TCM Film Fest: Shirley MacLaine Serves Up Barbs and Valentines

Shirley MacLaine - H 2015
Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP

The veteran star looks back in candor at her fellow stars like Jack Nicholson ("never knew what what he was going to do") and directors such as Billy Wilder ("he was very sarcastic").

Shirley MacLaine is not saving any of her candor for another lifetime. Going rogue in a Q&A with Leonard Maltin at the Hollywood Roosevelt on Sunday as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, she dished on directors and costars both sweet and sour, with occasional nods to the “angel on my shoulder” she quite literally believes has guided her through 60 years of near-constant Hollywood greatness.

As Maltin noted, MacLaine is the only survivor of the studio-contract era still playing lead roles today in movies as estimable as Bernie. And the actress didn’t shy away from sharing her opinions on the drawbacks of today’s indie film climate, as well as of the old studio system. Talking about the recent release (or, to her mind, non-release) of Elsa and Fred, MacLaine said, “You saw it? Where did you have to go, to the Valley? That’s the problem now. If the guys who are in charge of it don’t have any kind of pro smarts, it’ll get lost. That picture was not marketed well. Not professional. I’ll go anywhere to help sell a film if I really like it, and I loved Elsa and Fred. But all the people these days who want to be in show business for 20 minutes, and they commit $250,000 or something, they don't know what they’re doing.”

But most of her barbs — and valentines — were reserved for the golden age that TCM celebrates, with allusions to, as well as outright acknowledgements of, some of her more notorious run-ins over the years. Asked by Maltin if it isn’t true that the director sets the tone on a set, MacLaine answered, “Oh, sure. Well, when you’re working with Jerry Lewis, and he’s an actor? That’s why he became a director. No, there are a lot of actors that set the tone on the set. But then, we don’t want to go into Debra Winger.” Cue a half-minute of knowing audience laughter about her run-ins with her Terms of Endearment co-star.

Some highlights from MacLaine’s SRO interview:

Jessica Lange (her costar in the upcoming Wild Oats): “The last one I worked with, Jessica Lange, really, really touched me. And can cry on cue. That bothered me: I said, ‘How do you do that, Jessica?’ She said, ‘I have a life that’s just been a well of loneliness.’ I thought, okay, so tell us about Misha [Baryshnikov] , tell us about Sam [Shepard]…”

Alfred Hitchcock (The Trouble With Harry): “I was his social eating partner… With all the beautiful, blonde, tall, willowy actresses that he wanted to jump on, that didn’t even occur to him (with me). One of the few!”

Bob Fosse (Sweet Charity): “They asked me who I wanted to direct Charity, and I said Bob Fosse… I was responsible for Bobby’s career in Hollywood. Cut to 20 years later. He was doing All That Jazz, and he wanted me to play Gwen [Verdon]. I said, ‘Bob, I can’t dance anymore. I don’t even want to get into a rehearsal hall. That’s over.’ He said, ‘No, you have to do it. You’re the only one still working, and good, and everybody else has died. It won’t be authentic if you won’t do it.’ I said ‘Wait a minute,  All That Jazz has the director dying at the end. It’s not authentic.’ He honestly said to me, ‘If you play Gwen, I promise you I’ll be dead after the first preview.’ …  That’s my answer to, ‘What do I expect of a director’!”

Robert Mitchum (Two for the Seesaw): “We had a three-year relationship, kind of under the radar. [Hears audience murmuring.] You didn’t know? Neither did he! He was maybe the most intelligent of anybody I’ve ever met. He had a photographic memory. He could read a script and word for word cite it back to you. Frankly, I think that’s sick. He was a bit of an emotional coward. So I loved the contradiction. It gave me so much work to do: Who are you? I just loved shoveling through what he really was. I mean, this business about working on a chain gang, I think that was for 20 minutes or something, and [involved] filling in a pothole or something. But he was also the most underestimated.”

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (Artists and Models): “Dean was the funniest man I ever met. Not Jerry. Jerry was like a drill sergeant. But of course very adept at comedy; knew exactly what he wanted. He was really like a scientist. Dean used to try out material on me, because my favorite thing is to laugh. Of course, he couldn’t really judge because I would laugh at anything, and he’d try it on his live audience, and it would flop. I did their picture that was their second to last (Artists and Models), and they were not having a good time… Dean had not been that much of a success, yet (post-Lewis) — until he felt comfortable and centered with that character in Some Came Running. Remember, after they split up, he didn’t know what to do. With the empathy he aroused with people in that part, he learned that he was funny if he really felt comfortable. Maybe not in real life. You know, he was rather guarded. I adored him. Had a mini-crush on him. But I liked his wife more, so…”

James Garner (The Children’s Hour): “He’s the second to the funniest, next to Dean. In real life, hilarious. Such an educated sense of humor. Such an observant sense of humor about anything that was going on on the set. Did he play ever a character like that? The ones that he’s famous for, they were straight. But he was a really extraordinarily comic man.”

Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment): “Never knew what he was going to do. When [my character] Aurora goes up to his door saying, ‘So you asked me go to lunch… a year ago,’ he was supposed to have his clothes on, but every time he came to the door… once he came to the door in a robe… and the next time he came with his shorts, the third time he came with a hooker, and the fourth time, with nothing.” [Audience member yells, “What did it look like?”] “It’s too long a story.”

Frank Sinatra (Some Came Running): “He loved the spontaneity of not knowing what he was going to do. (But) I think he suffered from the same thing Ernie Kovacs suffered from, and that is: If I really rehearse, if I really look like I care, and it doesn’t work, then it’s my fault… So this way he could say, ‘Well, I didn’t have time to rehearse.’ Rather canny.”

Billy Wilder (The Apartment): “Had his problems with women. He was an Austrian. He was very sarcastic. I see why Marilyn [Monroe] was afraid to come to work [on Some Like It Hot]. But he taught me how to be self-reliant and to take criticism. I’m a dancer. Choreographers are made to make you miserable. I was used to that. I was used to that. So when this incredible Austrian came at me, I thought, okay, just show me the step.”

Hal Wallis (the producer who put her under contract): [Makes a scowling face, and puts her hands up, as if to ward away evil.] “Oooooh! He was a son of a bitch. And then he bought me an MG to calm me down. But it was a seven-shifting thing, and I didn’t know how to drive.”

Laurence Harvey: “Who do I not like? I did not like Larry Harvey. I turned down Breakfast at Tiffany’s to do Two Loves with Larry Harvey. Did you see that? No? Good.”

Herbert Ross (The Turning Point, Steel Magnolias): “Annie [Bancroft] was a little aloof. But with Herb Ross being the director [on Turning Point], that was the way to go. He could be sarcastic… The women on Steel Magnolias got together against Herb Ross. Herb was cruel to Julia Roberts, and to Dolly Parton. He would say, ‘You know, you should take some acting lessons.’ So we didn’t like that, and we basically stuck together, and still have — girlfriends from that movie. I loved my part, because I love playing a bitch.”

Audrey Hepburn (The Children’s Hour): “Lovely person. Whenever I went to Europe, I would go to Switzerland and see her. I miss her. She taught me how to dress, and I taught her how to curse.”

Fred MacMurray (The Apartment): “His money blinked when he took it out of his pocket. It had never seen the sun. He was so cheap that June [Haver] would make him his lunch in a brown paper bag, so he wouldn’t have to pay at the commissary. We used to tease him for that.”

Warren Beatty: “We never worked together, thank God… He’s got a whole different rhythm than me. I like to get it done.”

Peter Sellers (Being There): “That was really interesting because I had known Peter very well during my jet-set days… but on Being There, he never came into my dressing room, and we never had a meal together… We did the masturbation scene really separately, and there was no jokes or anything… Two years later, I’m at a restaurant and [producer] Dick Zanuck walks up to me and says, ‘What’s it like to have a love affair with Peter Sellers?’ I said, ‘He’s not my type, and I didn’t. What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I would go into Peter’s dressing room, and he would be on the phone with you doing sex talk.’ I tried to put all this together… It was Dick who figured out, ‘Listen, he became Chauncey Gardner, he was in love with the character you played, and if he had interrupted it with a lunch or dinner, the whole illusion had been shattered.’… In metaphysics, we say someone like Peter Sellers had a leaking aura. He’s remembering all these other lifetimes and experiences… He was a brilliant man, oh my God. And antisocial when he was deciding that you should not cross the line.”

Clint Eastwood (Two Mules for Sister Sarah): “Quite brilliant, and funny… because he’s so laconic and doesn’t know it. I adore him… I remember when we were doing Two Mules for Sister Sara, his horse was acting up. This is when I knew he’s a true Republican: He got off the horse, looked at the horse, and socked him.”

Correction: A previous version of this article listed the wrong name for the movie Wild Oats.