Illustration by Jody Hewgill
By: Jeanne Wolf
Saturday Evening Post
In Issue: January/February 2013
Shirley MacLaine has lived a lot in her 78 years. She also famously insists that she’s lived centuries more in past lives.
Outrageously outspoken with a rapier wit, the Academy Award-winning actress, singer, and dancer is a Hollywood powerhouse. As a best-selling author, she’s fascinated us with her mystical preoccupation in everything from reincarnation to psychics and spirit guides. Even skeptics agree that her exploration of the far-out is an entertaining ride. Whether guesting on a talk show or walking the red carpet she always manages to get a gasp along with the laughs at her no-holds-barred one-liners.
MacLaine hasn’t given a thought to retiring or even slowing down—why should she? Her deliciously nasty turn as an old woman a small town loves to hate in Bernie, opposite Jack Black, earned rave reviews. Her latest book of witty observations, I’m Over All That: And Other Confessions, shows how she winks at looking back and looking forward.
And now she’s got a juicy co-starring role in the hugely popular Emmy-winning Masterpiece series Downton Abbey, as Lady Cora’s mother Martha Levinson, who arrives from New York to upset the household. That, of course, pits her against another icon of the big screen, Dame Maggie Smith, who plays the fearsome Dowager Countess Violet Crawley.
As we move forward in the new year, who better than MacLaine to give us a little perspective in her own irresistibly humorous and thought-provoking style?
Q & A:
“I have not had the experience of depression.”
Photo courtesy Block-Korenbrot, Inc.
Question: Do you believe in making New Year’s resolutions?
Shirley MacLaine: Absolutely not. I am a student of change. I don’t want to make resolutions because I know I’m not going to keep them.
Q: Do you even celebrate New Year’s Eve?
SM: New Year’s as a party means nothing to me. I am seeing what’s happening right now from devastating storms to unemployment and people struggling to make ends meet.
Q: Any predictions that there might be some significant changes?
SM: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think there’s going to be a lot of pain and difficulty in adjusting to kind of what I call a new frequency. Everybody’s talking so fast and thinking so fast and moving so fast, and I think that they’re missing the really important stuff.
Q: I know how important a sense of humor is to you. No matter how serious you might be playing a dramatic part, when I think of you off screen, I envision you smiling.
SM: Yep. I don’t know why. I don’t know. There’s a twinkle about me. I have not had the experience of depression. I know it’s a big statement to make.
Q: That’s startling.
SM: Yes. I know it is. I don’t think it makes me a shallow person. When you’re as curious as I am, there’s always something to learn. Maybe it’s also because I’m a dancer. That’s how I learned discipline, mental and physical.
Q: You’ve talked about the contradictions of comedy and tragedy, both on screen and off. Can you experience both at once?
SM: Oh sure. That’s life. I figure when you get past 35, if you haven’t learned that, then you better go back and start another one.
Q: So what is life to you?
SM: I think it’s a cross between what’s real and what’s comedy. When you analyze it you realize life itself is kind of a funny joke. Look at what’s happening in the world. If you don’t laugh, you’ve got serious problems. I think comedy—a sense of humor—must be born in certain people. Maybe it starts when you are a little kid and the dog steps on your foot. You either think it’s funny or an imposition. I think I have a gift of quirky insanity. We need more comedy, more laughter, and a more ironic way of thinking about life.
Q: What about the other emotions?
SM: Of course there’s fear and even hate. That’s when you need to say, ‘Well wait a minute now, what’s the opposing force, not hate but love.’ Of course, you might also say, ‘What is love?’ We’ve just made it so romanticized in this part of the world that you can’t really sustain it.
Q: How do you keep love alive?
SM: As I say when I answer all profound questions: ‘With a good hat and a comfortable pair of shoes.’ I learned that when I did the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in 1994, hiking through the rugged country of northern Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I thought if I’m going to write books about metaphysical stuff, I better really understand what it’s like to be totally alone and have nothing. All I really needed was fresh water, a good hat to protect me from the sun, and a good pair of shoes. [You can read about the journey in MacLaine’s book The Camino : A Journey of the Spirit.—Editor]
Q: Do you believe in loving someone forever?
SM: I think the need to promise to be with someone until the end of your days is foolish. And we don’t even want to have a discussion about monogamy. It just makes me laugh. I think the challenge of love is more about sustaining a relationship with yourself. If you don’t have that with yourself, you can’t have it with others. Relationships keep changing, too. So I guess the only thing consistent is change, really. That’s what I’m learning. I’m much more attracted and, I think always have been, to peace and humor than I am to sexuality.
Q: Who has been most influential in your personal life?
SM: Everybody I’m involved with at the time. This is my point: Everything keeps changing. Sometimes I look in my address book and see the names of people that I had the deepest and most personal, intimate relationships with 15 years ago, and I don’t even talk to them now. Nothing dramatic happened. It’s just that new things occurred.
MacLaine joins the cast of Downton Abbey. Photo © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.
Q: You’ve said, ‘I made a decision to live my life in public. I wasn’t going to go hiding.’ Would you still say that if you were a young actress today with paparazzi and fanatical fans following you everywhere?
SM: You know that is so hard on those kids. I’m so concerned for them. This is a terrible thing what’s happening. It’s putting into perspective the price of the necessity to be famous. Everybody seems to want to be acknowledged by others to the extent that they’re not happy with themselves as they are. And that probably is the lesson here. Whatever their reasons for wanting to be famous have really impacted their personal growth.
Q: Weren’t you ever hounded by the paparazzi?
