Profile of Kennedy Center Honoree Shirley MacLaine

December 6, 2013

In Shirley MacLaine’s hilltop retreat, a homestead at once serene and spectacular, the walls talk to you. Oh, not in the mystical way the name of this forever spiritually questing actress automatically seems to connote. No, it’s the photos hanging virtually floor to ceiling in room after room that call out to you, as if to say here is a one-of-a-kind wallpaper for a truly one-of-a-kind life.

She’s known everybody. Or so, perusing the walls in a house with more comfy nooks than one can keep count of, the photographs indicate. Frank, Jack, Bobby, Lyndon. Dean, Jerry, Michael, Sammy. And Warren, of course. Also Mike and Pete and Jimmy and Billy and George and Danny and . . . and . . . and, well, it’s exhausting, really, trying to breathe the air vicariously from all the gatherings memorialized on MacLaine’s walls — parties and red carpets and appearances with her Rat Pack pals and the Kennedys and a glittering galaxy of actors and singers and politicians and journalists.

And you know, she’s loved — LOVED — every minute of it. She dearly misses those golden times, when she was under contract to Paramount, the reigning gung-ho girl of Hollywood, and she and the other stars — did someone say Elvis? — would sit by the Paramount fish pond and shoot the breeze. Let her settle into a chair in her high-ceilinged library, sipping a detoxifying salad pulverized into a venti-sized drink (kale, apples, nuts, ginger, etc. etc.), and she’ll reminisce about the time Fidel Castro gave her a replica of his uniform to take home and cigars to bring to Zbigniew Brzezinski. Or the occasion in which she elbowed mob boss Sam Giancana in the groin because she couldn’t stand how he cheated at gin with her and Sinatra. Or how after a screening of “The Apartment,” Marilyn Monroe greeted her at the bar by opening her fur coat and revealing that underneath she was wearing absolutely nothing.

‘For a life having been lived’

“Now, maybe I’m wrong, because I wasn’t in the room when they made their choices,” the 79-year-old MacLaine is saying during an afternoon of conversation in the Santa Fe home she shares with her dogs, Buddy Bub and Terry, about the honor the Kennedy Center chose to bestow on her this year. “But I think it’s a life-having-been-lived award. Not an acting award and not an achievement award. But for a life having been lived.”

It gives this versatile dancer-singer-actress, who won an Academy Award for “Terms of Endearment” and possesses a résumé ranging from the big screen’s “The Trouble With Harry” in 1955 to TV’s “Downton Abbey” in 2013, no small amount of pleasure to believe she’s taken hold of life and squeezed it for all it’s worth.

A scene in the 1983 movie "Terms of Endearment" was "one of the most extraordinary moments in a long career of extraordinary moments" for Kennedy Center Honors recipient and actress Shirley MacLaine, according to The Post's Peter Marks. (Tom LeGro and Peter Marks/The Washington Post)

“And when I find me something better to do,” she sang as Charity Hope Valentine in the 1969 movie version of the musical “Sweet Charity” (directed by Bob Fosse, no less), “I’m gonna get up, I’m gonna get out, I’m gonna get up, get out and do it!” The lyrics nicely convey the incessant carpe-diem hum of MacLaine’s metabolism, an appetite that took her from a rather buttoned-down household in Richmond (and later, high school in Arlington) to truly overnight-sensation status on Broadway, where legendarily she went on for injured Carol Haney in “The Pajama Game.” Then she leapt to Hollywood and back lots presided over by directors’ directors such as Billy Wilder ( “The Apartment” and “Irma la Douce”) and William Wyler (“The Children’s Hour”).

She’s had relationships, she says, with famous men (late Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme; New York newspaperman Pete Hamill; Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky), but her alliance with the celebrated Rat Pack — Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., among them — was, she asserts, chaste. As her daughter Sachi recounts in a pain-racked, warts-and-all memoir published this year, MacLaine’s only marriage, to businessman Steve Parker, which ended in 1982, was a mostly long-distance situation, with Sachi growing up in Parker’s home in Tokyo. On the subject of her daughter’s bitter memoir, “Lucky Me,” MacLaine is terse: “I don’t want to go into invading the privacy of her, um, sense of reality.”

