AFI Life Achievement Award: Shirley MacLaine

In a career that’s nearing six decades and shows no sign of slowing down, much less stopping, Shirley MacLaine has danced from Broadway chorus to the world stage, from Hollywood’s studio system to international television, from documentary filmmaking to otherworldly insights and from bringing life to other scribes’ words and visions to speaking out and penning her own.

“Shirley MacLaine is a hero of mine and I’ve always been a huge fan of her performances going back to ‘The Apartment,’ ” says Jack Black, her co-star in the current “Bernie.” “It’s rare that you can be that good and act. She’s hands down talented and hot — it’s a powerful combination. She’s the Jack Nicholson level of awesomeness. And she put me at ease and would laugh at my dumb jokes.”

As the American Film Institute honors MacLaine with its Life Achievement Award, the multi-hyphenate took time with Variety to candidly assess what she does, where she’s been and those filmmakers who were there — or not! — along the way.

Born Shirley MacLean Beaty 78 years ago in Richmond, Va., and named after Shirley Temple, MacLaine was spotted by producer Hal B. Wallis in the Broadway production of “Pajama Game” and signed to a Paramount contract. Her Hollywood career began with Alfred Hitchcock in 1955′s “The Trouble With Harry.”

“Hitchcock had a Cockney sense of humor, which means a tinge of confused cruelty, and he liked to see if you could figure out what he was talking about. He thought it was amusing,” says MacLaine. “What happened was I loved to eat as much as he did. I was just out of the chorus, so we ate three meals a day together. Paramount called and said, ‘You’re jeopardizing your career because we can’t match you.’ I think I gained 20 pounds because he wanted to eat with me every day.”

MacLaine was essentially window dressing in Frank Tashlin’s 1956 pic, “Artists and Models,” but this first teaming with Dean Martin led to her membership in the Frank Sinatra-led Rat Pack.

“(‘Artists and Models’) was the next to last Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie and some of that was extremely difficult because of their relationship. Frank Tashlin was lovely, he was married to Mary Costa, an opera singer, and he had a real appreciation of, let’s say, a very artistic bent because of Mary. There he was thrown into the middle of basically a wrestling match,” she recalls. Although Michael Anderson directed “Around the World in 80 Days,” producer Mike Todd, then married to Elizabeth Taylor, was the gale force that put the 1956 pic in motion.

“He’d seen me and wanted this Hindu princess to have a sense of comedy,” MacLaine says. “The first day he wanted me to come in, and I told him I’m Scotch Irish, you’re looking for Hindu,’ and he said, ‘The highest class of Hindus have Scotch-Irish blood.’ He literally said that to me! I went to see Irene Sharaff, who outfitted me in some Indian sari and he put me in makeup and dyed my hair black and put me on a plane to Durango, Colo. — I never went home. I showed up in this sari and these freckles on the set and David Niven didn’t know what to think. He couldn’t take me seriously for a week and a half.”

MacLaine received her first Oscar nom for playing a party girl in Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 pic, “Some Came Running,” pairing her with Sinatra and Martin.

“It was Frank who called me,” not Minnelli, she says. “He’d seen me on some television show and thought I’d be right, although I think he thought it was Shelley Winters at first, I’m not sure — Shelley and Shirley? He got it mixed up.”

MacLaine says it’s true that Sinatra changed the ending. “He said, ‘Look kid, you’re going to be great in this but you should die, not me and you’ll win an Oscar nomination.’ That took chutzpah to rewrite James Jones — and the studio MGM went along with it.”

According to the actress, “Vincente directed the drapes and the rugs and furniture and didn’t say much to actors, which is probably why Dean was so wonderful. So I did it all myself. I loved Vincente, though. He was beyond democratic” — she erupts in laughter — “he was living in his own world. What will you say to Frank and Dean anyway? They’re going to do it in their own way. So he opted for the science of passive resistance and didn’t say much. And he was right! Sometimes the best direction is none. He was passive aggressive you’d call it today.

“To look at the priorities of Minnelli’s direction. It was about 5 o’clock in the morning and Dean and Frank were tired and trying not to drink because it was the fight scene at the end. We ended up in this huge plaza where the Ferris wheel was. Dean and Frank and I got out of the limo to film and all the fans were screaming and we watched Vincente kneel down and look through the viewfinder and he didn’t like what he saw. Instead of saying ‘Move the camera,’ he said, ‘Move the Ferris wheel.’ Hearing that, Dean and Frank left for the airport and we shut down.