SM: I think they didn’t bother me because I’d already told them everything anyway. But on the other hand, when I was growing up and at the height of my popularity in those days, they weren’t as ferocious as they are now.
Q: What about the electronic, computer-driven world we live in?
SM: This whole thing with technology? Oh my God, the other day I was in a movie theater and the person in front of me was looking at his iPad watching another movie while he’s looking at the screen. And I thought, ‘I won’t go to dinner with somebody who’s going to text me across the table.’
Q: What’s something you’d like to change about yourself?
SM: I’m impatient with everybody alive. This is my big problem. I’ve been impatient since age 2. Ask the makeup people. After 20 minutes, that’s it. I’m agitated by then. I want to go to the stuff that compels me, the scene I’m going to play. I’ve always been that way. I think it was because I was a gypsy when I was young.
Q: Are you still into yoga?
SM: I used to do 75 postures. I was really good. I was an advanced student. I don’t think I could do three now. Oh my Lord, oh the things we should or shouldn’t do. I try to listen to my body and my body says, ‘You can’t put yourself in that twisted, upper-down dog pose.’ But I think it was a mistake to give it up.
Q: What are you doing to keep fit and looking so terrific?
SM: I’ve succumbed more to aerobic things like hiking. I’ve been talked into thinking that cardiovascular exercise, or whatever, is good for your blood pressure. I just can’t get into the habitual thing of, ‘I must do this every day.’ You know. ‘Mondays is my day to walk. Tuesdays is my day to meditate.’ I can’t do that.
Q: How much do you think you know about your own past lives?
SM: Well, enough about them for the moment. There’s so much going on in the world that’s so insane that I’m more interested in this life right now.
Q: I reread Sage-ing While Age-ing. I imagine when you express yourself in performance or as a writer you’re learning about yourself as much as you’re learning about the universe.
SM: That’s right. That’s why I act. I love to play characters that, who knows, I may or may not have been. I’ve come to this understanding that, that life itself is show business. If people get that perspective they’ll see that they are the writer, producer, actor, and star and financier and distributor of their own drama and their own comedy. Everybody can be empowered in that way when you look at it all, like it’s an entertainment basically.
MacLaine has a new juicy co-starring role in the hugely popular Emmy-winning Masterpiece series Downton Abbey, as Lady Cora’s mother Martha Levinson, who arrives from New York to upset the household. Photo © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.
Q: Were you a fan of the series?
SM: Actually I hadn’t even watched it until my hairdresser told me how much she loved it. So I tuned in. Shortly afterward, they signed me to play Martha Levinson so I sat down and viewed them all … and I just became addicted.
Q: Your wardrobe is quite stunning. Was it a challenge to get all dressed up?
SM: Those authentic costumes took some work. The corsets were really demanding and the buttons on everything were so small. I understood the class system after getting ready every morning to go on set. I realized women of that time couldn’t get it together without a couple of servants.
Q: Of course, don’t you have a couple of servants that put on your jeans in the morning?
SM: That’s true. [Laughs.] But I’m wondering which came first, the servants or the wardrobe? Did they make a class system out of the necessities of the wardrobe, or was it the other way around?
Q: What was it like going toe-to-toe with Maggie Smith?
SM: We get along famously. She told me that we had met 40 years ago backstage at the Oscars next to the catering table. I was up for something, and there was this big chocolate cake sitting there. And somebody else won. Maggie said, ‘You know what you did, dear? You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said, “#*&% it. I don’t care if I’m thin ever again.”’ I didn’t remember it. Maggie has a better memory. She’s one year younger than I am.
From the archive. Images ©1963 SEPS/Curtis Licensing; © 1961 SEPS/Curtis Licensing.
As Shirley MacLaine rose to fame in the 1960s, the Post featured her in several cover stories. Some memorable quotes from our April 22, 1961, article, “I Call on Shirley MacLaine,” by Pete Martin.
On Not Being a Sex Goddess
“I’ve heard that certain studios have put on big campaigns to sell the images of some women stars as ‘sex goddesses.’ Nobody ever thought of doing that for me. It would be a kook notion anyhow, for you can’t make cheese out of chalk.”
On Her First Role
“I remember it vividly. I was four, and I did a number called An Apple for the Teacher at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia, the city where my parents were living at the time. I tripped on the curtain, the audience laughed and, little ham that I was, I ate it up. After that I tripped on that curtain every time I passed it.”
On Frank Sinatra
“The truth is that Frank Sinatra’s capacity for friendship is all-encompassing. He doesn’t get a good press, but I know a Frank that those who write about him don’t know. Maybe they’ve had run-ins with him. That hasn’t happened to me. Frank’s a bundle of contradictions. At times he’s unreasonable, at times temperamental. He can be compassionate and insensitive, gentle and rough. But he can also be as kind as anyone I’ve ever known. If a person has all those contradictions, and you still find him good to know, you’ve got to call him your friend.”
On The Rat Pack
“I’ve read about a group called The Clan. I know you have too. This group is supposed to consist of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and me, although some writers make the list longer. … If anyone did ask me about it, I’d have to tell him that I don’t believe such a thing exists. I’ve never heard anyone in our group use the term; we don’t hold offices or elect officers. What does exist is this: There are certain people in Hollywood who enjoy being with each other, and I’m lucky enough to be one of them. … It’s true that the chemistry between Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and me is good. It’s also fun, and it’s rare. But there’s nothing evil, or even questionable, about this relationship.”
For the full text of this and other Post stories on MacLaine, visit saturdayeveningpost.com/shirley-maclaine.