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Shirley MacLaine’s long and legendary career has often been distinguished by her portrayal of women with colorful, feisty temperaments like Terms of Endearment’s Aurora Greenway, Steel Magnolia’s Ouiser Boudreaux and Postcards From the Edge’s Doris Mann.
“I don’t think these women I play are difficult,” MacLaine told The Hollywood Reporter at the premiere of her new film, The Last Word, which features the latest in her line of ladies with big personalities. Her control-minded, widely disliked Harriet Lawler, hoping to define her life on her own terms, hires young writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to craft a truth-telling obituary in advance of her death.
On the red carpet at the ArcLight Hollywood, MacLaine said she believes that her gallery of strong-willed women are “expressing themselves in a way that they want something done in the way they want it done — and if that’s a problem and someone thinks they’re a bitch, that’s their problem.”
MacLaine herself displayed her hard-earned reputation for calling her own shots. Linked arm in arm with her co-star Seyfriend during interviews, when questions often ventured into her thoughts about brother Warren Beatty and Sunday’s Oscars snafu, she simply moved on to the next reporter.
She also reflected on telling her own story, her way, through the more than a dozen autobiographical and self-reflective books she’s authored over four decades. “It’s helped me express myself in order to know who I am better,” she said. “And that’s when everybody should be counseled with: I don’t think there’s anything more important than that. I’ve learned that from the characters I’ve played, and loved the experience. Sometimes it’s difficult, but so is life.”
“She’s fearless!” marveled Seyfried. “She speaks her mind, she knows what she wants, and I have a lot of my own issues with that. I think there are a lot of things I learned [from her], but in truth it’s like who she is as a human being … Just in terms of the human she is — God, big learning experiences.”
“And that’s what the movie was about,” MacLaine added.
Even actor Philip Baker Hall admitted to some nerves before he headed to the set to share scenes with the Oscar winner. “Given that she’s kind of a titanic figure in the industry, I was a little intimidated coming in,” Hall explained. “I thought, ‘Is she going to be aloof? If she going to be friendly? Is she going to be lost, swamped?’ Because it’s a huge role — she’s in every scene, with lots of dialogue.”
The reality, he discovered, was that MacLaine “was all business — that’s not to mean she wasn’t friendly, which she certainly was, or welcoming, which she certainly was — but she is about getting the work done, I’ll tell you that. Some people like to kind of ease up on into it and sort of find it. She’s ready to go!”
“I’m driving in to work on that first day, I’m choking up a little bit, going ‘I can’t believe I get to work with Shirley MacLaine!’” confessed co-star Thomas Sadoski. “And then you walk out and she’s exactly what you’d expect.”
Even more memorable for Sadoski, though, was meeting Seyfried, his now-fianceé and mother of his soon-to-arrive child while shooting the film, which “was going to have a very special place, for me and for my family,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to put into words. Maybe some years down the line I’ll be able to look back and contextualize it, but right now it’s just this incredible thing that’s happening in the midst of a lot of other incredible things.”
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Melvin Van Peebles