Friday, January 26, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, January 26, 2001

Shirley MacLaine remains a mystery

By Bob Thomas
Associated Press Writer

MALIBU, Calif. — How do you explain Shirley MacLaine?

She leads a nomadic life, having gained her love of travel to exotic places while filming "Around the World in 80 Days" in 1955. Yet while many stars shed their advisers as often as their mates, she has employed the same agent and the same business manager for 45 years; the same publicist for 28 years.

When MacLaine visits Los Angeles, she stays in the same oceanfront apartment she bought with her first movie salary more than four decades ago.

"I like stability in my career and my life," she says.

Although her formal education halted at high school, she can talk intelligently on a wide variety of topics: politics, science, international relations, customs of the world, and more. She acts on her beliefs, having been a political activist, notably for Democratic candidates, most of her adult life.

MacLaine revealed another side of her persona in 1983 when she published the aptly titled "Out on a Limb," which presented her beliefs in spiritualism and reincarnation. This led to a spate of jokes by television comedians, whom she herself aided. "The comedy writers would call me up and ask how they could improve a joke," she says. "So I gave them the punch line, and it always got a big laugh.

"It was my idea to come out of a space ship at the Oscars. I told them it would be a sensation, and it was. I believe in the saying: 'He who laughs at himself never ceases to be amused.'"

On a recent cloudless winter day, MacLaine sat amid the cluttered comfort of her Malibu apartment, which also serves as her office, and talked of myriad matters.

At 66, she retains that trademark gamin look — her short reddish locks framing her face. The surf provided an audible backdrop as it crashed menacingly 50 yards at sea, then, its force spent, lapped at the pilings of the building and others along the two-mile celebrity-soaked shoreline.

There have been other times here when nature has been less benevolent. Malibu residents have grown accustomed to damaging surf, mudslides and brushfires. "Every three years I'm up on the roof, watering it down with a garden hose," MacLaine says. "When the TV crews come by, I tell them we should change our area code to 911."

MacLaine talked excitedly about her latest projects. Last year, she made her feature directing debut with "Bruno," a charming comedy-drama about a young boy who pursues his own desires despite the derision of those around him. ("Bruno" appeared on the Starz cable channel in December.)

MacLaine's other big job of late was acting with Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds and Joan Collins in "These Old Broads," which will appear on ABC Feb. 12. (Like "Bruno," the movie couldn't find a theatrical distributor.)

The working experience was "so wittily bawdy, so eloquently bitchy, so humorously, sarcastically competitive with no competition whatsoever," she rhapsodizes. "It was my best time ever in making a film.

"Nobody was ever late, not even Elizabeth. We worked from 5 in the morning until 11:30 at night, and we made a 45-day picture in 22 days- not bad for four 'old broads.' We all knew each other for 35 years. I met Elizabeth when she was with Mike Todd on 'Around the World in 80 Days.' Debbie I have known forever, and Joan was engaged to my brother long ago."

That brother, of course, is Warren Beatty.

Extremely close as children, the lives of MacLaine and Beatty diverged as they struggled for success in show business.

When both became stars, they had little contact and often made good-humored but slighting remarks about each other in interviews: Shirley about Warren's philandering, Warren about Shirley's flights of mystic fancy.

Now in their mature years — he a husband and father, she an attentive mother and grandmother — they are proud of their families, and each other.

The sibling's similar interest in the issues of life and fervent focus on career can be attributed to their parents' influence, MacLaine says.

Her mother, Kathleen MacLean Beaty, yearned to be an actress but devoted herself to her family; she operated a drama school which both her children attended. Her father, Ira O. Beaty, was an educator with a wide knowledge of philosophy and psychology. Both parents imbued their children with curiosity and a work ethic.

Shirley MacLean Beaty was born April 25, 1934, in Richmond, Va. Henry Warren Beaty (both altered their names when they became actors) followed on March 30, 1937. Shirley was enrolled in a ballet class at 2 in an effort to strengthen her weak ankles. She and her brother haunted the Richmond movie houses every Saturday. She was given a quarter, spent 11 cents apiece for admission, 4 cents on candy.

Her favorite stars in those days? Rita Hayworth and Alan Ladd, although she was disillusioned years later when she was introduced to Ladd at a Hollywood nightspot and had to look down to see him.

