On the Mayan calendar, the year 2012 marks the end of a 26,000-year cycle as the planets in our solar system come into perfect alignment with one another and the center of the galaxy. For those attuned to spiritual matters, the phenomenon astronomers call “syzygy” offers the prospect of rebirth.
And this is the year the American Film Institute has selected Shirley MacLaine as the recipient of its 40th Life Achievement Award. How fitting it is that in 2012 her place in the firmament of American film is assured as a star of the first magnitude.
Shirley MacLean Beaty was born April 24, 1934 in Richmond, Virginia. She was named for a movie star — the adorable Shirley Temple, who lifted the hearts of American moviegoers during the Great Depression as only a child star could. MacLaine was the freckled daughter of an educator and a Canadian-born actress turned teacher. She started dance class at age three to strengthen a pair of wobbly ankles and her childhood years were counted off to a dance beat — five, six, seven, eight! — MacLaine finding at the Washington School of Ballet a lifelong source of beauty, balance and belief in herself. She eagerly absorbed the lessons of her Russian-trained instructor and proved her mettle early, dancing “Cinderella” with the National Symphony. And on a broken ankle.
Before long the teenage perfectionist was waving goodbye to her kid brother Warren, boarding the bus to New York and landing jobs in corporate musicals for sales conventions, known in the dancers’ trade as “industrials.” She pirouetted around Servel Ice Boxes for a time before joining the chorus of a “subway-circuit” “Oklahoma!,” then Broadway’s “Me and Juliet.” The choreographer who hired her shouted, “You with the red hair and the legs that start at your shoulders!” An offhand remark that crystallized her image as a standout.
What came next is the stuff of legend. Carol Haney, star of the hit musical, “The Pajama Game,” suffered her own ankle injury, and MacLaine, by then her understudy, was plucked from the chorus line. When the change was announced to the matinee audience, “there was a loud sigh of disappointment,” Jerry Lewis recalled. “Then…Shirley came on and absolutely electrified me and everybody else in the audience. By the final curtain, we were all on our feet, yelling for her to come out again and again.”
Film producer Hal Wallis, searching for the female lead in his next picture, was also in the audience and signed the young sensation to a long-term Hollywood contract. The newlywed’s first assignment was to play a young widow in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955), a black comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock. He instructed the nervous newcomer in cockney slang, repeating “genuine chopper,” which translated into “real axe” — a Hitchcockian way of saying “relax.”
MacLaine’s offbeat personality and gamine good looks offered a piquant counterpoint to the conformity that dominated American culture in the 1950s. In an era of sex bombs, both foreign and domestic, she was a different weapon altogether, usually playing a kook or free spirit, likely as not to be the victim of her own heart’s desire.
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote of SOME CAME RUNNING (1958), “a garishly bedizened Shirley MacLaine, who plays a pick-up from Chicago, makes for the best fun in the film.” When Frank Sinatra convinced director Vincente Minnelli to let MacLaine’s character — not his — take a bullet near the end of the film, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role — just as Ol’ Blue Eyes predicted.
MacLaine fast became a hot property, her name on the Hollywood A-list. She bought a place in Malibu, another in the Pacific Northwest and began to travel the world. Stateside, MacLaine became the mascot of Sinatra’s “clan,” later known as the Rat Pack, adding sparkle to the Strip in Las Vegas, trading wisecracks with wise guys like mobster Sam Giancana. “Let’s face it, I’d do almost anything for Shirley MacLaine,” wrote Sinatra. “Shirley is one of the liveliest, funniest, most loyal friends anyone could have…I firmly believe she is the best comedienne in this crazy business. Trying to get the quality of this kid down on paper is like trying to catch an eagle in a thimble — it can’t be done.”
