Actors We Love: Shirley MacLaine

Capping a Legendary Career

Actors We Love: Shirley MacLaine

Written by Peter Bowen

In Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, Shirley MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, a successful, staunchly independent women who hires a local paper’s obituary writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), to compose a fitting memorial to her before her eventual demise. But Harriet’s master plan lacks one crucial element. Despite Sherman’s best efforts, no one has anything good to say about her. As a woman who has always relied on herself to get things done, Harriet conceives a new plan, one in which she will change what people remember about her by transforming the person they’ll memorialize. The role of the fiery and fierce Harriet recalls MacLaine’s earlier roles because it was actually written with her in mind. For screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink, MacLaine is singular talent, “always the smartest person in the room, a woman quick with a cutting remark or a well-timed arched eyebrow. The characters she has created are some of the most indelible in American cinema…I wrote this part to see her characters continue.” For Pellington, Harriet reminds him of one specific character, the role that won her an Oscar: “She is like Aurora Greenway from Terms of Endearment, but it’s 25 or 30 years later. Imagine that kind of controlling woman considering the final years of her life.” To celebrate Harriet, we look back at several of MacLaine’s remarkable roles in her legendary career.

The Apartment | Finding Her Place in Hollywood

Premiering in 1960, on the same weekend that Psycho opened, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment provides a different take on sex and the single girl. Fran Kubelick (Shirley MacLaine) runs the elevator for Consolidated Life Insurance Company, which also employs C. C. “Buddy” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an office drone who loans out his nearby apartment to company big wigs in need of a crash pad for their out-of-office trysts. When Consolidated’s personnel director, J. D. "Jeff" Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), wants the apartment for a rendezvous with Miss Kubelick, Baxter comes to a horrible realization: he may be falling for Miss Kubelick himself. Inspired by a scene from David Lean’s 1945 romance Brief Encounter, Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond had only half the script finished by the time production started, a practice that allowed Wilder to use the onscreen chemistry of the actors to steer later action and dialogue. MacLaine relates how her conversations with Wilder about her off-set exploits may have informed a few key scenes. “I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” MacLaine remembers telling the director. The film’s last scene, with MacLaine sweetly instructing Lemmon to “shut up and deal,” endures as one of cinema’s most poignant and funny endings. The movie proved a critical and commercial hit, racking up 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Shirley MacLaine. Although MacLaine had already appeared in a number of films, even getting a Best Actress Academy Award nomination two years earlier for Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running, many critics felt The Apartment proved her wide range. “Her ability to play it broad where it should be broad, subtle where it must be subtle, enables the actress to effect reality and yet do much more,” exclaims Variety in their review. Even Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged her achievement. At the United Nations, the Russian leader’s interpreter related to MacLaine, “The Premier sends his regards, wishes to be remembered to you, and says he's just seen your new picture, The Apartment, and you've improved."

Irma la Douce | A Musical Performance

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in Irma la Douce

In 1963, Shirley MacLaine reteamed with director Billy Wilder and co-star Jack Lemmon to make Irma la Douce, an adaptation of Alexandre Breffort’s French sex farce of the same name. As a stage musical with songs by Marguerite Monnot, Irma la Doucepresents a gay tale of a Parisian prostitute whose lover, a poor law student, goes to absurd lengths to spend more time with his beloved. Despite the musical’s risqué subject matter, audiences loved its sweet nature. “Trust the French to make vice as innocent as a fable,” wrote The New York Times in its praise of the show’s Broadway run. But turning this hit musical into a Hollywood film presented a series of challenges for Wilder and his co-writer, I. A. L. Diamond, not the least being getting its demi-world of prostitution, murder, and sexual obsession past the Hollywood censors. Wilder assured his producers he could deliver a sophisticated adult comedy of which everyone would approve. “It has no orgies, homosexuals, or cannibals,” Wilder argued, making a not so subtle allusion to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1958 Suddenly Last Summer. “It will make a happy medium between Tennessee Williams and Walt Disney.” With MacLaine as his Irma and André Previn on board to write the music, Wilder and Diamond set out to create a musical. But as the plot shifted with the law student becoming a disgraced cop, Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon), who falls for the fallen lady, the filmmakers became more interested in elements of farce than musical comedy. “I have nothing against music,” Wilder explains, “but the more I went into that story, the better I thought it was. And for me the numbers got in the way.” MacLaine, who showed off her song-and-dance moves the year before in Walter Lang’s Can-Can, was all ready for a musical. While she later confessed a bit of disappointment that Wilder turned the film into a straight-up comedy, she played her part with remarkable zest and ingenuity. Wanting to keep her character rooted in reality, she flew along with Lemmon to Paris to meet with various real prostitutes to learn about their lives. While the film ultimately lost its song-and-dance numbers, it never lost its light-hearted sensibility. MacLaine, according to The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, “has a wondrously casual and candid air that sweeps indignation before it and leaves one sweetly enamored of her.” Audiences agreed by making Irma la Douce one of Wilder’s most successful films, with MacLaine receiving her third Academy Award nomination.

