The Many Sides of Shirley MacLaine

The Academy Award-winning actor looks back on an astonishing career.

WORDS As told to Jeanne Wolf
November / December 2019

Shirley MacLaine as Elf Polly in the new Disney+ film, Noelle. / Disney 2019

I’ve long said that I wanted to be a character actress but Santa’s elf was not on my list. That’s what I play in the Christmas movie Noelle. I got a kick out of having pointy ears, and I was ready to do scenes with Anna Kendrick and me galloping through the sky in a sled drawn by reindeer. Bill Hader plays a reluctant Santa. I was impressed by how much he knew about my career. I didn’t realize he was a fan. Bill is funny but also a very complicated guy and that fascinated me.

Growing up, the holidays were for me the stuff you see on the most clichéd Christmas show on Hallmark. It was opening presents and hoping that your dad doesn’t drink too much, basically. That’s all I’m going to say.

People think I’ve had such a complicated life. It’s certainly been a full one.

I started dancing when I was a kid. At 16 I headed to New York from Virginia to give show business a try. My parents were a little worried.

It was my long legs that helped me get parts in shows like Me and Juliet. I was the understudy in The Pajama Game on Broadway when the star got hurt. Suddenly, I was on stage belting out “Steam Heat.” Like those stories you’ve heard, I was “discovered” by Hollywood when a producer who was in the audience told Alfred Hitchcock he should cast me in his next movie. I have so many memories about all the movies I made, but they’re more like little dramas in my mind—the sense of how I was feeling and whom I fell in love with on and off the screen.

Shirley MacLaine in the CBS television special If They Could See Me Now (1974). / Getty Images

I made my screen debut in The Trouble With Harry. A lot of people had said Hitchcock could be difficult, but we got along fine. When he found out I loved to eat, he insisted I have every meal with him. Maybe it was because he thought there would be more food on the table. I gained a lot of weight and one of the studio guys told me I was sabotaging my new career, because I was going to look totally different before we finished filming.

I did have stage fright, and still do. Every single time, it was like, Would I be good enough? Would I be what the audience wanted? Half of my admiration for live performing is the imperfection of it.

I got some advice on coping with that when I did Some Came Running with Frank Sinatra and his pal Dean Martin. I remember asking Frank if he felt nervous before a scene. He said, “Every time. I wouldn’t be good at all if I didn’t.” I loved the director, Vincente Minnelli, but Frank and Dean couldn’t stand him. Their favorite scenes were playing poker, because that’s what all of us used to do anyway, sit around playing cards.

I learned a lot watching Frank and Dean do their act in Vegas, where they perfected their style of being laid-back and cool. They enjoyed the unpredictability of things going wrong because they knew the audience loved seeing how they would handle it. That gave me courage to try anything in a live performance.

Postcards From the Edge (1990) / Getty Images

I got to be pals with Frank and Dean while I was staying in a hotel and they were in a house next door. I was their unpaid caretaker. They called me their mascot. They were very protective. Nobody could do anything to hurt me. I loved that period of my life. I miss it.

Billy Wilder called me to star with Jack Lemmon in The Apartment. Jack was a dreamboat who never lost his cool. But Billy was tough. He would often do extra takes with him just to see how long it would be before he lost his spontaneity. We started filming The Apartment with 29 pages of script and Jack and I had no idea how the film would end. I don’t think Billy did either. But I was okay because as an actor Jack was a real master, and he was also a master at being a nice guy.

I had a big crush on Yves Montand in My Geisha. He didn’t know how to deal with Hollywood and he was trying his best to try to speak English like he knew what he was talking about. It’s easy to fall in love with your costar because they touch your emotional truth when you work together. Anyway, the crush was over after the movie.

With Baryshnikov in The Turning Point it was all about his dancing, of course. I just loved to see how he could tell stories with his body. I adored Misha for his talent and sense of humor. I remember when we were sitting around between takes and he said, “How can you put up with all this waiting on a movie set? I’d rather do three Swan Lakes than sit around waiting for the lights.” Doing The Turning Point made me think of my mother. She had wanted to be an actress but chose motherhood. She gave up her dream to raise me and Warren [Beatty, her brother]. I knew I was fulfilling her dreams with my career.

MacLaine with Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running (1958). / Getty Images
In Terms of Endearment I played Aurora with a sense of love. She wasn’t some evil mother. She just loved her daughter too much. What I remember most about that film is Jack Nicholson, who was so friggin’ unpredictable. It was always a little shocking but also amusing. He was galactically brilliant. I adored him but I wasn’t attracted to him sexually. Who knows why? I was just more interested in his acting.

I played Meryl Streep’s mother in Postcards From the Edge and I said to her, “Meryl, don’t do my parts yet. Let me play some older ladies and then I’ll retire and you can have them all.”  She is very funny and she’s gotten funnier over the years because she realizes what a joke it all is. Of course, my character was based on Debbie Reynolds and she told me, “Dear, you’re funny, too. Anybody who plays me has got to be funny, so you’ll be fine.” In both Postcards and Steel Magnolias with casts of mostly women, we just had fun. There is a lot less ego, never a who’s-on-top problem.

Women are generous on a film set.

With Deborah Winger in Terms of Endearment (1983). / Getty Images
I’ve always needed time alone, and since sex and I have gotten over each other, it’s such a relief. A physical relationship doesn’t have that much to do with love. I’m more interested in the deeper stuff. A lot of men have been important influences in my life, but that’s not a contradiction with wanting to have your own identity. When you can have that freedom within a relationship it’s quite profound.

I’ve talked a lot about exploring my other lives. I had my first past-life experience when I was seven. Those other lives have helped me play all sorts of women on the screen. I’m not as spiritual as people think but I’m very metaphysical, curious about worlds beyond the physical. That’s why I love being in airplanes, because I’m closer to the stars.

I know I can be annoyingly serious, but I’ve always had the ability to laugh and see the funny side. Even with my endless curiosity, I admit I don’t always know even myself. Sometimes I say definitely, “No, I don’t want to go to that party,” and I get talked into it. Then I’m the last to leave.


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