“It was three or four days later, I guess they got bored in Hollywood and I remember Sol Siegel, the head of Metro at the time, brought them back in a plane, probably in handcuffs. It would be interesting to look at who behaves like that today. Well, that was the studio system then.”MacLaine’s first collaboration with Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon, in 1960′s “The Apartment,” brought a second Oscar nom.

“Billy was a scientist of comedy and the most impressive detail of (his) direction was he would say, ‘I don’t know’ a couple of times. ‘Do that scene again and cut out 11 and half seconds.’ Somehow Jack and I did it. I don’t know how. I think that’s when I got into metaphysics,” MacLaine says with a big laugh. “That’s how he directed. The other half was Doane Harrison, his editor (credited as associate producer). Doane would come to the set at the end of every day and say what he thought. Sometimes we’d do a scene over because Doane didn’t think it had enough heart in it. Doane was Billy’s heart meter. Billy was a master of cynicism and I guess he had a rather rough life and that was his bent. Doane was this bent-over old guy you’d never notice, he looked like a very tall umbrella standing somewhere.”

The film’s last line, on a par with Wilder’s zinger ending for “Some Like It Hot,” has MacLaine looking at a besotted Lemmon, handing him a deck of cards, saying, “Shut up and deal.” It’s been said she improvised that. True? “I might have gotten impatient with all the takes. I might have just turned to Jack and said, ‘Shut up and deal.’ “Regarding 1961′s “The Children’s Hour” with Audrey Hepburn, “Willie Wyler never told you what he wanted,” says MacLaine. “What that did was induce in me another kind of metaphysical trait: to get into his head to understand what he wanted. To this day I don’t know if he did it on purpose. He was quite a master manipulator. I loved his intelligence and I, like many actresses, I fell in love with him. It was my older man love thing. It was wonderful because I love that kind of challenge to understand the brilliance of the director.”

Wyler’s manipulation, however, did not extend to telling actors stories about their co-stars to incite emotions. “Oh fuck no!” MacLaine exclaims. “I would completely walk away from that stuff. But if he was truly unsure and didn’t know what the actor had or didn’t have and that was all real and genuine, I’m a sucker for that. I like to help the director find it. But that obvious manipulation? Whoa! No.

“Sometimes on ‘The Children’s Hour’ set Dean and Frank would come and in the middle of a scene throw spitballs at Audrey and me. They were shooting next door (on ‘Four for Texas’). They had on Western clothes. Once Willie made me run and up down the stairs 30 times. ‘What do you want!’ I finally asked him. ‘I want you to act tired.’”Jack Cardiff, the legendary d.p.-turned-helmer, directed the actress in 1962′s “My Geisha,” a picture produced by MacLaine and husband Steve Parker.

“Jack Cardiff was calling the shots, not Steve. We made the film because of Steve’s appreciation of Japanese things and we lived in a sector of Tokyo and my daughter was in an international school ther
e. They let me go there to the Kaburento to study geisha training. Jack was a fabulous photographer of course. Steve did the business part.”Regarding 1962′s “Two for the Seesaw,” MacLaine states, “That was basically Robert Wise trying to navigate the love affair Robert Mitchum and I were having. It was such an intimate piece, and actually the love affair didn’t begin until we finished and it went on for three years but the attraction was so strong.”

Mitchum, she adds, “was, how should I put it, not the strutting he-man everyone thought. He was the intellectual and had a fantastic mind and that’s what attracted me. He basically ran things by not doing anything except walking in a room — and that was enough. Wise was a very experienced editor; he knew what he wanted and how. But there was an emotional tyranny: by being passive Mitchum exuded control. That was what I found very interesting.”

“When they asked me to do ‘What a Way to Go!,’ I said, ‘I’ll do it if Robert does it.’ ”

For 1966′s “Gambit,” directed by Ronald Neame, MacLaine recommended “that the first 15 minutes be cut,” where we see the elaborate caper presented as it is envisioned in all its cleverness. “I loved Ronald. And he was really good about cutting that much of the script. I just worked with his grandson Gareth Neame in ‘Downton Abbey.’” Vittorio De Sica directed MacLaine in seven vignettes in 1967′s “Woman Times Seven.”

“I adored him, oh my goodness!” she exclaims. “We were shooting in Paris because he was in big trouble with his gambling in Italy. We worried about his health, whether he’d fall off his director’s chair because he was getting old, even his gambling debts. One of the scenes I did with Alan Arkin, I laughed so hard, I wasted a whole day and couldn’t stop laughing at what he was doing — and he was doing nothing which was what made me laugh.”

