Shirley MacLaine: An old lover of mine said: “Why don’t you just have a licence plate made up that says ‘Fu*k Americans..
It’s hard to describe what Shirley MacLaine’s book Sage-ing While Age-ing is about. It seems to cover so many things. It’s partly a memoir of this life and stories from the movies, but it touches on her past lives. It’s partly metaphysics, the nature of the soul, the definition of love. There’s a part about ‘star beings’ and her sightings of various craft from other planets. And it’s partly medical advice about the ageing body: ‘Make lemonade,’ she writes. ‘Lemons, as acidic as they are, alkinise the body.’ ‘Take melatonin, it’s wonderful for the hair.’
It’s really several books in one held together by the consistency of one voice, a voice that is strong, optimistic, formidable even. Quirky, caustic. The one thing the voice in the book doesn’t ever do is doubt itself.
When we meet in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel this is exactly how she is. If the world thinks she’s crazy because in another lifetime she was a princess in Egypt with her reincarnated dog, she certainly doesn’t acknowledge it. She makes a point in the book that many people would prefer to see her as invisible so they don’t have to contend with what she’s about: a believer in UFOs and life before life. She’s 73 and she knows what happens after a certain age to actresses who were bathed in the glow of Hollywood all their lives – they become crones. She says she’s going to do a film (she calls them ‘pictures’) called Poor Things, a story about two old women who are so frustrated with being invisible that they get away with murder. They can kill unnoticed.
It’s hard to believe MacLaine feels invisible. Her presence cuts through the atmosphere without her saying anything. She’s fiery but not immediately warm. She’s wearing a multicoloured beaded top and loose trousers, strawberry-blonde hair in a bob she made famous in the early Sixties. Her eyes are huge, with spidery lashes.
She looks through you and inspires fear in the photographer’s assistant with her question: ‘Just how bright is your light going to be?’ Invisible, never. Prepared to kil*? Possibly. She once said that she’d kilĐ someone if she thought they were going to break her heart. There’s a realness in that. Or as real as anything can be for someone who has spent 50 years acting, which she calls ‘the ultimate imaginative metaphysical art form. How do we know what’s real or not? Did we really fall in love with our co-star? Are those real tears?’
She’s wearing rings on the end of her fingers: bejewelled with turquoise, they cover her nails. She calls them ‘sky rings’. The colour of the sky. ‘Turquoise protects us from radiation. I design these rings myself.’ I try some on. She hopes to sell them on her website or in Selfridges. She shows me how easy it is to type with them on.
‘I channelled the book. But every writer says that, don’t they? Norman Mailer said that to me all the time. Ahh, I’m going to miss him. I really liked him a lot. He was outrageous.’ Maybe you were two of a kind? She looks at me as if she has no idea what I am talking about. Pauses.
‘He didn’t quite let himself go in his ruminations of the spirit. He tried in Ancient Evenings and he definitely understood reincarnation because that was the only cosmic justice that made sense to him. But he fought it all because he was left-brain intellectual. I believe I have a balance there. I was mostly left-brain orientated, and in the past 30 years it changed.’
There’s no doubt that MacLaine is a one-off, although she says: ‘What’s one of those? I think I’m quite conventional. I’m a peaceful person once work ethic is established. If people are around me and whatever I’m doing is efficient, then I’m extremely peaceful. When someone doesn’t care about their job or it’s all screwed up – no, I am not peaceful, because I’m addicted to making people better than they think they are.’
You are quite controlling, aren’t you? ‘Maybe it’s just that I like them to live up to their potential,’ she says coquettishly. Is that because you thought you might not live up to your potential? ‘I think when I was in my early twenties and middle twenties I didn’t even know I wasn’t living up to my potential. A couple of friends told me I wasn’t and told me to get my act together, and it made a huge impact on me.’
By her early twenties she had already starred in Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry. She had done the original Ocean’s 11. She was a rat-pack mascot, friends with all of them though girlfriend to none. In 1960 she made Can-Can, a dancing musical with Frank Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier. She had started on Broadway as a hoofer. She was known to be the girl with great legs but a funny face. A face that served her well in Billy Wilder’s complex, tragi-comic The Apartment with Jack Lemmon. If you look back at those films now, she was striking: her performances had real guts and stamina. It’s odd that she says she didn’t have her act together when she was doing so well.