Her childhood love of ballet was thwarted because of her height ("I was 6 feet tall on point; no partner in the Western world was that tall.") At 16 she went to New York and concentrated on musical comedy, living in an all-women boarding house.

"No men were allowed past the foyer after 9. That's why I was a virgin so late," she recalls with a hearty laugh.

Her parents persuaded her to return to Richmond to finish high school. Immediately after graduation, she hurried back to New York. At 20 she had understudied Carol Haney and danced in the chorus of "Pajama Game." When Haney injured an ankle, MacLaine followed the "42nd Street" tradition and went out a youngster and came back a star. Producer Hal Wallis was in the audience and signed her to a Hollywood contract.

From the very beginning she was a star, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in "The Trouble with Harry." The movie, about an unwanted corpse, was Hitchcock's only attempt at black comedy, and it was a box-office dud. MacLaine went on to co-star with Martin and Lewis in "Artists and Models," then as the female lead in the Oscar winner and biggest moneymaker of 1956, "Around the World in 80 Days."

"Some Came Running" proved a landmark film for MacLaine in various ways.

"The part (of a small-town floozie) was written for Shelley Winters but for some reason Frank (Sinatra) didn't like her," MacLaine recounts. "He saw me on a TV show and said, 'Get her.'"

She soon found herself adopted as mascot of what became the Rat Pack, a fraternity of boozing, smoking, practical jokers headed by Sinatra and including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

On the Indiana location of "Running," she played gin rummy with mob boss Sam Giancana. He cheated by placing her with her back to a window so he could see the reflection of her cards.

In the James Jones' novel from which the movie was adapted, the Sinatra character was shot at the end of the book. When the company returned to Hollywood, Sinatra told the producer, Sol Siegel: "Give the kid (MacLaine) the bullet. She'll get a nomination."

Indeed, her performance in that picture provided the first of her six Academy Award nominations (five for acting, one for making a documentary on China). She finally won as best actress in 1984 for "Terms of Endearment."

In 1954 she had married Steve Parker when both were actors in New York. She was 20, he was 32. He followed her to Hollywood, but soon tired of his role as Mr. MacLaine. He had spent some time in Japan, and he returned there to produce stage shows and movies.

"I had an open marriage: I was whoever I wanted, and he was too, and I liked that," she says.

The arrangement allowed her a number of affairs without any pressure to marry. (She and Parker eventually divorced.)

Their daughter, Stephanie Sachiko, was born in 1964. Called Sachi, the girl lived with her mother until she was 6, then with her father in Japan. She bounced back and forth between parents, and MacLaine admits such a childhood may have been difficult for Sachi.

But she and her mother talk about it, and their relationship seems close. MacLaine spent the holidays in Connecticut with Sachi and her financier husband, Frank Murray, and their two children, Airin, 4, and Frank Jr., 2 1/2.

"Sachi tried to be an actress, but her higher priority was to have a regular family life, which she never had as a child," MacLaine says. "She was a little bit confused about whether she was Japanese or American ... You do the best you can for your children. It's better than being with a nanny in Beverly Hills."

MacLaine's career as a writer of books stems from her trips to learn about faraway places and peoples — "I think I've had this search for personal identity all my life."

She wrote a 36-pound manuscript, then, working in Malibu, trimmed it to publishable length. The result was "Don't Fall Off the Mountain," the first of her best sellers.

"I wanted to read books that were about other people's feelings and other people's lives; I wasn't terribly interested in novels," she explains. "As I traveled more and more, I realized that these spiritual issues were the underpinning of almost every culture. I spent a lot of time in India and I went to Peru and all over. These things were happening in the world, and nobody was writing about them.

"I wrote 'Out on a Limb' and kept it from being published for a year and a half. ... Then I decided to do it and sort of gave birth to a cottage New Age industry, where books were concerned."

Her editor refused to publish "Out on a Limb," declaring, "I think you have a psychological dislocation." Bantam Books snapped it up immediately, and it became a hit in bookstores as well as on the TV comedy circuit.

MacLaine's concern with spiritual matters led her to New Mexico, where she bought an 8,000-acre ranch near Santa Fe five years ago.

"Most of the people around there with the native Indian culture are very involved with New Age thought and various approaches to spiritual thinking," she said. "I feel very much at home there ... It is indeed the Land of Enchantment."

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