Living life to the full
By Hannah Stephenson
Sunday, December 23, 2007
SOMETIMES life is surreal - and this is one of those moments.
I'm sitting chatting to Hollywood movie legend Shirley MacLaine, one of my all-time favourite screen icons, in - of all places - Fern Britton's dressing room on the set of This Morning.
Fern's shoes (all with impossibly high heels) are piled up precariously on a shelf right next to where the Oscar-winning actress is sitting, her strawberry blonde hair in a neat bob, her eyes warm and very friendly.
MacLaine, 73, doesn't do small talk, takes the issues of UFOs and reincarnation extremely seriously, and yet isn't remotely as weird or as prickly as I anticipate. In fact, she has the same sense of fun and mischief she has brought to so many roles, from the vulnerable nightclub hostess in Sweet Charity to the lovelorn secretary in The Apartment opposite Jack Lemmon, and the comical mother dealing with tragedy in Terms Of Endearment, for which she won an Oscar.
Her characters are often smiling through tears, unlike herself.
She has been branded eccentric by skeptics who sneer at her pronouncements of being a medieval warrior and Egyptian princess in previous lives and her allegations of government cover-ups over UFOs which she claims to have seen.
She also believes in life after life after life - that when we die we are reincarnated, that she has lived, as have her family and her dog Terry, many lives before, and that life is perpetual so she has no fear of death.
Her new book, Sage-ing While Age-ing, which features a little of her life and career mixed with a lot about UFOs and reincarnation, may just fuel the fire. But she is used to flak.
"Seventy per cent of the American public believe that we are not alone. I have been the catalyst for jokes, but they are not happening any more. People know that there is a cover-up and it is now mainstream to believe we've been visited," she says.
Today, she lives on a ranch in New Mexico, the mecca for extra-terrestrial activity, and also has a home in Malibu, overlooking the ocean, because Los Angeles is where so much of her work is based. However, she doesn't go to Hollywood parties any more.
"It's not like it used to be. We used to have parties all the time. Servants and white gloves, great food on flaming platters. I wouldn't call it decadent, but they were rich. That doesn't happen now.
"In the old days it was more of a motion picture society. You'd go to Billy Wilder's or Sam Goldwyn's or the head of the studio on Saturday night."
She laments that people in the acting industry just don't have as much fun anymore. You have to remember, though, that MacLaine hung out with the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, and starred in the original Ocean's Eleven in 1960.
"That time was reckless fun," she says, "and it would never happen again. And there was such unbelievable talent, for God's sake. They didn't care about profits, they cared about having fun."
She was friends with all of them but never had an affair with any - although she was tempted with Dean Martin.
"I had kind of a crush on Dean, but Jeanne (his then wife) was always around. Dean was the funny one. I used to have deep discussions with Frank about reincarnation. Sammy, probably the most talented of all, got into drugs.
"Sometimes I get very nostalgic if there is a retrospective of Hollywood in the old days on the TV.
"Hollywood is very different now. In the old days, the studios were the parental influence in your life. They protected you from everything and there was that feeling of working without concern about whether it will be successful. Nowadays everything is about profit and money."
She says she is seen as a 'crone' or a wizened sage in Hollywood, but has real respect from the studios.
"I ask myself why am I still working, but I love the creativity of being other people."
In Sir Richard Attenborough's latest film (which was filmed in Belfast), Closing The Ring, a love story interwoven between 1991 and World War Two, she plays the lead as an American woman unable to grieve over the death of her first love.
"What we were going through was the study of what has been so hard for Dickie in the last couple of years over his grief (his daughter and grand-daughter died in Asian tsunami of 2004)."
In February she starts filming a new movie called Poor Things with Olympia Dukakis, based on a true story about two older women who go on a murder rampage.
There are also plans to make the movie of the hit TV series Dallas with MacLaine earmarked for the role of Miss Ellie.
Hollywood is cruel to many aging actresses, but MacLaine has the advantage that she never relied on her looks for roles. "I was a character actress when I was 20. It wasn't about sex appeal or my body. The more glamorous you are, the shorter your working life will be."
She had many lovers during her early career - at one point she had a lover in each country she visited - and during her 28-year marriage to film producer-turned-businessman Steve Parker, both were unfaithful.
"I'm a serial monogamist. Usually I fixed it so that they would dump me. I can't imagine staying in one place with one man and one job in one town."
They had one daughter, Sachi, but MacLaine finally split from Parker because he stole money from her to put into business ventures. "That was a big lesson. I had to become more concerned with my own finances."
Born in Richmond, Virginia, MacLaine grew up in an environment where her parents were unfulfilled creatively.
Her father, a gifted musician, didn't want to spend his life in an orchestra pit so he gave it up to be a real estate salesman. Her mother, who was also artistic, was a drama teacher.
It was almost inevitable that MacLaine and her younger brother, Warren Beatty, should follow the creative path which had eluded their parents.
She sees Beatty a lot now, although they have gone through periods where they haven't spoken. And she loves his kids.
"He has more of a Hollywood lifestyle than I do," she says. " He has people over for dinner and stuff like that."
She lives alone - well, with her 13 dogs, including her favorite, a terrier called Terry, and much prefers animals to people. "We have so much to learn from them - how to get along, how to establish a pecking order that works, just the simplest things," she says, and believes dogs are better companions than any man could ever be. "I have a pillow that says, 'The more I know of men, the more I love my dog'."
She hasn't ruled out another man in her life, but it's a tall order. " He'd have to get out of a spacecraft, probably," she says, laughing.