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I recently found a Shirley MacLaine official website. It looks like a good place to find out what she's doing currently.
Published in Uptown Express July 1990
When Uptown Express publisher Greg Jeu asked me if I wanted to interview Shirley MacLaine, I immediately had visions of an intense, serious, funny, wonderful telephone conversation—a precursor to her arrival in Houston to do her one-woman show.
I became a MacLaine fan some years ago when I saw a television interview. I don't remember who was doing it, but the device used was the camera recording a knock by an off-screen presence on her New York apartment door. The camera work was not too flattering, the poorly placed lighting casting shadows that made every facial line look a deep wrinkle. She answered the door pleasantly, and the entire interview of only a few minutes duration was conducted with Shirley standing in the doorway with the interviewer remaining only a voice. One incredible exchange is etched in my mind.
"How long have you been married?"
"Twenty-five years," she replied.
"Why don't you get a divorce since you spend so little time together?"
With only a fleeting none-of-your-damned-business look, she replied simply, "because we don't want to." I liked her so much after that, her aplomb in answering a tasteless question, that I began to really enjoy her movies and performances more. It was as if someone I knew was famous and doing a great job of it. I read her books, watched her television performances and interviews, and collected her films.
I associated with her experiences enough that reading of her lover embarrassed me a bit, as if someone had been peeking through my keyhole. I associated enough that I felt the pain that was the friend of her transformation, the lump in her throat covered by the nervous, guarded half laugh, the forced composure and patient replies in the face of the lover who was announcing his exit, the days spent alone, writing, trying to understand what was happening in this relationship she was not ready to give up. I lived through these things with her and we were best friends. We are the same height, wear the same size clothes. It was going to be a great interview. Girl talk about life and death and who's channeling who, about feelings, about spiritual quests, and yes—about men.
But it was not to be. This was a very different sort of interview for me. It reminded me of Shirley MacLaine's line in Being There. "You like to watch?" she asked Peter Sellers. "Yes, I like to watch," Sellers' character replied in his matter-of-fact monotone.
Like it or not, my interview with Shirley MacLaine was conducted by watching. It had somewhat the quality of a second-hand orgasm. Not as good as the real thing, but in the hands (no pun intended) of a skilled narrator, it can nonetheless be somewhat titillating.
In an attempt to include everyone who had an interest in interviewing Shirley, we were invited to observe the taping of television interviews by major local channels (no pun intended). We were encouraged to ask questions between the scheduled interviews. It was a great opportunity for me to work on my childhood sanctions against speaking unless spoken to.
I settled in to collect what I could from this second-hand orgasm, prepared to observe, to be my usual subjective self without the advantageous focus of a one-on-one interview.
Shirley is more delicate than I had pictured her—relatively small, well-shaped hands, her small bone structure giving the appearance of being shorter than she is. Her hair was lighter, redder, and styled differently from her long-time pixie do, all-over curls, soft and graceful like the dress she wore, a white chiffon with a colorful floral border.
She began preparing for her new stage show, she said, by watching her old films. There are 52 of them, and in 12 she played the doormat victim, and now, she said, she is more frequently cast as the victimizer. In choosing a role she looks for "a sense of broad emotional sweep—humor, drama, wisdom, experience of time, and adventure."
"I was too young to play those roles before, she explained.
Even though the questions were not mine, the eavesdropping was good.
About doing a film with brother Warren Beatty: "We can put that beyond the realm of possibility. He has a very different soul . . . His craftsmanship is the crafting of dreams through technological technique." Her own work classifies as more right-brained, more emotional.
About Dean Martin: "Dean is the original wit, much funnier than Jerry. I worked with him the first time in Artists and Models."
About Jack Lemmon: "He's just like the sun, he just keeps coming up all the time— no pun intended."
About her knee surgery of six weeks ago: "It wasn't a tragedy, it was a gift . . . I believe in the power of the mind, the power of the heart, and the power of consciousness . . . That knee is speaking to me, it needs attention. Both knees wanted respect. It was an athletic injury, not an old age thing." She described her healing process as using "the power that each of us have within ourselves to have whatever we want."