‘Well, success does not mean doing well. To get my act together, I realised I had to look more within myself – and I did. How am I supposed to remember what pictures I was doing then? I can’t remember much of anything, quite frankly, which I’m very happy about in many ways because it means I can live totally in the now.’
It’s hard to believe she doesn’t remember making The Apartment, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She doesn’t remember much about Terms of Endearment, for which she won an Oscar in 1984. ‘I think it’s because energy is speeding up. I have to be more in the now in order to know what I’m doing.’
She must remember something of who she was before. What’s the most interesting thing that’s changed about her? She pauses to consider the accuracy of her answer. ‘Before, I was very ambitious. Not to be successful, but to be creative – and also I was very involved in relationships, particularly men. I had all of these fabulous relationships. I learnt a great deal through them, and now I want more of a relationship with nature and with ruminating and remembering and dreaming, and so forth. I don’t like to socialise much. It’s a big deal for me to come into town because I live on a ranch in New Mexico.’
She also has a place in Malibu by the ocean. She doesn’t like the toxicity of the traffic in Beverly Hills. ‘But I adore the people. There’s some really creative people living and working here I adore. Particularly if they’re eccentric. I used to be disturbed by eccentrics; now I welcome them.’
Is that because she is one of them? ‘No, I’ve never thought I was an eccentric and I don’t think so now.’ There’s a tight pause and then we laugh. She tells me: ‘I used to write all the Shirley MacLaine jokes on Johnny Carson. The guys would call me up and say we want two or three Shirleys tonight and I would help them.’
Isn’t that weird? ‘Not at all. What I found really humiliating were jokes about me that people didn’t laugh at. Robin Williams once did a whole Oscar show ripping off my channelling. Oh, he was hysterical.’
It’s not that Shirley MacLaine looks or doesn’t look 73, but when she grins she has a mesmeric sparkle. What does she mean exactly when she says she used to be really involved in relationships, pursuing men? ‘Not pursuing men,’ she corrects. ‘I would make sure that they pursued me.’ And what was her technique? ‘Can’t remember that either.’
She used to find men intriguing. She had many affairs and an odd 28-year marriage to film producer-turned-businessman Steve Parker – they weren’t really together for a lot of it. There was an intense three-year affair with Robert Mitchum. There was Danny Kaye and Yves Montand, and she always had a fascination for politicians, including Andrew Peacock, who at the time was Australia’s foreign minister.
Her search for the definition of love was quite thorough. ‘Because I was having affairs in every country around the world, an old lover of mine said: “Why don’t you just have a licence plate made up that says ‘Fuck Americans’?” I thought that was witty.’ And was she really having affairs all around the world? ‘Mm-mm,’ she says, sounding suddenly like the southern belle she never really was.
Did she never enjoy monogamy? ‘No. Although I am a serial monogamist. There are three sets of people where se* is concerned. The promiscuous, which I was not; the total monogamist, which I was not; and the serial monogamist, who has very deep but intense relationships while you are in them. I guess I learned what I needed to learn from them and then I usually fixed it so they would move on, not me. I didn’t like the guilt of moving away from them. I’m a middle-class girl from Virginia. I don’t handle guilt well. But I’m over the hill now,’ she says, not particularly sadly.
Is it true she never had her heart broken? A long pause. She whispers, ‘Yes, that’s true. My heart would be broken, shattered, if something happened to my dog though. I take her everywhere, and you know, we’ve had a talk. She’s going to live till about 2012 and then she’ll come back again and it’ll be up to me to find her.’
Terry is a rat terrier with a mischievous nature not dissimilar to her owner’s. She says they are both very independent spirits, loyal but individual. She credits Terry as co-writer of her book Out on a Leash: Exploring the Nature of Reality and Love. And Terry is ‘almost androgynous, that’s why she has an androgynous name’. She could talk about her dog all day. She swallowed a diamond ring once. It hasn’t come out yet. She’s commandeered for her a special coat which says she is a therapy dog, which allows her in forbidden places like aeroplanes. ‘I hope when she comes back she’ll come back as a smaller dog, so I don’t have to lift her up going through airport security all the time.’
I tell her I would very much like my dog to come back, but how will I recognise him? He might come back as a person. ‘No, there is no transmigration of souls. People come back as people, dogs