The Bob Fosse-directed and choreographed “Sweet Charity” in 1969 brought the Broadway master to the movies before he did “Cabaret.”

“He found me in ‘Pajama Game’ — he and Jerry Robbins designated me to be Carol Haney’s understudy,” MacLaine recalls. “When Lew Wasserman asked who I wanted to direct it and I said Fosse, he said, ‘He’s not a director, he’s a choreographer.’ When he died — look at the karma here of our relationship — he died in front of my dancing school in Washington, D.C., the opening night of the road company of ‘Sweet Charity.’ ”

Don Siegel became well known as co-star Clint Eastwood’s mentor and buddy. He directed MacLaine in 1970′s “Two Mules for Sister Sara.”

“Clint could have him; I didn’t like him. No, because I wouldn’t sleep with him,” she says. Herbert Ross directed Mac

Laine in 1977′s “The Turning Point,” gaining her yet another Oscar nom, as well as 1989′s “Steel Magnolias.”

“He was an ex-gypsy like me,” she says. “He could be really cryptic with the other women and I would whisper in his ear, ‘Remember, you’re like an ugly old gypsy. You might be talented but don’t forget that.’ Then he’d calm down.”

MacLaine starred in one of 1979′s most acclaimed pics, “Being There,” directed by Hal Ashby, a film editor turned helmer, who was wrestling with a ferocious drug habit at the time.

“I don’t think he was there. I don’t know what he was doing,” says MacLaine.

As for “crazy” Peter Sellers, “Peter had a leaking aura and these past-life incarnations would come through and that’s why he could play these parts so well. He was positive he was having a sexual, a deep, erotic relationship with me, he actually thought he was! Dick Zanuck would walk into his dressing room and hear Peter doing sex talk over the phone and he would ask me, ‘What is it like having a relationship with Peter Sellers?’ and I said, ‘He’s out of his mind.’ He did the same thing with Sophia Loren when they made ‘The Millionairess.’ ”

MacLaine’s comedic tour de force in the pic comes when she tries to arouse Sellers’ simpleton character by masturbating. “I just made that up,” she says of the scene. “Larry Olivier turned the role down and Melvyn Douglas did it. Larry said, ‘Oh no, no. I’m not doing a movie with you masturbating.’ When we came up with the idea of Melvyn Douglas, everyone thought, It’s too bad he’s dead — and he was making two pictures at the same time. We had to wait for him.” Finally, MacLaine won an Oscar, in 1983, for her turn in “Terms of Endearment.”

“Love that man!” she says of helmer James L. Brooks. “He would put you through total labyrinthically areas of your character you’ve never been through. As a result, you learn so much more about yourself.”

The movie’s production was rife with rumors of conflict. “Let’s just say it was ‘troubled.’ That’s good,” she adds.

John Schlesinger steered MacLaine through 1988′s sentimental character study “Madame Sousatzka.”

“What a wonderful man!” she exclaims. “I told him I was going to create a character with his help and wardrobe and hair and makeup because the writer lived in my same building in New York and I’m going to throw her up to the universe and let her play herself through me. He looked at me like I was out of my fucking mind but he let it happen. It was based on my old dancing teacher and Bella Abzug. The last scene in the picture, the last day of the shoot, was five minutes and John said, ‘Wrap that’s it!’ and Sousatzka left me and I got a fever of 102 immediately. That was my initiation to acting like the way I think Meryl does it.”MacLaine acted opposite Meryl Streep in Mike Nichols’ “Postcards From the Edge” from 1990, based on Carrie Fisher’s bestseller.

“What a terrific guy,” she says of Nichols. “He’s funny. Very allowing, although completely in control of what his vision is — and he knew what to do with Carrie Fisher. What else do you need to know?”

As for Debbie Reynolds, “She hated I was pouring the gin and the smoothie. I couldn’t ‘do’ Debbie. I did my version of what I would be if I was Debbie.”

If MacLaine has regrets about pics she didn’t do, she will name just one: “I should have done ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ I did ‘Two Loves’ instead, which I think was horrible.”

As for her underrated performances, MacLaine says, “I never remember that far back. I let everything go. So I don’t know.”Similarly, asked why or how she’s managed this extraordinary career that combines unequalled longevity with first-rate craftsmanship and inspiration, “I don’t know,” she says. “I just try to basically ask a question and tell the truth.”

Is she ever retiring?

“Absolutely not. What on earth does that word mean?”

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