Sweet Charity | An Unstoppable Force

In the late sixties, when the head of Universal Pictures, Lew Wasserman, was looking for a musical to adapt to the screen that could reach the box office heights of Warner Brothers’ My Fair Lady or 20th Century Fox’s The Sound of Music, Shirley MacLaine suggested Sweet Charity. A loose musical adaptation of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Sweet Charity opened on Broadway in 1966 to great success. Directed by Bob Fosse and starring his wife, Gwen Verdon, the musical tells the tale of a Times Square dancer-for-hire (changed from prostitute in Fellini’s film) and her bumpy, sometimes bumbling search for love. MacLaine, who was quickly cast in the title role, pushed hard to have Fosse direct. Although Fosse had created cutting-edge choreography for films like The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees!, as well as directed a parade of Broadway hits, he had never helmed a feature film before. Fosse fought hard to forge a different kind of musical, one that was both in touch with the show’s risqué source material and brought a cinematic verve to the screen by using actual locations throughout. Subtitled “The Adventures of a Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved," Fosse’s film frames MacLaine throughout in energetic long shots that include the Empire State Building, Central Park, Yankee Stadium, and the recently completed Lincoln Center Revson Fountain. For many, MacLaine, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress––Comedy or Musical, perfectly embodies the manic pixie spirit of the title character. Variety raves that “MacLaine’s unique talents as a comic tragedienne are set off to maximum impact.” But unfortunately, audiences never came. In hindsight, many see the film as a victim of bad timing. On the one hand, it was a glitzy, throw-back Hollywood musical in the year of Easy Rider, and, on the other hand, it displayed a revolutionary cinematic style that was ahead of its time. “No one had created dances like that before, or cast dancers who were not all conventionally svelte or pretty,” The New Yorker’s Hilton Als recently observed about Bob Fosse’s choreography. Now, it is remembered for its jaunty numbers, like “Big Spender,” and MacLaine’s indomitable spirit.

Terms of Endearment | Playing Herself

Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, and Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment

When director James Brooks first received a copy of Larry McMurtry’s mother/daughter melodrama Terms of Endearment, there was one big string attached. “The book was sent to me as a vehicle for a specific actress,” Brooks tells Film Comment. “I read the book and I had a great emotional reaction to it, but I didn't want to do it with preconditions.” Brooks wrangled a deal in which Paramount would buy the book, thus allowing him to direct without having to cast Jennifer Jones, the actress for whom the property was original purchased. For Brooks, there was only one person to play Aurora, the strong-willed woman at the center of this 3-decade-long drama of a mother and her daughter living through heartbreak, husbands, and cancer. Shirley MacLaine, according to Brooks, “was the only one who ever saw it as a comedy.” While Brooks had never directed a feature before, he’d shown a genius for creating hit TV comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. Having adapted the novel for the screen as well, Brooks had lots of casting ideas, almost all of which fell through. He picked Debra Winger to play the daughter, Emma Horton, only after Sissy Spacek and few other actresses turned him down. He created the character of Aurora’s ex-astronaut Casanova, Garrett Breedlove, specifically for Burt Reynolds, who turned out to have a scheduling conflict. After Paul Newman also passed on the project, Jack Nicholson stepped up, relishing the chance to work with MacLaine. For MacLaine, the relationship between the two worked like magic: “It's an amazing chemistry––a wonderful, wonderful feeling.” That wonderful feeling was shared by audiences everywhere. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin writes, “Miss MacLaine has one of her best roles in Aurora, and her performance is a lovely mixture of longing, stubbornness, and reserve.” The film proved to be both a critical and commercial smash. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won Best Picture, Best Director (Brooks), Best Adapted Screenplay (Brooks), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Nicholson), and, of course, Best Actress (MacLaine). Often calling Aurora “my favorite part,” MacLaine later proclaimed, “In principle, I won an Oscar for playing myself.”

Steel Magnolias | A Community of Artists

Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Shirley MacLaine in Steel MagnoliasWhile Steel Magnolias deals with tragedy, it’s the cathartic power of art and community to overcome such events that informed both its plot and production. Robert Harling penned the original play in ten days as a spontaneous emotional response to his sister dying of diabetes in 1985. “The events that inspired it were so powerful that…it just poured out into my typewriter in a 24/7 tsunami of Southernness,” Harling explains in an article for Garden & Gun. The comedy drama, which mostly transpires over three years at Truvy Jones’ Beauty Parlor, chronicles how the illness of one woman effects everyone around her, from her mother to a new-comer just hired at the beauty parlor, to the rich and crusty matriarch of the town, Ouiser Boudreaux. Audiences came to love this society of six women, bonded together by tearful embraces, snappy one-liners, and salacious gossip. After becoming a hit at the New York’s WPA Theater in 1987, the play was snatched up for a film adaptation with Herbert Ross at the helm. Before it even went into production, legendary actresses were pitching to play their favorite part. After seeing the play in New York City, Bette Davis invited Harling to a private tea in a bid to play Ouiser on screen. Ross, however, had his eyes on MacLaine to play the prickly town matron, although he didn’t tell her outright. “I remember his words were, 'Read the play and tell me what part you want to play,'” MacLaine recalls in a TCMarticle. “I think he did that with all the actresses. We all really did pick the parts we wanted. I really wanted to play Ouiser. Didn't want to play anything else. I loved that idea of her being so curmudgeon-like." As each actress found herself in the character she took, the group also quickly found a community of remarkable actresses including, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah. Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, and Shirley MacLaine. “Our gang of wonder women met, worked, and lived together," writes MacLaine in My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir. "I don't remember a moment of jealously, envy, or proprietary behavior. In fact, each of us was more concerned for the others than we were for ourselves.” The sense of community and connection translated to the screen with the movie becoming a box-office classic. For director Ross, making the film also proved a transformative experience. “It was the first movie I made after my wife's death,” Ross relates in TCM. “It was the movie that somehow returned me into participating again in the world."

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