Hollywood Toasts Shirley MacLaine at AFI's 40th Annual Life Achievement Award

Meryl Streep and Shirely Maclaine

Steep presented the honor to the woman who played her mother in Postcards From the Edge. "She likes difficult women like I do. She likes prickly women," she noted. "Shirley, you cut the path for all of us."

Warren Beatty, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Sally Field all pay tribute to the Oscar-winning actress.

The American Film Institute’s 40th Life Achievement Award, presented to Shirley MacLaine Thursday night at an all-star tribute held at Sony Picture Studios, should have temporarily been renamed the Lives Achievement Award. Inevitably, given the Oscar winner’s new age writings, there were plenty of jokes about MacLaine’s past lives, although Jack Nicholson and later MacLaine herself jockingly complained that Jack Black pre-empted most of them with a video bit in which he impersonated everyone from a caveman to Moses to an alien visitor from the future, all testifying to the actress’ century-hopping accomplishments.

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But the evidence on hand from MacLaine’s current incarnation, which began in Richard, Virginia in 1934, was varied enough to suggest that she’s lived more than one life since she first hit Hollywood in 1955 as the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry.

There were, for example, the actresses – Meryl Streep, Sally Fields, Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston – who joined her at the head table to applaud her for bringing a whole range of feisty female characters to the screen. From the world of politics, came Sen. George McGovern, whom MacLaine fiercely supported in his bid for the presidency in 1972, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, at whose wedding MacLaine presided. To prove that MacLaine hasn’t lost any of her spunk, Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern introduced a preview from the upcoming season in which MacLaine, playing the mother of McGovern’s Countess first encounters the skeptically apprising eye of Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. And then, to testify to her bawdy youth when she hung out with the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, there was Don Rickles, who nearly stole the show when he stood to unleash a trademark barrage of insults.

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“We are basically attempting to preserve our imaginations against time,” MacLaine said in an effort to sum up her protean life when she finally was invited to the podium to accept the award, that Streep, who played MacLaine’s daughter in Postcards from the Edge, called “long overdue.”

But MacLaine’s life and career is not summed up that easily, and the wealth of tributes offered by her friends, co-stars and political comrades-in-arms made for a free-wheeling evening, full of genuine laughs as well as equally genuine heartfelt moments, all of which was taped for broadcast by TVLand on June 24.

A clip from 1969’s Sweet Charity in which MacLaine first belted out her signature tune, “If They Could See Me Now,” served as the curtain-raiser, after which MacLaine made her entrance to take her place at the main table.

Welcoming the guests, Howard Stringer, chairman of the Sony Corp. and chair of the AFI board of trustees, joked, “We gather tonight to witness the longest night of Warner Beatty’s life,” a reference to MacLaine younger brother, who received the AFI’s Life Achievement Award himself in 2008. He then turned his attention to the lady of the evening, describing her as “the perfect girl-next-door, the red-headed tomboy with the wicked smile.”

After a break for a dinner of wild striped bass and Santa Barbara spot prawn catered by Wolfgang Puck, Beatty introduced the main program, first acknowledging the other AFI winners present – Sidney Poitier, Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, Streep and last year’s honoree Morgan Freeman – before testifying, “tonight, we honor a person I have known, a person I have loved, my whole life.”

Roberts, after observing that both she and MacLaine appeared in movie versions of Oceans Eleven, albeit 41 years apart, reminded everyone of how, during her years with the Rat Pack, MacLaine could more than hold her own with the boys. She related the story of how, during a poker game, MacLaine once pulled a water pistol on Chicago gangster Sam Gianana. Beamed Roberts approvingly, “She’s got balls, but she’s also got a heart of hearts.”

Adding to the praise, while introducing various clips: Dakota Fanning, who met MacLaine while on a magazine shoot, spoke of her love for The Apartment, saying that MacLaine “has the rare ability to be able to make comedy and drama a singular moment, to laugh through the tears”; John Travolta told how MacLaine insisted that Universal hire Bob Fosse, then a choreographer, to make his feature directing debut with Sweet Charity, noting that she moved through her career “with the grace of a dancer”; “Miss MacLaine,” Freeman offered, “your films, like you, are memorable and timeless”; Katherine Heigl, after marveling at how MacLaine could deliver laughter and tears in the same breath, exclaimed, “Can I get your autograph?”; “Both your body and your body of work have long legs,” observed Nicholson, her Terms of Endearment co-star, adding, “Just keeping going, girl, but that would be the most unnecessary piece of advice in history,”; and the ever-wry Carrie Fisher, whose memoir Postcards from the Edge became the movie starring MacLaine as a slightly fictionalized version of her own mother Debbie Reynolds, commented, “Shirley is some future person’s past life – can you imagine that lucky bastard!” The program even included a taped appearance by physicist Stephen Hawking, who confessed that he fell in love with MacLaine when he first saw Sweet Charity.

Field looked back at the group of actresses who came together to film Steel Magnolias in Louisiana in the summer of 1998. While each of the them played a different role off screen, Field said, “And then there was Shirley, who seemed to me to be the center.”

Streep, too, talked of how much her fellow actresses owe to MacLaine. “She likes difficult women, like I do,” Streep said. “She likes the ones that are prickly and maybe unpleasant. I like that about you, Shirley. I like that you didn’t disappear into the dark woods of those tricky middle years of 45 to 65. In fact, you’re the one who cut the path for all of us because you have done some of your greatest work…in what we call middle age.”

When it came time for her to acknowledge all the praise, MacLaine took a long pause, surveyed the room, and then proceeded: She first thanked the women at her table, calling them “my compadres”; she remembered her male co-stars too, citing “lovers on screen and off”; and then made special mention of the “four Jacks in my life”: the late Jack Lemmon; Nicholson; Black, with whom she stars in the current indie movie Bernie; and her long-time agent Jack Gilardi. She singled out Beatty as “the person I’ve known the longest and loved the longest,” and embarked on a long account of her parents and the role they played in inspiring their two, talented children to pursue their dreams.

Finally, she advised “all the over-achievers in the room. We should relax and enjoy ourselves, because if we don’t do it now, we’ll do it the next time around.”

As part of the evening, AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale also presented the AFI’s Franklin J. Schaffner Award, given annually to an AFI alumnus, to Inception’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, who cited MacLaine’s Being There, shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, as a special film that had inspired him.