The last time I met Shirley MacLaine, she told me that the only thing that could ever break her heart would be the death of her beloved dog Terry. She felt such kinship with the rat terrier, she was convinced they’d known one another in a previous life.
This time, when we meet in the restaurant of a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica, Terry is no longer with us. “She had come to the end of her time,” she says, lowering her voice. “I was full of guilt about having to her put down but she just began to disintegrate. She tried to do away with herself. I wouldn’t let her and she resented that. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she was ready to go so I finally did it.”
Terry’s death has taught MacLaine so much that she’s rewriting her memoir of Terry, Out on a Leash: Exploring the nature of reality and love.
“I’m writing now about what I had to face in myself in order to do that and to celebrate her passing, not contaminate it with sorrow and loss. I sent love out into the universe. Apparently love attracts guides and teachers that I’d never let in before.”
The Oscar-winning actor has this advice for everyone who has to put down a beloved pet. .“Don’t dread it,” she says. “They are just following their destiny. I didn’t allow Terry to follow her destiny. It was so hard to separate from her.”
Is she waiting for Terry to come back? “It’s up to you to recognise their souls and if you want to reconnect with them. Dogs are actually not permitted to come back as people or people as dogs. There’s no transmigration of souls. You have to come back as the same learning soul.”
MacLaine believes her whole life has been destiny. Her career began on the chorus of a Broadway show The Pajama Game in the 1950s. She was understudy for the lead Carol Haney, a woman who was only sick twice on the whole run. The second time, Alfred Hitchcock was in the audience and he immediately cast MacLaine in what is now often referred to as his “lost masterpiece.” The Trouble with Harry.
“Hitch wanted me to be his eating partner for the whole shoot,” she says. “I couldn’t really afford much food when I was in the chorus so I thought, ‘No, I’m not giving this up. I don’t care what I look like’.” She gained so much weight that the studio insisted she went on a diet. She refused. She was never going to be told what to do, not by anybody.
From the beginning, she was one of the boys, albeit with killer legs. Adopted as the only girl member of The Rat Pack, she was soon co-starring with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Her first Oscar nomination came in 1958 for the crime movie Some Came Running. Her sixth came in 1984 for Terms of Endearment — and she won. In her acceptance speech, she said, “I deserve this.”
Her new film is the story of Harriet Lauler, a self-made advertising executive, now retired but still something of a perfectionist. The character asks the obituary writer at the local newspaper to write her obituary so she can approve it before she dies. I ask if it’s a character MacLaine can relate to.
“I think I am somewhat controlling,” she agrees “I think when you work on stage and on screen you have to be efficient. I am efficient but I’m also low maintenance.”
Would MacLaine want to approve her own obituary? “Oh my dear, no! I barely have a will.” There’s a pause while she thinks it over. “But I would like to be respected.”
There are other real-life parallels between MacLaine’s life and this movie. Like MacLaine, her character has a daughter who refuses to speak to her. In 2013, Sachi Parker, MacLaine’s daughter, published Lucky Me, a memoir that MacLaine assures me is mostly fiction. It was deeply critical of her as a mother and it came over as petulant and jealous, but, of course, it hurt. As the film was written especially for her, I assumed that was all part of writer Stuart Ross Fink’s piquancy. “He says he didn’t write this with any knowledge of me, just that he thought I’d look good playing her. That’s what he tells me.” When I ask if their relationship has resolved itself since the memoir, she says, “Well she’s leading her life and I’m leading mine. Let’s put it that way. She’ll be 61 in a month, not 22.” In the book, Parker blamed her mother for sabotaging her career as an actress. It can’t have been easy having a famous actress as a mum.
“I think it’s a very interesting take on the hallucinations of fame. So many young people today when they are asked what they want to do, they say “be famous”. This compulsion is very disturbing.”
She has also had rocky periods with her brother, Warren Beatty. At the moment they’re close. She was at the Oscars earlier this year when he and his co presenter Faye Dunaway gave the best picture award to the wrong film and she felt the horror. “What can you do in a situation like that? I don’t know what I would have done. No one knows until it happens to you. He is fine now. I just spent a couple of days with him and his family.”
