so she can approve it.
There have been a few arch comments that Shirley is very similar to her screen character. “Actually, I loved that. I think when you work on stage and on television and in films, you have to be efficient. I’m also low maintenance,” she says.
Her character in The Last Word has a daughter who refuses to speak to her (as is the real-life situation).
Did that make it difficult or easier to play? As the film was written for her, I assumed that was all part of writer Stuart Ross Fink’s piquancy. “He says that he didn’t write this with any knowledge of me, just that he thought I’d look good playing her,” she says.
Has Shirley’s relationship with her daughter resolved since Sachi wrote that book? “Well, she’s leading her life and I’m leading mine, let’s put it that way. She’ll be 61 in a month, not 22.” In the book, Sachi blames her mother for sabotaging her career as an actress, but there were no real grounds for this. “So many young people today, when they’re asked what they want to do, they say, ‘Be famous’. This compulsion is very disturbing,” Shirley says.
She never wanted to be famous – it never occurred to her. She wanted to dance. Shirley grew up in Richmond, Virginia. Her mother sent her to ballet lessons because she had weak ankles. She was surprisingly good at it, but is 170cm tall in bare feet. On pointe, she towered over everyone, so she took the grace and strength from ballet, and danced her way to Broadway.
She didn’t want the fame, but she was driven to do a good job. Her father was a musician who told her his dream was to run away with the circus. Her mother wrote poetry. Yet they gave up their dreams in favour of convention, to be available parents. Sachi grew up with her father in Japan and Shirley would visit, but she was a very different parent to her own. She did not give
her daughter conventional parenting and rules.
“I’m happier now than I’ve ever been,” Shirley says. “I’m probably going to be making quite a few movies over the next couple of years. I’ve discovered independent filmmakers have found a demographic called seniors. Seniors have money to spend and nothing to see. I’ve been asked to put together movies because I’m still standing.”
Then she tells me with great gurgling laughter, “In almost all these movies, I die.”
Does she think about death? “My concerns are making sure I’m healthy. I eat what I want, but at the same time try to eat right. I have good physical endurance. Nobody expects someone who’s 83 to be anywhere near model size and I’m glad I’m over that.”
She doesn’t want to tell me the titles of her upcoming movies yet, but the first one is set in a retirement home. “In almost all of these films, I’m in some kind of assisted home environment. I keep dying in every movie, then coming back in another one, just like life.”
She moves on to talk about the next movie, in which “I’m living in a rest home and I go to a market, and see a homeless person steal something and then I get attracted to him. And there’s another one where I’m an Alzheimer’s person who meets an Asperger’s girl at a bus stop. But they’ll want to make big announcements of these and I’ve already blown it so … Let’s just say I’m gonna be busy.”
Last time we met, she told me several psychics predicted that she was about to have a great love affair. Did that happen? “It hasn’t happened … I don’t know if I’d be interested anymore. All that wonderful blistering young love stuff. I might be past it.”
Shirley’s affairs were usually intense. “I liked complicated men. It gave me something to do; to try and figure them out.”
Comic actor Danny Kaye was besotted with her. He flew her to
Texas for a steak dinner and once, when she was filming in Paris, flew her to New York, where he made her Chinese food and flew her back again. Shirley sighs. “I wonder about marriage. Unless you want your children to have legal parents, what is its purpose?”
When her own marriage ended, it was polite. Nobody had lied to anybody. “No, no, no. None of that.” Why did it eventually break down? “I think the distances became too great. He was living in Asia and I wasn’t.”
I once read she said, “I don’t know what it’s like not to have what I want.” Does she always get what she wants? “The point I was making is I want very little,” she says “There’s one thing I want that I don’t have – I need a plane and a pilot who can cook and take care of dogs. I don’t like airports, with all the security problems. I don’t like the scramble of getting on a plane and the seats are getting more narrow.”
In 1994, aged 60, Shirley walked the 800-kilometre pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, in Spain alone, got lost in the dark and had a vision of her parents coming to lead her out of it. How did they know the way? “When you’re in a state of life after death, you basically know everything.”
She was closer to her father than her mother. “Well, he was more expressive. My mother was a very contained person – Canadian. Need I say more? Warren [Beatty] was closer to my mother.” Perhaps all girls are closer to their daddies and boys to their mothers. “It could be that,” Shirley says.
She has had periods of being on/off close with her brother. At the moment, they’re close. So, returning to that question: did she feel sorry for him at the Oscars when he announced the wrong winner? “Oh, my God, of course. I put my hands to my throat. What can you do in a situation like that? No one knows until it happens to you,” she says. “He is fine now.”
We talk about his recent movie, Rules Don’t Apply, which was a box office disaster. Honest as ever, she says, “I think he gave a stunning performance, but the movie was confusing. You don’t say to people, ‘Go and see this confusing movie’.”
Shirley would always rather tell the truth than manicure it. Yes, she’s bossy, but when she laughs, she does it with her whole being. She’s always been unconventional and she has done the ageing thing very cleverly. After the cosmetic work she had done in her 40s, she never had more. She embraced exactly who she is.
“Nobody expects someone who’s 83 to be model size. I’m over that.”
ABOVE: With her Terms of Endearment co-stars Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson. LEFT: Alfred Hitchcock gave Shirley her break into film.
Shirley MacLaine doing her first love, dancing, in 1965. OPPOSITE: The star is still making movies, 50 years later.
In 1964’s What A Way To Go! Shirley played a widow. These days, she says, “I keep dying in every movie.”