Few actresses can boast a career like Shirley MacLaine’s.
Her 1955 film debut in the comedy-mystery The Trouble with Harry, directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, won her a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year, and in sixty years in the business she never really slowed down. On July 30, 2015, Nashvillians will have the opportunity to come out to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, learn more about this great actress’s career, and ask her about … well, anything. And trust me, there is a lot!
Today, MacLaine is perhaps still best known for the role of Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment. And rightly so: that role, for which she finally won the Academy Award, also won her Best Actress from the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critic’s Circle, and many others. Then of course there is her memorable performance in Steel Magnolias as Louisa Boudreaux. Roles like this have kept MacLaine a living presence for many LGBT audiences.
Recently MacLaine was introduced to a new generation, when she appeared on Glee as June Dolloway as a celebrity with an eye for talent who attempted to get in the middle of the Kurt and Blaine situation. But in the last few years, roles in projects from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Downton Abbey to new indy projects like Wild Oats and Men of Granite, show that MacLaine’s seventh decade in show business might just be heating up. So you might want to keep an eye on her!
What keeps MacLaine relevant? Besides maintaining her acting career, MacLaine is not afraid of difficult topics and is more than willing to tell you what she thinks about them. Her bestselling books have been made the center of controversies over the years, and MacLaine is unapologetic. When I asked her to address the controversy over her words about the Holocaust, for instance, MacLaine didn’t back down.
“What I was writing about was horror from a cosmic perspective. How one looks at horror and how one deals with that kind of horror, and what is the responsibility we all have. This man from the London Daily Mail took one sentence out of context. It doesn’t matter, the subject of how to deal with horror is an important topic to deal with!” This willingness to stand her ground may anger some, but it’s a characteristic that made her unafraid to confront dangerous topics before they were safe.
Very early in her career, MacLaine was cast to play one of the leads of the film version of Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, opposite Audrey Hepburn. MacLaine and Hepburn played teachers in a small boarding school whose lives are ruined by the accusation of lesbianism. That spiral culminates in the suicide of MacLaine’s character. The ultimate cut of the film, however, downplays some of the play’s insinuations of the love between the women characters.
I asked MacLaine whether that was the plan from the beginning, whether those changes made it easier to take the role. “NO!” she said. “I expected us to shoot what we read [as Hellman wrote]—and we did shoot it that way but he cut them out!” For MacLaine, this was an important opportunity lost. “Wyler, who directed it from Hellman’s, play got intimidated as we got into the movie…. I objected to things he cut out displaying Martha’s love for Karen. It was the first time a big Hollywood film addressed a same sex love affair, and I wish he had been more courageous.”
“Basically,” MacLaine says of the struggle for gay rights in the many years since, “I’ve always been there.… I’m really amazed at how fast it’s taken off, though! I think what it’s showing is that there are more diversified realities for gender and sexuality than anyone imagines, and I don’t know how we survived so long keeping it under wraps! I really don’t understand Russia and other places. It’s like the world is getting polarized over gender and sexuality! Whatever is free and democratic makes things better even if it hurts at first.”
But she ties the reaction of anti-LGBT movements to the same malaise that she feels is paralyzing people all over the world. “They don’t know what to make of the world, and they’ve given up on a lot of what’s out there.” For the negative folks that means reactionary responses to halt progress. Most people, however, are seeking answers, and those are the people MacLaine wants to reach through her writing and through interacting with audiences.
“People want to know why people are doing what they are doing. They’re looking to explain why people are acting the way they are all over the world. Maybe that seeking is what has opened people up and made us so much more free related to gender and sexuality. It’s stupid to be so shortsighted with regard to diversity when so much is happening all over the world.”
The Schermerhorn event on July 30, 2015, at 7:30 p.m., is an unmatched opportunity for MacLaine fans, or skeptics, and film buffs. “So what happens,” MacLaine said, explaining the evening in her own words, “is I put together a compendium of all my stuff—stage, screen, politics, social causes, love affairs, and metaphysics. Then I come out and [award-winning novelist Ann Patchett] is going to do an interview, and there will be an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. Basically, the theatre will become my living room and you’ll all be my guests!”
What might you hear? You never really know with MacLaine, but she did offer this teaser: “I talk about the Rat Pack, UFOs, and leaders in the world and what it was to know them—any questions they want to ask are on the table! That’s what a Q&A is!” MacLaine thinks that her program will really speak to LGBT audiences. “They’re really my favorite crowd, of course,” she said with a laugh. “They would really love this show because it’s so about freedom … that’s my favorite.”
Enter to win a pair of tickets to see Shirley MacLaine at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
For more information about the show, or tickets, visit nashvillesymphony.org.