MALIBU, Calif.— Shirley MacLaine is putting something together about her life for the first time.
Tucked away in the corner of a shaded patio at a sea view restaurant in Malibu, MacLaine, now 82, is thinking about the onetime expectations of women of her generation.
“I asked my own mother once, ‘What are we supposed to be?’” MacLaine says. “She said, ‘You’re supposed to have nice hair and nice clothes and look pretty.’ She really said that to me.”
MacLaine defied those modest prospects at every turn. The gamine, natural beauty became a movie star when the popular look was lacquered glamour. She sued a studio when she knew she’d been wronged professionally. She demanded the best of everyone she worked with, sometimes leading to less-than-effusive assessments from co-stars.
And she has continued to remain relevant in the youth-obsessed industry at every stage of her career. As she matured, so did her characters.
She doesn’t attribute it to ambition, however, but to dance.
Her mother famously enrolled her in dance classes at age 3 to strengthen her weak ankles. It was there that MacLaine fell in love, she says, with “discipline, music, teamwork, pain, balance and strength.”
“If you can get through a ballet class every day of your life when you start at 3 … I’m just putting this together as a matter of fact … If you can do that starting at 3, then you are confident,” she says. “I wasn’t like the other girls who were out there trying to be pleasing. I was in class trying to be strong and survive.”
Not unlike MacLaine and her journey, the character she plays in her new movie “The Last Word,” now in theaters, is a woman (Harriet) who also rose above societal gender constraints to become successful in business. Now in her 80s, and lonely, Harriet is thinking about her legacy and impact on the world and hires a local obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried) to write hers.
“I love playing bitches,” MacLaine says with a smirk. “I love the whole idea of being so impossible that it’s funny.”
MacLaine doesn’t like to reflect on the scope of her career, because, she says, “I think I’m going to live a long time.” Yet she’ll tell stories for days about her films in the studio system and the icons she’s worked with.
She smiles proudly recalling how she taught Audrey Hepburn how to swear and how Hepburn, in turn, taught her how to dress (“sort of”). She remembers getting a call from Paramount production head Don Hartman scolding her for gaining weight during the production of “The Trouble With Harry” because of all the meals she was eating with Alfred Hitchcock.
“Look, I wasn’t tall, thin, blonde, ethereal, and all that stuff that was essential for men to jump on. Hitch wasn’t interested in me, but, he was interested in me as a food partner. So, he insisted I have every meal with him. I think I gained 20 pounds,” MacLaine says. “I was just out of the chorus; I hadn’t had a full meal in years!”
The only director she’s ever had a problem with was Billy Wilder because, “he had a problem with women.” And she was horrified that he wrote her character in “The Apartment,” Fran, after observing her learning how to play gin with “Dean and Frank” and the Rat Pack crew.
“God, is that what he really thought of me?” she wonders.
“He terrified Marilyn. That’s why she was always late,” MacLaine says. “He was Austrian and he wanted everything exactly his way.”
The actress much prefers the hands-off style of independent films like the “The Last Word.” She has also found that the indie world is the only place where she can find character-driven films.
MacLaine will read any script that comes her way but studio tent-pole franchises hold no interest for her. She also wants to make films that service the senior community.
“I love getting older, I truly do,” she says. “I like the wisdom of it, the complications of it. I do not like the invisibility. I notice with other people, who are not particularly famous, when they are old and no one notices they’re there. That’s awful. I want to do a movie about that. I’ve got one I’m thinking of.”
MacLaine is grateful for her health — she eats whatever she wants, she says, and gave up smoking last year but thinks a lot of it has to do with her never having been a big drinker or doing drugs.
She remembers hanging out at Carrie Fisher’s house once and putting what she thought was sweetener into her coffee when it was actually cocaine. But someone stopped her before she drank it.
“I didn’t even know what it was. I think of those times when my buddies would go in the bathroom and I’m left alone in the living room. ‘What are they doing? Why am I alone?’ They were doing drugs. The word went around that I wasn’t interested,” she says. “I’ve smoked two joints. I’m a dumb-dumb when it comes to how you can enjoy yourself.”
All in all, MacLaine is content with life. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has her “doggies” (three rat terriers), her friends, her writing, her publisher and her “An Evening With…” shows. She sees films (her favorites of last year were “Moonlight” and “The Edge of Seventeen”). She travels to New York for a few weeks a year to see shows, and tries to do about two films a year on location.
She also sees her younger brother, Warren Beatty, and his family sometimes, too. She says stories about them having been estranged are just not true.
“I have a very full life and at the same time a life where nothing much happens,” MacLaine says. “It’s the best I’ve ever been.”