There’s no entourage, no publicist, no hotel suite, just Shirley Maclaine sweeping in to Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica with a big floaty scarf and lots of turquoise and diamond jewellery. Her greeting is a stare with the big twinkly spidery eyes. She exudes an aura that is powerful, certain, and a look and sharpness that can be instantly withering.
We can’t find a place to sit where our conversation is not drowned by a trumpet playing band so we go to the restaurant where everybody is extremely old school charming to her. It seems she’s well known in there. Well enough so that when she asks for cappuccino and an extra cup of just foam it arrives fast and fluffy, no questions asked.
The last time I met her she’d been wearing a wig, a good wig, but nonetheless a wig. This time it’s her own hair styled in the pixie cut that fell so beautifully into place in her Bob Fosse 1950s dancing days. Her skin looks plumped up and smooth. She had a face lift when she was around 50. The rest of the face lines have settled in around it amicably. She’s now 76 (77 April 24).
“My skin’s always been good, but I’m old now and I’m gaining weight and I hate it.” In her latest book I’m Over All That gaining weight is one of the things she’s not over. Dressing up, paying attention to fashion, scheming for film roles, feeling anger at world leaders, caring what people think of her and high heels are all part of the stuff she is completely over. Along with being polite to boring people. God forbid she thinks you’re boring. She would have no time at all, and no problem simply “meditating” right there and then or perhaps she means falling asleep.
Today though she’s very awake, very alive and animated. The voice in her book is always sure of itself; occasionally cruel, always brutal in its honesty. In the book she talks about having loved her ride and appreciating relinquishing the reins. In person though there’s none of that aching nostalgia and feeling that it’s the time to grow old and invisible.
Her book is a mixture of Hollywood gossip, sex on set, tales of Elizabeth Taylor sparking in diamonds and crying into champagne, and other such manipulations. Plane rides on Frank Sinatra’s private plane where there’d be fights with jelly beans.
Her relationships with world leaders, Pierre Trudeau, and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The night she spent in a suite that had been rented for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign and when she was sleeping a man entered and climbed into bed with her. She had no idea who he was so she rolled on the floor away from him. It happened repeatedly the same night so she didn’t know if it was one persistent man or several.
Alarming revelations are tucked in between her thoughts on religion, nature, UFOs, reincarnation, fame and ageing. She doesn’t pine for the good old days. She sets them out quite brittlely, fragmented, as if they happened to someone else. Understandably she talks a lot about getting older and fatter.
“I’m not talking vanity. It’s health wise. I don’t want to buy more clothes that are bigger. I’ve been putting together a live show because I miss the live audience. It’s a retrospective of my stuff, not just the acting but the dancing, footage from my shows and television specials. I’ve been cutting it all together and that’s what’s got me in this frame of mind. I am looking back. Look at those legs.”
When you look back at the young Maclaine she was super alluring, but not in an overt way. She had a dancer’s body and a distinctive haircut that made her look like she wasn’t trying and didn’t care. Think Sweet Charity, Can Can, The Apartment.
Did she think of herself then as sexy? “No, never, never, never. I’m a dancer. You have to be a team player and never think of yourself as a diva. And that’s held me in pretty good stead. I’m easy to work with except I’m very disciplined and I want efficiency.
“I should be doing my yoga but I can’t any more, I’ve a spine problem. Really I should pay attention to my posture.” She rises up theatrically in her chair. “I got the bad back from wearing heels and dancing in them. The things that seemed so important don’t matter now.”
I mentioned that I saw Annette Bening, her sister-in-law, at a party and she was carrying her Louboutins. “Yes, she and I talk about how hard it is to wear high heels all the time.” Does she see much of her brother, Warren Beatty. “Sure… he’s very complicated. We’re friendly. They’ve got four kids. We interact. I love Annette.”
Wasn’t there a time when she wasn’t close to her brother? “Oh yes. You know, families go in and out, up and down, I can’t remember when, just like all families.”
Annette is very thin, isn’t she. “Don’t you wish you could be like that, that thin?” I stop thinking about the fried calamari appetizer instantly. Maclaine doesn’t mean to be insulting. That’s just her way. She continues, “To do that you don’t eat much.”
She shows me her Louis heels. The highest she goes these days is a couple of inches.
In her back there’s a chapter: I’m Not Over Vanity, But I’m Trying. She talks about her body a lot. Perhaps because she grew up in the kind of Hollywood that created body fascism. Was it as harsh for actresses to be in shape then as now?
“Probably worse, because it was studio time. On the set of Trouble With Harry (1955), her first movie, Hitchcock wanted me to eat every meal with him. So I put on 10lbs in the first week.”
