BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
On the cusp of 80, Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine remains fearless and uncensored.
“That was really stupid,” she says during an interview, laughing, when asked why good films tank at the box office. “If I could answer that, I’d head a studio. Are you kidding me or what?”
MacLaine, special guest at Friday's opening of the Miami International Film Festival, was just as candid at 40, when her political outspokenness landed her on President Richard Nixon’s notorious enemies list.
“Oh boy, did I ever,” MacLaine says, recalling how in the early ‘70s she couldn’t find film work. “All of Hollywood was basically Democratic. But some of the real power monsters were not. They were for Nixon.”
Until then, MacLaine led a charmed professional life. At 19, Warren Beatty’s older sister danced on Broadway in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet. A year later, she became understudy to musical star Carol Haney in George Abbott and Jerome Robbins’ The Pajama Game, choreographed by Bob Fosse.
That led to instant stardom when Haney sprained her ankle and, in 42nd Street fashion, MacLaine went on in her place.
Alfred Hitchcock then asked MacLaine to leave New York, move to Hollywood and co-star opposite John Forsythe in the director’s comedic mystery, The Trouble With Harry.
“[Pajama Game producer] Hal Prince and company told me, ‘Oh God, don’t go. You’ll get lost. You’ve got to dance in the chorus of more shows, get more experience.’ That’s what they told me. I didn’t listen to them. Frankly, I liked Hitchcock. I thought it was funny,” MacLaine says. “I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know the first thing about it. I wanted to experience California and this new thing called acting. I had been dancing since I was 3. I was really ready for something new. I’ve always been ready. That’s why I traveled so much. And got myself caught in coup d'états and revolutions.”
After The Trouble With Harry, MacLaine appeared with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models, then co-starred in Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days.
“He had full control over friggin’ nature,” MacLaine says of Todd, whose death in a 1958 plane crash widowed Elizabeth Taylor. “Whenever we would go out and decide to shoot somewhere, he was controlling the sun, it seemed to me.”
MacLaine quickly scored three Best Actress Oscar nominations (Some Came Running, The Apartment, Irma la Douce), plus a Best Documentary nod for her film, The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir. She lost ’em all.
In 1976, she returned to the stage in a high-profile song-and-dance show. “Because I had politicized myself out of work and Hollywood. I couldn’t get hired. So I went back. I went back to Vegas, is where I went. And I started there and then ultimately ended up at The Palace. I absolutely loved it. Love it so much more than making movies.”
During her run at the famed Palace Theatre on Broadway, MacLaine took a film role opposite Anne Bancroft and Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Turning Point.
“I guess you could say that was one of my first, second, third or fourth comebacks. I can’t remember which,” MacLaine says. She received a fifth Oscar nomination, but again didn’t win.
“Terms was my part,” MacLaine says. “You know everybody in town, literally every studio, turned that picture down twice. I think they said it’s not a comedy or a drama. Something like, ‘Oh, you can’t have the daughter die.’”
In 1984, MacLaine finally won the Best Actress Oscar playing Aurora Greenway. Jack Nicholson, as her Terms love interest, won Best Supporting Actor.
“You know Burt Reynolds was supposed to play the Nicholson part. But he wouldn’t take off his toupee and he wouldn’t put on any weight. He wanted to keep exercising so he looked thin. It was a vanity question,” MacLaine says. “Isn’t that interesting?”
Recently, MacLaine is internationally recognized as Martha Levinson, Elizabeth McGovern’s TV mother in Downton Abbey.
“Downton Abbey is such a hit among discerning people, people who don’t remember what I did in the old days. They want to know what did she do? What is her resume?,” MacLaine says. “I think that show is basically being catered to, with the expert help of [creator] Julian Fellowes, to the Internet generation -- which is we can do 17 characters, but we only have to spend 15 seconds with each one.”
MacLaine’s newest theatrical film, Elsa & Fred co-starring Christopher Plummer, will be shown Friday night at the Miami film festival. The Olympia Theater screening is sold out.
“It’s a love story about older people. I am very interested in the fact that you can awaken that spark of trusting someone, being in love with someone when the guy is 80 and she is middle 70s,” she says.
Will younger audiences find Elsa & Fred appealing? “I don’t know,” says MacLaine, who turns 80 on April 24. “But it certainly was to me.”