She’s had dates with history, too: Ever seen footage from the night of May 19, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, where Monroe sang a whiskey-voiced “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy? MacLaine was there, quite literally waiting in the wings:

“There is a picture the guys always use of her singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jack. And we had been in a room five minutes before. She wouldn’t come out of the dressing room. She said her dress didn’t fit, and Richard Adler, who produced it, said, ‘Okay, Shirley, you’re on.’ And she came out of the room! Got up, went up to the microphone and — iconic moment.”

With her Kennedy Center citation — “Overdue,” MacLaine avers — she becomes half of the first brother-sister Honors act in the 36-year history of the awards. Younger brother Warren Beatty got his in 2004, and you do have to wonder whether there was a delay because the obsessively image-conscious Honors folks might have been made a tad uneasy by her advocacy work on behalf of extraterrestrials and the like. If you didn’t know that MacLaine is a student of metaphysics, reincarnation and the possibility of visits here by life forms from other planets — “I was a mystic when I was 10,” she says — then you’ve not read any of her best-selling books, such as her wildly popular “Out on a Limb,” in which she detailed many of these beliefs. Her latest book, “What If,” published last month, is a breezy compendium of questions that nag at her about our place in the universe, and her bewilderment at why there’s so much suppression of humankind’s natural interest in what’s going on, both on terra firma and out in the Great Beyond.

“You know, what if pharmaceuticals [companies] are more interested in people not being healthy than being healthy, because they make much more money?” she says, offering a preview of the book’s wide-ranging musings. “What if women are more afraid to go to work without makeup than anything else? What if Jesus was an astronaut? What if we are the genetic, engineered result of extraterrestrial communication a million years ago? All that stuff. I bring up everything.”

She knows she invites some quizzical reactions, even derisive ones, when she poses such questions. But she also points out that she’s been asked by scientists, world leaders — even a past president of this nation whose identity she wants to protect — for her insights into these matters. In any event, she’s pretty much made her peace with scoffers.

“I don’t really care too much about what people will think of me,” she says, “as long as I stay true to my own curiosity and my own speculations and my own understandings and my own beliefs, which are getting broader and broader every year.

“And I am definitely not in love with bull----. Drives me crazy.”

‘I just let it happen’

She traces her lack of concern for others’ opinions to parents who cared desperately what the neighbors might think. Her father was a Virginia school administrator who went to Johns Hopkins, and her mother, born in Nova Scotia, wanted to be an actress and instead raised two kids who would go on to improbably huge show-business careers.

MacLaine believes that their timidity produced the opposite inclination in her, and — as far as she can figure out — in her brother, too. “He’s certainly not your regular middle class WASP!” she says of Beatty and laughs.

“They would build a little bit of a fence: Don’t go out and dare, don’t go out and do outrageous things, because of what people would think,” she says of her parents. “And I would look at that and get very interested in what was on the other side of that fence. And jump over it. They would build another, but not real high; I would jump over that. They were teaching me how to jump over the fence, unconsciously.”

And jump consciously as well. Among all the photos on the walls is one of a 17-year-old Shirley, onstage at DAR Constitution Hall in the Washington Ballet’s “Cinderella.” She played the fairy godmother, and she would take the skills she acquired, under the tutelage of company founder Mary Day, to Broadway. There, barely out of her teens, she replaced Haney as “The Pajama Game’s” spunky Gladys one night and sealed her stardom in the Fosse-choreographed number “Steam Heat.” Not too long after that, she was making her film debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Trouble With Harry.”