When she was an actress on Broadway she lived off her own lemonade made at cafes with quarters of lemon and sugar that were on the table, and peanut butter sandwiches. So obviously going from that to the multi-course Hitchcockian meal might add a couple of inches.
“The head of the studio called me in and said ‘What are you doing? We are trying to cut the scenes and you are a different person’. I had gone up to 136lbs. when you are under contract they did that because they owned you they thought, but I wasn’t owned. I didn’t stop eating for the rest of the picture. I said now I’ll have to keep eating so that I would match.”
Does she think Hitchcock had an eating disorder? “”Doh. Just look at him. He had trouble with food. He would lose 20lbs before a shoot. He knew the food would be catered by who he specifically asked to cater it and he would just eat his way through the film. It was very fine good food.”
She says with admiration, “Marlene Dietrich ate only every other day. She taught me how to put a very fine gold chain under your chin to keep it lifted.”
Maclaine talks about her own facelift and when she came home with stitches in her face she couldn’t have energetic sex. “That’s when I got into gentle sex, gentle orgasms.” She’s laughing a big dirty laugh. “Some deep emotions called don’t pop my stitches.”
Who was your lover at the time? “Oh he was very respectful, but no names babe. He’s gay now. Such a lot of people are bisexual.”
After talking about the gurgling gentle orgasm she says that she didn’t love sex so much unless she was emotionally involved. ” It wasn’t that interesting to me. I could never do it unless I was emotionally interested.”
What’s more interesting is how she stayed emotionally interested. Throughout most of her sex life she was married to a film producer turned businessman, Steve Parker, twelve years her senior. For most of that time he lived in Japan with their daughter Sachi. They divorced in 1987.
While married she had passionate, tumultuous affairs. None of which lasted for more than three years. Thus the marriage itself provided both the freedom and the barrier, the protection if you like. “It was an open marriage. A very open marriage.”
It went on for 28 years while she had what she calls “serial monogamous relationships” with many others including Robert Mitchum, Danny Kaye, Yves Montand, Australian Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.
“Being married was a protection not to marry again. If I had been single then it would have been discussed with the people I was with and I really don’t agree with marriage. It’s not something I would do.”
When you she married in the first place did she think differently? “No, I felt the same way. That’s why it was an open marriage. I was 19. He was my helpmate, my friend, my counselor. When I came to California from the east he was there, so I didn’t go into the world of Hollywood single.”
Somehow not being single in Hollywood was important to her. It’s as if she were in some way vulnerable or prey. Maybe on a very basic level she feared losing herself. Her parents Kathlyn Beatty, a drama teacher, and her father Ira, philosophy teacher turned juvenile detention officer and heavy drinker, had a claustrophobic and dysfunctional marriage.
In her book she tries to explain the contradiction. “What was I doing with all my hormones and attractions and longings when I always felt so strongly the need for freedom. Most of the men I was with wanted to get married. I was already married and I stayed that way precisely so it wouldn’t become an issue.
“My husband and I had a liberal arrangement regarding each others’ lovers. We were friends. We stayed married so we wouldn’t be tempted to marry again. I don’t understand the need for the institution and I could never live a life where I felt tied down to a promise just because my love hormones were raging at the time.”
Why did she divorce from Parker? I read it was about money. “I thought that it was, but it wasn’t. He didn’t want anything. But by the time we separated it was really just over.”
For a long time though if other lovers “got serious with me about divorcing Steven and marrying me, that was not good. All of them did that, and that probably took three years. That was their cycle. When you start looking back you see your behavior patterns and you realize you unconsciously conducted yourself to give them three years.”
Does she not think she should have given them any more than that? “Huh. To do what? I don’t think so. You can’t really control or not whether you have freedom from emotional intensity. It’s just a rhythm. I was kind of shocked myself. How do people do it for 25 years? I guess I did it one year for the body, one for the mind, and one for the spirit. It started with the body, then the mind, then the spirit, then it was done. Ha.” Loud dirty laugh.
What about the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who was assassinated in February 1986? “We had broken up but we made arrangements to get back together, then he died.” You were about to break the three year rule? “No, it had been two and I thought we could add another year. He was a brilliant man, a brilliant leader. He didn’t believe in any of the stuff I believed in. we didn’t argue but he thought it was ridiculous. I liked his intelligence. Very left wing intellectuals always interest me. And they are always the most suspicious of my metaphysics. He was planning to come to New York and hoping to be Secretary General of the UN.” It must have been terrible when he was killed? “It really was. I talked to him a week before he died. We were planning on seeing each other. He was an extraordinary person. Not good looking. Not a big man, which I usually like.” We get very very sad talking about it.
