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 Australian Women's Weekly - - Hollywood Interview -

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.

Mother-daugh­ter feud

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.”

Com­pli­cated men

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.”

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