“There’s an especially disarming screwball blandness about the manner of Miss MacLaine,” the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote in a generally positive review. MacLaine would bring an appealing, pixie-ish authenticity to role after role, a quality that to this day she refuses to ascribe to any sort of technique. “I don’t go through a lot of what people go through when they play very dramatic roles, as in lose 55 pounds for the part . . . I just let it happen . . . I’m not Meryl,” she says of Meryl Streep, whose mother she played in 1990’s “Postcards From the Edge.” “I can’t even touch that. . . . But I won’t give up my core identity to a character. No, I won’t do that.”

So averse is MacLaine to the vogue for research that, she says, she reads a movie script once before accepting a role and then not again until the night before shooting. “I don’t know how to act or to tell anybody what I’m doing,” she contends. That a lack of cerebral process works for her is undeniable, especially with the evidence of the performance that won her the Oscar: Aurora Greenway, the billowy, tightly wound Texas matriarch tangled in the barbed wire of love with headstrong daughter Emma played by Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment.”

The 1983 movie, directed by James Brooks, includes the 38-second scene that will forever be the centerpiece of the MacLaine reel. Outside the hospital room in which Emma is dying of cancer, Aurora, frantic with grief and anger, circles the nurses station as the nurses ignore her pleas to administer Emma’s 10 o’clock painkiller. At last, in an outburst that tells you everything you need to know about outrage at medical indifference and fury at impending loss, MacLaine screams: “GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT!” A terrified nurse hops to it. Composing herself, Aurora says politely, “Thank you very much.”

“I did it,” MacLaine says, “in one take.”

“It was a very complicated shoot, oy yoy yoy,” MacLaine says of the movie, acknowledging the stories of how turbulent the off-screen relationship between her and Winger was. She adored Brooks, who hit the jackpot with his first picture: “He says that this tension between Debra and me is what made it work. I think it could have been even better.”

Her own soundstage education taught her a thing or two over the years about takes that could be better. Shooting “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon — like “Endearment” an eventual Best Picture winner — for the demanding and sometimes callous Wilder in 1960, she got an early taste for directorial perfectionism. She recalls a day when Wilder humiliated her for missing a single word of dialogue: Her crime was saying “rushes off” instead of “rushes out.” Later that day, reviewing the shot, Wilder made her feel as if she had failed. “He turned to the whole crew — he loved to have the whole crew at the dailies — and he said, ‘Well I tried.’ ”

MacLaine says she was desperate to do well by the visionary men she worked for: “I was never a diva, I was a dancer. Had to do what’s best for the team.” When, over Jerome Robbins’s protests, a union rep stopped a rehearsal of the “7½ Cents” number in “The Pajama Game,” MacLaine alone gave up her break and let him use her to work out the staging. And when in filming “The Children’s Hour” director Wyler made a mind-boggling request, asking her to cry out of only her left eye because of the way the shot was being lighted. She managed to, well, cry out of only her left eye.

“I must say in many ways I miss that,” she says of the enchanted life of a Hollywood actress. “When I look back at the old Paramount days, you know, when we had the fish pond, gone now. And here were the dressing rooms: I’m going to start with mine. Next to me was Anna Magnani, Shirley Booth. Now go to the left, Lizabeth Scott. . . . Then there’s Danny Kaye, Dean [Martin], Jerry [Lewis], Elvis, and every now and then Burt Lancaster would come wandering through and saying nothing, but being masculine. And Zsa Zsa [Gabor] would come around, telling me I’ve got to only wear fakes — she would put the real stuff in a safe. And we would sit around and talk about life and joke about who we were at the fish pond.”

It all goes by so fast. She was back in one of her old dressing rooms a few years ago, the one she inhabited for “Irma la Douce” and “The Apartment.” The actors on this new film had no idea of or interest in the history. “My God!” MacLaine says. She wants so much to pass on what she’s learned. On the set of “Downton Abbey,” at least, the actors asked her about her books, and Frank and Dean and the rest of the Pack. The cast also asked whether she would sing one of her signature songs: “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”

MacLaine doesn’t sing much anymore. But you know what? She did.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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