About David Letterman: "I don't like David Letterman," she said clearly, with no apparent hint of malice in her interview with Channel 13's Melanie Lawson. And in her show, "David Letterman doesn't believe in UFO's." At one time Shirley walked out on a Letterman interview in protest of his characteristic rudeness and blatant insensitivity.
Her interviews were loaded with quotable quotes, pearls of wisdom—"attitude is everything," "the more time you spend in reflection, the more productive you are," "spontaneity is the cornerstone of having a good time," "all of us on some level feel paralyzed by what we can or cannot do with this physical vehicle."
Walking from one interview set to the next, she peered around the PR person and addressed me squarely. "Hi!"
"Hi," I replied. "I represent the Small Press. We're only allowed to watch."
"Oh," she answered and moved on to her next television interview.
It occurred to me much later that her greeting was a kind of recognition to let me know it was alright to speak, to even ask a question.
That was the first of two good opportunities to ask a question. I let them slip by, knowing that the time there was to answer would not suit the questions I wanted to ask.
I had just read Margot Fonteyn's book about Pavlova, the legendary Russian ballerina, and I was struck with the parallels between her life and Shirley's—very different lives with some very striking similarities. I was drawn to that book so strongly that I had to go back to the used bookstore a week later, almost frantically moving through the randomly arranged books in the dance section. My relief and elation at finally finding it told me I needed to take it home. I still pick it up and stare at Pavlova's face on the cover. There is something there I need to know, but I don't know what it is yet.
Pavlova led the disciplined life of a dancer from the age of 10 when she entered ballet school in Russia. With a strong sense of mission about her art she carried her performance to every part of the globe, always intrigued with each country and particularly with its people. Her skin seemed to be her home, and like Shirley MacLaine, her life was self-directed, tailored to her mission by her self-discipline.
I wanted to talk to Shirley about this, but I was tongue-tied. Everything I wanted to ask was too important, too involved. I had no yes-or-no questions, nothing I could ask in the few brief moments available to me.
At one point in an interview, she pulled her floating skirt up to her knee cap, kicked the leg to show it was working, then wiggled her feet in a sort of self-conscious gesture I had seen her use many times. It seems to be some sort of signal that she's letting the outside world look at something very personal.
I was totally unprepared when TV crew members gathered around her at the end of the interviews, handing her books and photographs for her to autograph. I had only the blank, white surface of an over-sized envelope I was carrying with me. She looked me straight in the face as she signed "Love! Shirley Maclaine." I think she must have known then. The mountain of significant questions must have been written all over my face.
The beginning of her show was understated, quiet. Just as a hint of disappointment began to enter the periphery of my response, she introduced Mama Rose, a smashing 15-minute characterization of one of the world's greatest stage mothers, the mother of June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee.
The warmup was over, the performance had begun and the excitement level was high for the remainder of the show—energetic, sparkling, personal, funny, and just plain fun. Her high-heeled dancing shoes were lower than I remembered, and her dancing was guarded—the kicks not so high, no quick movements of the ankles, or surprising turns.She made the best of it, allowing her superb dancers to carry some of the vigor she could not afford to exert with her injured knee.
Shirley's voice is lower (softer when she speaks), and when she belts out a song, the warbling sound of the younger Shirley is gone, replaced with the fullness and richness of a trained Broadway voice.
Her once controversial adventures into the realms of psychics, spiritualists, and E.T.'s became a rich source of humor for her show.
She told an interviewer that "a live audience is so nourishing." She described the feeling as "waves of appreciation."
"By the time you get through," she said, "it makes you feel like you can do anything." And that's how the show left me—as if I could do anything.
In her interviews, in her show, she talked about the surgery on her injured knee. She talked about using visualization and healing colors, about having an opportunity to act on her beliefs, to heal herself. There was a great relief in her voice, the kind of joy you see in the face of someone who has had a brush with death and is grateful for the opportunity to come back and finish unfinished business, the kind of joy you see in the face of a dancer who will, after all, dance again. "I'll dance till I'm 91," she said.
I guess if I want that personal interview with my good friend Shirley MacLaine I'll just have to go through more powerful channels (pun intended)!