Robert Mitchum was a big man. “Robert Mitchum was so complicated. My dad was complicated. And I like complicated men. But he was not exactly like my dad. He was very intelligent. He was intense, he was light, he was funny, he was impossible. Interesting to me. Good ground to plough. So much was under there.”
Did she ever get to the core of him? “Mmm, maybe. No, I would have got bored if I got to the core. Once you’ve got to the core what’s the point of ploughing anyway. I wasn’t looking for a lasting relationship, I never have.”
She speaks with sparkly-eyed fondness for Danny Kaye who came to visit her on set in Paris and flew her to New York and cooked her Chinese food. “He was a great pilot. He used to take me to dinner all over the place, not just across the Atlantic. If he wanted a steak he would fly me to Texas. He was a fabulous cook. That was three years. I can’t remember how that ended, but there was someone right after him. I think we’re all kind of cyclical. We have a rhythm and three years was mine.”
There’s an absence of sentiment and nostalgia in the way she speaks. It’s all very matter of fact. Perhaps that’s why her most intense love relationship now is with her dog, a rat terrier called Terry. Her eyes fill as she speaks of her love for her. She seems utterly contented. Certainly not lonely for any man. She chats on about her life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives most of the time. Laughing with good friends and coming home to watch DVDs in bed with Terry.
She’s working on her one woman show – An Evening With Shirley Maclaine – and has a new movie out, Bernie, with Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey “I play a woman who’s a real bitch. She’s very wealthy and everybody hates her. I love playing those parts.
“Jack plays the head of an undertaking firm. We have a relationship and I become very possessive. I make life impossible for him so he shoots me and puts me in the freezer under the frozen peas.
“I’ve got other things coming up but I don’t know if I’m going to talk about them yet.” That’s great I say. A lot of people when they reach a certain age and they’re not leading ladies any more they find that difficult. You know how that goes? “No, I don’t know how that goes.”
Did she never find it difficult to reach a certain age and get offered different sort of parts and then get offered less parts? Did she never reach a point where she felt invisible? “No,” she says loudly and defiantly. I’m not sure if she’s going to snarl at me, but then she just laughs. Moods and shapes shift with her pretty quickly. One minute she’s laughing with you cozily, the next looking at you as if you’re something on the sole of her shoe. And then she’ll do that just kidding face and we’re laughing again.
Her book swoops like that too. From serious to angry, political and metaphysical, to Hollywood insider. And she manages to talk about people with love and disdain at the same time and in equal measure. Such as how Elizabeth Taylor got diamonds to go on a lunch date. You’re not sure if she’s talking in awe or contempt. Or both. Although she says she loves Elizabeth Taylor.
Did she herself get diamonds? “Sure, I got bribes to get married. No names. I said no, but I did not give the diamonds back. They’re in the bank. They may come in handy if I want to get more water rights.”
In the book there’s a chapter called I’m Not Over Making Money. “I think it’s going to cost money for what’s coming up. I want to make a huge garden. I want to collect rainwater. Solar is expensive. Who knows who else might need help. That sort of thing.”
She has always been unafraid to speak her mind. A lot of actresses are driven by insecurity. But not her. She says that she’s never manipulated to get a part.”
“I’ve given up more parts than I’ve been afraid of losing. If an actress called me and I was up for a part but they were so in need of that part it meant everything. To me it meant something, but not that much. I’m basically not competitive. I like the idea of playing a part that required a lot of thought, so there were parts that I wanted because they were interesting.”
What were the ones you gave away? “Oh, I should have played Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More but Ellen wanted it so much. I should have played Breakfast At Tiffany, but I gave that up because of Audrey. I didn’t take these things seriously.”
Why didn’t you take Breakfast At Tiffany? Because you didn’t want to be a hooker? “Oh no. I went and did something called Two Loves with Laurence Harvey. Some terrible thing that three people saw. I liked the script. It was about a teacher in New Zealand working with Maoris.”
You got to go to New Zealand? “No, we filmed it in the studio. I thought that Breakfast At Tiffany was too souffleish. The Apartment started with 29 pages. I just liked the idea of working with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, neither did he. He wrote it based on the chemistry Jack and I had on set. It didn’t seem amazing at the time. We didn’t know anything when we started. When the first review came out it said they don’t know if they’re making a comedy or a drama.
“After the first screening Marilyn Monroe was standing outside the screening room wearing a gorgeous fur coat and leaning up against the wall. I walked up to her and she walked up to me and she opened her coat and she had absolutely nothing on and told me, ‘You were wonderful.'”
Why does she think she did that? “Well, she didn’t get along with Billy Wilder.”
So she did it to punish him? “Probably. Isn’t that interesting.”