MacLaine’s film career hummed along under the studio system, shifting from the Paramount lot to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists. She appeared in 16 films during the sixties, beginning with Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT (1960) in which she was paired with Jack Lemmon. Her sympathetic portrayal of Fran Kubelik, another “other woman,” earned her a second Oscar nomination. She was able to kick up her heels in CAN-CAN (1960) and SWEET CHARITY (1968) and assay dramatic roles in THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (1961) and TWO FOR THE SEESAW (1962), but mainly MacLaine spent that turbulent decade in American history in a slew of capers, light comedies and romantic anthologies like MY GEISHA (1962), IRMA LA DOUCE (1963), WHAT A WAY TO GO! (1964), THE YELLOW ROLLS-ROYCE (1964), GAMBIT (1965) and WOMAN TIMES SEVEN (1967).
Off-screen, a phone call from Marlon Brando helped launch MacLaine’s career as an activist in politics and social causes. The legendary actor invited her to join him in speaking out against the planned execution of Caryl Chessman, a California death-row inmate whose case made banning the death penalty a cause célèbre. MacLaine later became involved in the struggle for civil rights. In solidarity, the rising star, who was raised in a white suburban home below the Mason-Dixon Line, moved in with a black family in Mississippi threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. She went on to oppose the war in Vietnam and was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when police rioted and the whole world was watching.
As America’s cities exploded in violence and the counter-culture spread, the movie business began to change, and a new era of independent filmmaking came into vogue. MacLaine looked inward, reflecting on the direction of her life. She wrote about it, producing the first of 12 best-selling memoirs, “Don’t Fall Off the Mountain.” What begins as a straightforward Hollywood autobiography veers into new territory in Chapter 11, which begins, “And so, having adjusted reasonably well to fame, affluence and power I reached for something more.”
In book after book for the next 40-plus years, MacLaine has written unsparingly of her search for meaning, providing material to countless late-night comedians and never minding the jokes — “as long as they were funny.” She wrote about spirit guides, UFOs, past lives, psychic surgery and the lost city of Atlantis. She recounted living with the Masai tribe in Africa, fleeing the military rulers of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, leading a delegation of women to China (memorialized in her 1975 Oscar-nominated film documentary THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY: A CHINA MEMOIR) and trekking across Spain on a pilgrimage. She candidly and movingly described the most important relationships in her life — with her parents, whose unfulfilled promise drove her to test her own limits; with her lovers, among them actors, journalists and world leaders; and finally, and most profoundly, with herself, seeking essential truths within her own soul.
MacLaine’s film work became enriched by her extraordinary life’s journey and spiritual discoveries. Her passionate yet nuanced performances in THE TURNING POINT (1977); BEING THERE (1979); TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress; MADAME SOUSATZKA (1988); STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989); POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990); and GUARDING TESS (1994) give testimony to her growth as an actor and reflect the changing role of women in American society. Gone are the round-heeled ladies, replaced by fully realized, three-dimensional characters — substantial women who give as good as they get.
MacLaine has never forgotten her roots, those dance beginnings she has always regarded as the foundation of her formidable talent. She has returned time and time again to the concert or Broadway stage, and toured the world with her dazzling one-woman shows in 1976, 1984 and — knee surgery be damned — again in 1990. Dorothy Fields’ lyrics in MacLaine’s signature tune, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” from SWEET CHARITY, perfectly capture the sheer joy she has always felt in the spotlight: “Tonight, I landed, pow! Right in a pot of jam.”
MacLaine’s initial foray into television, the 1971–72 series SHIRLEY’S WORLD in which she played a globetrotting photojournalist, fell short of her expectations. Yet when good film roles for women her age grew increasingly rare, she embraced the opportunities television offered, creating memorable portraits in roles as diverse as Madame de Beaurevoir, Mary Kay and Coco Chanel. Earlier this year, the number one trending story on the Internet was the announcement that Shirley MacLaine would be returning to series television in the PBS period drama, DOWNTON ABBEY.
Today MacLaine’s unique presence continues to defy expectations even as her literate and outspoken intelligence attracts legions of new admirers in every corner of the planet. The daughter of Virginia now lives mainly in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, with her beloved terrier, Terry. Her balcony has a splendid view of distant constellations.
The star and the celestial host are in glorious alignment.