We talk about his recent movie Rules Don’t Apply which was a critical and c commercial disaster. Honest as ever she says, “He gave a stunning performance but the movie was confusing. You don’t say to people you’ve got to go and see this confusing movie.”
MacLaine herself never wanted to be a film star. It never occurred to her. She wanted to dance. She grew up in Richmond, Virginia and her mother sent her to ballet lessons because she had weak ankles. She was surprisingly good at it and danced her way to Broadway.
She might not have wanted the fame but she was always incredibly driven. Her father was a musician who told her his dream was to run away with the circus. Her mother wrote poetry. They gave up their dreams in favour of convention, being available parents. MacLaine felt pressure to fulfil their dreams too. As a result, she was a very different parent. She did not give her daughter convention and rules. In turn, her daughter became more conservative than her parents – and the relationship soured.
Despite this, she says she is happier now than she has ever been. “I’ve discovered independent film makers have found a demographic called seniors,” she says. “Seniors have money to spend and nothing to see. That may not be the opinion of the big corporate studios but the independents where the real acting and the real writing is are asking me to put together movies because I’m still standing and I can serve that senior community so I feel that it’s almost like a resurgence of something that they have been blind to for a very long time in our town.”
“I’m all for helping people not feel invisible. The older generation have been marginalised. Nobody recognises they’re even alive. It’s an unmined territory and I’ve got five movies lined up.” Then she tells me with great gurgling laughter, “In almost all of these movies I die. I keep dying in every movie then coming back in another one, just like life. ” Does she think about death? “My concerns are making sure that I’m healthy. I eat what I want to eat but at the same time try to eat right. It’s a real balance. I have good physical endurance. Nobody expects someone who’s 83 to be anywhere near model size and I’m glad I’m over that..”
She doesn’t want to talk too much about these new senior movies yet, but the first one is set in a retirement home. “In fact in almost all of these movies I’m some kind of assisted home environment. I keep dying in every movie then coming back in another one, just like life. Anyway the first one, my character had been a personal assistant to five presidents and fxxxxxx three of them.” There’s another art reflects life scenario. How many presidents did MacLaine sleep with? I know there was the Canadian Pierre Trudeau and the Swedish Olof Palme. Was there a third? “I’m not going to get into that. I’m a little bit sensitive.”
When she was in her forties, MacLaine had a face lift and, a few days later, had an orgasm which broke the stitches. “It was a very good orgasm because there was some pain involved,” she grins. Her affairs were usually intense. As well as the political lovers there was novelist Pete Hamill, handsome French actor Yves Montand and the brooding Robert Mitchum.
“I liked complicated men and that was certainly Mitchum. It gave me something to do to try and figure them out.” Danny Kaye was besotted with her. He flew her around in his plane. He flew her to Texas for a steak dinner and once when she was filming in Paris, flew her to New York where he made her Chinese food and flew her back again. “I was always a serial monogamist — I learned what I needed to learn and then I would move on. Or rather I fixed it so that they would move on. I didn’t like the guilt of leaving.”
All the while, she had an open marriage with the producer Steve Parker. It came to an end in 1982 because, she thinks, the distances were too great. “He was living in Asia and I wasn’t. I do wonder about marriage. Unless you want your children to have legal parents, what is its purpose? To own someone else? To possess someone else? For materialistic gain? ”
MacLaine once famously said, ‘I don’t know what it’s like not to have what I want.’ Today, to a degree, she qualifies it. “The point I was making is that I want very little. There’s really only one thing I want now that I don’t have. I need a plane with a pilot who can cook and take care of dogs. I don’t like airports with all the security problems. I don’t like the scramble of getting on a plane and the seats are getting more and more narrow.”
This is classic MacLaine. Don’t like commercial flying? Find a man with a private jet. Yes she’s bossy and she knowns what she wants. But she has a lighter side too. When she laughs, she really laughs with her whole being. She’s always been unconventional and she’s done the ageing thing very cleverly. She has accepted and embraced exactly who she is. In Hollywood, that’s rare.
The Last Word is out now