Such a punishment. The first screening of a brilliant movie ends and there’s no attention for Wilder or MacLaine or Lemmon, it becomes not about The Apartment but about Marilyn. “Yes, it really tore up the whole place. I don’t know what that was about. He was awful with her and she was with him. That was not a good relationship.”
What was it about their chemistry? “She couldn’t act. I got along with him. He was very autocratic. He was Austrian. You don’t tell Billy Wilder his script isn’t right. I feel he always needed a strong woman character in his pictures. When he started doing them without it just didn’t have the tension.
“He used to have this editor, Dylan Harrison, and he’d see the dailies and say ‘Billy, you’ve got to shoot the whole day over because you didn’t break my heart’. With men only he didn’t break hearts. Dylan died after our last picture. Dylan was the real Billy Wilder. Without him he was too harsh. He hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes I minded it. I tended to dig my foot in – let me do this, let me do such and such. But after a while with him it’s the law of diminishing returns.
That’s what happened with Marilyn. She couldn’t remember dialogue and he’d be very harsh and she’d forget more. Although I didn’t know Marilyn, that was the only time I saw her and I saw all of her.
“There was one other time when she was doing Something’s Got To Give. She had lost weight and got into shape, but she was doing her number which was not showing up on time and Fox called me to replace her and I said ‘No, I’m in the same union as she is’ and then she died.”
Well that would have been weird to replace her. “Well, it all happened before the picture got started. They did tests. Of her in a swimming pool and Dean was cast in it. I’m not sure if they ever did the picture with anyone else. Maybe it was not made.” (It wasn’t. Marilyn was sacked from the film. She was rehired, but then died).
Her voice and entire body language softens when she talks about Dean Martin. He was never neatly packaged into a three year cycle. Martin was the one man she couldn’t get. “I had a crush on Dean. He was the funniest. His imagination was funny. His brain, I’m not so sure.
“Frank wasn’t funny. Frank would get extremely autocratic. He could and would run the show in every which way, and he didn’t want to work hard.”
MacLaine became a non-sexual mascot for the Rat Pack. One of the boys. “I never had a thing with Frank or Dean or Sammy or Joey Bishop, but I couldn’t have an affair with someone if I was hanging out with them if I wanted to. I was the one they protected, like I was their mascot daughter.”
She says that they didn’t even drink very much. “It was all a show. It was like an adult kindergarten. I was one of the boys. We all played together. But I would always clean up the trashed room.”
It’s the only moment in my whole time with her where she seems uncertain of her role, of who she is. One of the boys? Or caretaker, love object?
She talks in her book of an unrequited longing for Martin and once she even went round to his house to tell him how she felt. But his wife and kids were there and she ended up playing with the kids and had a kiss on the cheek goodnight. And the unspoken sweetness continued. Probably it meant more to her that way.
Does she ever wonder what would have happened if she’d had the affair with Martin? “No,” she says sharply. Does she ever think that about anyone? “No.” She doesn’t fill the silence. There’s nothing unrequited or lonely in your life? “No. I’d had enough. Come on. I’m nearly 77, I’m not interested in that any more…” Then there’s another pause, and a softening. “I mean if something came along.”
She smiles a crooked smile. Hard to tell if she’s serious. “I’m very content. I’m very busy and creative. I have a wonderful life. I have a lovely home in New Mexico. I come to LA and I go to New York and I have wonderful times.
“I think with someone who is as independent as me I don’t think men are all that interested. Unless a man has got a control trip going on, but I’d see that right away. This subject is boring,” she announces.
I wonder if it’s all been about her strong desire never to be controlled. Before I can formulate another question I can see she’s moved on.
She doesn’t mean to be offensive. In fact she’s very charming when she wants to be. She just wants to speak exactly what’s on her mind.
It’s getting dark in the Shutters restaurant and her twinkly eyes squint to see what’s written on my notepad. She orders more foam for her cappuccino. The waiter goes off and brings back a cup of pure foam like a cloud.
How close is she to her daughter? “You know, she’s 53, she’s doing her own thing. She’s doing a little theatre. She’d like to do more. I’m close with my grandkids. They live back east so I have to wait till they’re here.”
For most of the time when her daughter was growing up she lived in Japan with her father. It was deemed a healthier environment than Hollywood and dragging her from film set to film set. But there were long gaps in communication. Does she try to make up for lost time? “Yes, we try to, but she has her own life. She wants to be on her own. She’s going through a divorce now and I don’t want to talk about it.”
As if by magic at that moment Antonio Banderas, looking super svelte, and Melanie Griffiths, looking super baby-faced, appear to meet with her. Although it felt like me and MacLaine could have talked for hours, I realise with the arrival of this Hollywood couple she is in her true element. This is her Hollywood life and I have merely been a guest. I hope that we’ll meet again in this life or another.