Curtain Call: Shirley MacLaine Has No Idea What She’s Going to Do On Stage, and That’s the Way She Likes It

Anything goes in <em>An Evening With Shirley MacLaine</em>

The number of living legends from the world of film and theater is shrinking. Shirley MacLaine qualifies as both. From her rise to fame as Carol Haney’s understudy in 1954’s The Pajama Game (which led to a contract with Paramount Pictures) to her recent appearances as Martha Levinson on Downton Abbey, the Oscar-winning actress (Terms of Endearment) and best-selling author (Out on a Limb, What If…) has had an illustrious career. This Saturday, MacLaine will appear at Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa in An Evening with Shirley MacLaine.

“What I love about this is it is completely spontaneous,” she says from her home in New Mexico. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, what I will feel like or what the audience will do. I say a meditation before the show ‘Don’t let me know.’ I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know who is there, how many people. I want it to be a complete experience in the present. I like not knowing what I’m going to do. I think I like that about the whole day.”

MacLaine appeared in a similar show last year at the La Mirada Center for the Performing Arts. While she was solo there, at this appearance George Pennacchio from KABC News will be the moderator. “I don’t know what I’m going to be asked. I said ‘anything you want, I will answer it.’ I guess it’s the feeling of not being secure. I enjoy that.” Audience members will also get an opportunity to ask some questions.

This feeling of spontaneity has spilled over to her recent film work. MacLaine just finished shooting Wild Oats with Jessica Lange in the Canary Islands. “I’m having experiences I’ve never had before: What it’s like being older and not having as good a memory. I’ve noticed that I’m more spontaneous with the acting. That’s what Marlon [Brando] used to do. He’d never remember the lines. He’d put them on lampshades and people’s heads. That in-between-ness that he had when he acted, it was absolutely captivating. That’s how we are in life.”

In addition to Wild Oats, MacLaine will star with Christopher Plummer in the film Elsa and Fred opening later this year. Directed by Michael Radford (Il Postino) the film, which opens November 7th, tells the story of a widower played by Plummer whose life is turned upside down when he moves into an apartment building and encounters MacLaine. “Plummer is so wonderful. He’s a darling, and I think it’s a good movie.”

Having worked with everyone from Jack Lemmon to Jennifer Aniston, no doubt some of MacLaine’s many friends and collaborators will be discussed at her show. I asked about three of them.

Billy Wilder who directed her in The Apartment and Irma La Douce
“Billy was like a staff sergeant. He was funny and brilliant and very discerning, but he was a sergeant. I don’t think he was too wonderful with women when he directed them. I think that was one of Marilyn’s [Monroe] problems. He didn’t have much use for her but knew she was magic on the screen. He was scientific and would say ‘Do this scene again and take out 13 seconds.’ And we would. I don’t know how that happened.”

Bob Fosse who directed her in Sweet Charity and choreographed Broadway’s The Pajama Game
“At the time I was doing Me & Juliet [on Broadway] in the chorus, Joanie McCraken was one of the stars and she was married to Bobby. I used to see this strange little hunched over thin short figure in the back of the theatre on matinee days. He’d be there with his hat and his cigarette hunched over and experimenting with moves on himself. Nobody had heard of him. There was nothing like ‘Fosse time.’ We were all trying to figure out Bob’s problems and his talent, his women, his sexual addictiveness. I think that all of those issues were in every move he made in his choreography.”

Film director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train, Shy People) whom MacLaine calls a great love of her life
 “He was something else. He was a force of nature. Where is he now? I think he’s back in Russia now. He was doing work in London, maybe Eastern Europe. He just didn’t make it in America.” Shortly after this interview, Konchalovsky was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for The Postman’s White Nights.

Having played so many different characters is it tough for MacLaine to be herself on stage? “I don’t know how to be any other self. Of course, I have so many ‘selves,’ I’ll never blow it. One thing I’ve learned in these shows and a friend said it best, you allow the audience to be themselves. When you give them the opportunity to speak, that’s what’s fun. I never know what’s going to be asked. I’m so old. But I’m also current. If the audience is with you, there’s nothing like being on stage.”