Shirley MacLaine's Past (Oscar) Lives (Photos)
This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"Most of my memories are about how much I weighed, what Edith Head said I should wear, and who I was in love with," Shirley MacLaine says of the many Academy Awards shows she has attended. (There have been at least 14.) The very definition of a showbiz trooper -- she got her start in the 1954 Broadway musical The Pajama Game when the star she was understudying broke her ankle and MacLaine went on and wowed the audience -- she has always been game for the Oscars. In 1987, she even made an entrance by stepping out of a spaceship. Nominated six times, she missed only the 1961 awards, when she was nominated for The Apartment, because she was filming in Japan. Elizabeth Taylor won -- some said it was a sympathy vote after she was struck by a nearly fatal pneumonia -- and MacLaine jokes: "I lost to a tracheotomy." In 1984, her moment came when she claimed the Oscar for Terms of Endearment.
MacLaine, 77, will be honored with the AFI Life Achievement Award in June. She's currently in England, filming Downton Abbey, where her character, Cora Crawley's American mother, is expected to battle with Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess. "But," she says of this year's Oscars, "I'll be watching."
31st Awards: 1959 (see main picture)
Her dramatic performance in Some Came Running earned MacLaine her first nomination. She made a beeline to designer Edith Head's for a fitting. "What I remember," she says, "is that brown satin dress cinching in my waist to about a 23, and I have not counted that low since. I worked with Edith Head a lot when I was under contract to Paramount, and then again when I went over to Universal. She was the one who could intimidate all the producers when she walked into an office. It was good to get to know her very well."
Though MacLaine lost her first time out to Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!, she remembers the night as "thrilling." She was accompanied by her husband, businessman Steve Parker, and she says, "He was so handsome, everyone thought he was a movie star." MacLaine has described their unconventional relationship, which ended in 1982, as an open marriage. Their daughter, Sachi, was at her mother's side when she won her Oscar in 1984.
36th Awards: 1964
For Irma la Douce, MacLaine received her third nom but lost to Hud's Patricia Neal. At the afterparty at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, she shared a table with Debbie Reynolds, with whom she has had a long acquaintance. "She called and asked if she could be in The Unsinkable Molly Brown instead of me, and I said sure," MacLaine says with a laugh. But then MacLaine went on to play an only slightly fictionalized version of Reynolds in the film version of Carrie Fisher's memoir Postcards From the Edge. Reynolds' reaction? "She didn't think I should have put vodka in the smoothie."
38th Awards: 1966
MacLaine accompanied her brother, Warren Beatty -- they were both presenters -- but she muses, "Did we go to the Oscars together? I don't remember going anywhere with him. Ever." She does love teasing him affectionately. Presenting the best actress award in 1979, she said, "I want to take this opportunity to say how proud I am of my little brother, my dear, sweet, talented brother. Warren, Warren, just imagine what you could accomplish if you tried celibacy."
46th Awards: 1974
MacLaine presented the best director award to The Sting's George Roy Hill. "Oh, that was the diamond dress, the rhinestone dress from What a Way to Go!" she exclaims. The dress had been designed for her by Edith Head 10 years earlier for the comedy in which she played a woman who keeps marrying only to see each of her four husbands die prematurely. "That took 78 fittings," she says. "Seventy-eight, never had a lunch hour."
50th Awards: 1978
MacLaine was nominated but didn't win for The Turning Point. Vanessa Redgrave hijacked the show when she spoke out against "Zionist hooligans" protesting her support of Palestine. MacLaine turned to her escort for the evening, playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents, and said, "Everyone has the right to say what they want to say about anything." But he became furious with her. "He was extremely political," says MacLaine, "and he went silent and he didn't speak to me for the rest of the evening or for the next five years."
51st Awards: 1979
Backstage, she embraced Jane Fonda, that year's best actress winner for the anti-war drama Coming Home. For MacLaine, the Oscars have always been less about walking the red carpet than about "seeing old friends, catching up, talking, watching the show and enjoying the humor, and everybody's there."
56th Awards: 1984
It was a triumphant evening for Terms of Endearment, with James L. Brooks taking home trophies for best adapted screenplay, director and picture and Jack Nicholson named best supporting actor. Accepting her statuette for best actress for playing the prickly Aurora Greenway, MacLaine said, "I have wondered for 26 years what this would feel like." But, actually, she now says, that wasn't exactly true. "Everything that happened that Oscar night, I dreamed the night before," she explains. "Where I was sitting, where Jim Brooks was sitting, where Jack was sitting, where Debra [Winger] was sitting. All of the jokes. I dreamed the whole night the night before. So I knew I was going to win. Nothing made that night easy, it went on for four hours. But, yeah, we had a good time."
59th Awards: 1987
On hand to present the screenplay awards, MacLaine was accompanied by Colin Higgins, her director and co-writer on the telefilm Out on a Limb, based on her best-selling memoir about her new-age beliefs. "We shot that in Peru, and he became one of my spiritual buddies," MacLaine says warmly. Higgins would die the following year of AIDS, which was then having a devastating impact on show business. "He was a real dear friend," MacLaine adds. "Very, very nice and really talented."
81st Awards: 2009
Oscar-winning actresses MacLaine, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and Marion Cotillard introduced that year's nominees, with MacLaine speaking to Anne Hathaway. "I loved talking directly to Anne," she says. "When her eyes, those big beautiful eyes, brimmed up with tears, oh, that was so sweet." Kate Winslet won.