Shirley MacLaine: Out On a Limb

Yes it’s true!, April 24 is the birthday of both Barbra Streisand and Shirley MacLaine (Shirley MacLean Beaty, b. 1934). Atsa lotta show biz for one day!

The daughter of two Virginia educators (and older sister of actor Warren Beatty), MacLaine’s first love was dance. Her skills got her into the chorus of the original Broadway production of Me and Juliet (1953-54). Her next job was most fortuitous. She understudied for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game (1954), and got to replace the star when she broke her ankle.

The Pajama Game led to MacLaine being scouted and signed by Paramount Pictures, and her first film role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955). I find it one of her most interesting performances — she’s kind of eccentric and awkward in the role. She literally was fresh off the turnip truck — 21 years old and very inexperienced. Still, a huge personality shone through. As in many of her later performances, her character is sort of a funny tom boy. Many of her subsequent parts exploited that quality. I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the fact that MacLaine was often cast as various kinds of prostitutes and call girls. She was charming and could be flirtatious, but “sex object” seemed against type. That may well have been the point — a strategy to humanize characters that producers were skittish about presenting. Or it may have been a certain “hardness” that she possessed. She could be earthy and free with her body, but in a matter-of-fact way that was “all business”.

MacLaine’s next role, in Artists and Models (1955) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, began a long association with the members of the so-called Rat Pack, of which she was a sort of adjunct member. With various Rat Pack members, she also appeared in Some Came Running (1958), Ocean’s 11 (1960), Can-Can (1960), and Cannonball Run II (1984). Billy Wilder teamed her with Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960) and Irma La Douce (1964). In Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1961) she played a lesbian character. Other notable films of her peak years included My Geisha (1962), The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), What a Way to Go! (1964), John Goldfarb Please Come Home (1965), Sweet Charity (1969, in the role that had been Gwen Verdon’s on Broadway), and the Clint Eastwood western Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). 1971-72 she starred in her own sitcom, Shirley’s World, co-produced by Sheldon Leonard and Britain’s ITC.

In 1976 MacLaine had her own solo show at vaudeville’s former flagship theatre, the legendary Palace. In 1977, her Oscar nominated role as a middle-aged dancer in The Turning Point. In 1979, she co-starred with Peter Sellers in Being There, his last film. This is probably the first time I ever saw MacLaine on screen. I was so young at the time, I didn’t quite understand her masturbation scene, which was one of the film’s more memorable takeaways. In 1983 came Terms of Endearment for which she took home the Best Actress Oscar. That same year, her book Out on a Limb came out. This was not her first literary effort, and was far from her last, but I recall that it was around this time that she began to acquire her reputation as Hollywood’s reigning spiritualist nut. There were claims of clones, and aliens, and reincarnations that found expression in her books and interviews. MacLaine is far alone in such beliefs in Hollywood society, but she became a sort of lightning rod, the foremost spokesperson, and an endlessly delightful wellspring of entertaining new, um, insights.

Notable films of her mature years include Madame Sousatska (1988), Steel Magnolias (1989), Postcards from the Edge (1990), These Old Broads (2001), Bewitched (2005), and Coco Chanel (2008). And she had a recurring role on Downton Abbey as Elizabeth McGovern’s American mother!

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.

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