Shirley MacLaine: her career “A true story that really happened.” (Appearing at Wells-Fargo Center, Santa Rosa, Sep 23)
By Richard von Busack
Even if it turns out she has only had one life, Shirley MacLaine has made it count. Appearing Friday, Sep 23 at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa, MacLaine is hosting an overview of her career: some 55 years in the movies, of acting and directing: indelible as gumptiony elders, red-headed spitfires, and girls on the edge of weariness from playing too hard.
Acting was, she says, predestined in a way. It turns out to be true, for instance, that MacLaine was named after Shirley Temple. Her parents saw a Temple film advertised on a marquee on a Richmond, Virginia theater when they were on the way to the maternity hospital.
MacLaine said, via phone from her home in Los Angeles, “They decided right there that if it was a girl her name would be Shirley. So there’s no other business I could have chosen”.
And even if sounds too good to be true, she really did get a first big break when she understudied to an actress who broke her ankle.
“Shit,” she snorted, “everybody knows that. How long have you been around, anyway? It’s a true story that really happened. Carol Haney had just broken her ankle that night. I went on in Pajama Game, and I hadn’t even rehearsed. Lucky I had such good training.”
Haney, who died young, makes a memorable appearance in the 1957 film. But it would have been swell to see MacLaine performing the showstopper “Hernando’s Hideaway”. Was there a reason why she wasn’t in the film?
“I don’t know,” she said. “The film had a cast of people who weren’t Hollywood guys—they were famous in New York, so they did it the Broadway way. That may be why only so many people showed up for the film. I always wondered why they didn’t ask me.”
MacLaine was too polite to mention that she’d just come back from France, where she’d been awarded the Legion of Honor. She has done a flabbergasting amount of travel, but she’s never been to Sonoma. Strange, that, because it’s pretty much the New Age capitol of the world.
Was Santa Rosa very far, she asked? An easy drive from LA? No? Oh, well, have to deal with the planes and the security.
She’s appearing in Santa Rosa to the Wells Fargo Center to perform a one-night show of clips and reminiscences. “What I’ve done is put together a kind of retrospective of my life on film. It’ll start with my family. I’ll be talking about my brother [Warren Beatty], my dancing years as a kid, Broadway and then Hollywood.
I’ve been privileged to be around the world, so I’ll also be talking about my relationships with world leaders like Nikita Khrushchev and the Dalai Lama. I’ve got a big story about Khrushchev. At the end is a retrospective of my dancing. And after the dance stuff, the audience can ask me any question they like.”
Thanks to downloading it’s easy to see her career in film. You hardly needed to refresh the memory about MacLaine’s debut in The Trouble With Harry, with one of the most erotic Hitchcock lines ever: “Don’t light me, I have a short fuse.” The little gestures mean as much as the lines: recall the way she held up her fingers to show how many drinks she had in The Apartment.
I’d spent the morning watching highly excerptable MacLaine in a less-known films on Netflix. She easily stole scenes from Dean Martin, even, in Career. In multiple roles in De Sica’s Woman Times Seven she was an outraged wife having a first-rate slapstick fit, as well as a Parisian bohemian precipitating a ménage a trois. The reason why an actress gets called legendary is because she can work for decades and something you discover will still surprise the hell out of you.
But MacLaine doesn’t usually watch her old films: “Why would I do that? To see what I did wrong?”
I asked her if she thought any were particularly neglected. She mentioned Madame Sousatzka (1988), one of her finest roles as a seductive and troubled London piano teacher. There was one I hadn’t seen: the 1971 Frank Gilroy film Desperate Characters.
Who were her favorite actors then, and now?
“Robert Mitchum was my childhood dream. He was all over my bedroom walls—he became my dream literally, later on, after I met him. Rita Hayworth…You knew who I had a crush on as an actress? Maria Montez. I loved Alan Ladd…then I met him and I almost had to get on my knees to shake his hand.
“Of the new crop: I like Ryan Gosling, I just saw him in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Emma Stone…Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway… I liked Christopher Plummer very much in that movie they’re going to give him the Oscar for, Beginners. And I’m looking forward to seeing Leonardo Di Caprio in Clint’s J. Edgar Hoover movie. I just asked Clint why he’s taking the gay part of Hoover’s life out…”
Speaking of Eastwood, I told her, I was actually quite grateful that I saw her in Two Mules For Sister Sara, because now I know the proper way to cauterize an arrow wound.
“Oh, that scared me,” she said. “That and the snake.”
“I watched Two Mules For Sister Sara with my mom,” I said. “She had the habit of covering my eyes whenever something bad was going to happen. The leeches in African Queen for instance. She almost covered my eyes when that gunpowder-loaded fire arrow goes through Eastwood’s shoulder.”
“Hah, the movies they make now, she’d probably have to put a bag over your head!”
She does see a lot of films today: “Whatever is out there that’s not in 3D, I’ll go. I don’t like seeing things coming at my head. Some of the films I’ve seen, though, they might as well release the same ones with different titles.”
I’d read MacLaine’s The Camino, her account of the St. James pilgrimage over the Pyrenees on foot. A hard journey for a solitary woman in her mid fifties…let alone for someone being pestered by journalists who were worse than the trail’s notorious wild dogs.
“The villagers helped me, and misled the paparazzi,” MacLaine said. “I really do regret hitting that camerawoman over the head with a boulder.”
So to speak. Actually, MacLaine does write of smashing a TV interviewer’s camera with a large rock.
Had the cameraman ever gotten in contact after the book came out?
“No. I guess I killed her.“
That’s OK, I said. They probably forgive that sin if you’ve made the pilgrimage.
“See,” she explained, “that’s the difference between being religious and being spiritual. If I were religious, I probably would have really killed her. But I’m spiritual.”
In her new book I’m Over All That: And Other Confessions, Shirley MacLaine had a chapter titled “I am trying to get over the feeling that the world is falling apart.”
How is that working out for you?
“Not very well,” she laughed.
(A shorter version of this article appeared in the Northern California Bohemian.)