Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Happy Birthday, Shirley MacLaine

I've said it before, I'll say it again.  Shirley MacLaine was robbed when she did not get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing Doris Mann in Mike Nichols' Postcards from the Edge.  As the ultimate show biz survivor and Hollywood mom of a co-dependent actress daughter, Shirley hit it out of the ballpark.  She and Meryl Streep were a terrific team as the bickering but devoted Hollywood mother and child.

I love Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies and  Postcards from the Edge is one of my favorites -- right up there with Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful and George Cukor's A Star Is Born.

Today is Shirley MacLaine's birthday.  One of my happiest afternoons at VH1 (and there were many) was when the Best Actress Oscar winner for Terms of Endearment came over to be a guest on my talk show.  She was warm and chatty as soon as she arrived in the greenroom.  Before we got into the studio, we talked briefly about her Paramount comedy with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models.  She made that, "Boy, oh, boy!" face.  Apparently that was a tense shoot.  The comedy team was speeding to the finish line of its partnership and it wasn't pretty behind the scenes.  She said they were yelling at each other a lot.  But the movie is fun and she, playing the girl who has a yen for Jerry's comic book collector character, gives the movie the kooky buoyancy it needs.

At the time of our interview, Shirley MacLaine was promoting one of her spiritual awareness books.  She'd completed Steel Magnolias and had just started work on Postcards from the Edge.  I'd had Carrie Fisher (Postcards from the Edge novelist and screenwriter...and actress) and Carrie's mother, Debbie Reynolds, on my VH1 talk shows.  Not to brag, but I got a "How did you know that?" from Ms. MacLaine during the interview when I mentioned the only-in-Hollywood casting irony.  In the early 1960s, MacLaine had been slated to star in MGM's deluxe adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  Debbie got the part.  Debbie campaigned to play Doris Mann in Postcards from the Edge, written by her daughter, Carrie.  Shirley got the part.  She told me a sweet story about Debbie asking her to let her play Molly Brown.
I found out that director/screenwriter and movie producer James L. Brooks really worked her last good nerve right before shooting started on Terms of Endearment.

Here's a clip from that portion of my VH1 talk show interview with Shirley MacLaine.
Whatever James L. Brooks did certainly worked.  She won the Academy Award for Best Actress, Jack Nicholson won for Best Supporting Actor.  James L. Brooks won Oscars for his screenplay adaptation, his direction and for producing the Best Picture of 1983.
By the way, MacLaine took the accent she'd planned to use playing Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment and used it when she played cranky Ouiser in Steel Magnolias.

Not having a husband seems to have been successful for Shirley MacLaine.  Right before Artists and Models  with Martin and Lewis, she made her 1955 film debut in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry.  She played a young widowed mother with a little boy.
The public fell in love with her.  In the early 1960s, with three Best Actress Academy Award nominations to her credit, she was widowed several times in the extravagant all-star satire, What A Way To Go!  Shirley's an Edith Head fashion show in this movie.

There's more about that comedy in my first entry of this month, "April 1st with Shirley MacLaine."  The next time I interviewed her was for WNBC's Weekend TODAY in New York.  She was promoting her new 1994 comedy, Guarding Tess.  She's a widowed former First Lady who develops an unlikely friendship with the man she constantly irritates, her main Secret Service agent played by Nicolas Cage.
This is really a clever modern day version of a children's story.  Guarding Tess is basically Snow White House and the Seven Dwarfs if you pay attention to the structure of it.

One of Shirley's best screen performances after Postcards from the Edge -- and another one that should have put her in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race -- was in the movie Bernie.  She played a wealthy widow in Texas.  This is based on a real-life story.
A sweet and rather shy mortician seems to be the only person in the town who can deal with this annoying and demanding widow, Marjorie.  No one else can stand her.  She will wind up murdered.  By Bernie. How mean was she?  One local woman said, "Honey, there was people in town who would've shot her for $5.00."  Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black slammed across two of the best film performances of 2012 in Bernie.
MacLaine started her career as a Broadway dancer before Hollywood discovered her in the 1950s.  She knows how to use her body for character work.  There's a sort of choreography to her sour and guarded exterior in Bernie.  Marjorie doesn't move and doesn't hold herself they same way Doris did in Postcards from the Edge or the way Ouiser did in Steel Magnolias.  MacLaine gives you glimpses into what possibly hardened Marjorie's heart, and a potential she had for sweetness, while also showing how she could be so infuriating that one of the most beloved Christians in town would kill her.  Marjorie is a powerful person done in by a misuse of her power.  They both should've been Oscar nominees for Bernie.  Jack Black was one of her best male co-stars since Jack Nicholson.  Put Bernie on your DVD rental list.

I hope Shirley MacLaine has a great birthday.  I hope I can interview her again one day.

Oh!  If you've never seen her with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1960, make that DVD rental a must-see.  Forever fabulous.

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