Once upon a time, long ago, Shirley MacLaine played one of the most adorable and emotionally involving characters of all time in The Apartment, directed by Hollywood demi-god, Billy Wilder. The film was a rousing, albeit controversial, success, racking up superlative riddled reviews, excellent (for the time) box-office numbers and a cache of Academy Award nominations and wins. The film also cemented MacLaine as a star, a status which had been hinted at following her first Academy Award nomination for her role in the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin film, Some Came Running. From this intoxicating professional high a career spanning decades would follow, with MacLaine appearing in films spanning across every conceivable genre, accruing a trunkful of awards, and, most importantly, becoming the newest addition to Filmophilia’s “The Legend” series. This is The Legend: Shirley MacLaine.
So, it was the 1950‘s. Ike Eisenhower was the President. Japan had been humbled by the mighty atomic muscles of the stars and stripes. For many people things in the good ol’ U.S of A couldn’t get much better. People were living in a pastoral utopia (at least according to the benign suburban universe portrayed on Leave it to Beaver). However, little did people know that things were still only going to improve. Little did people know that Shirley MacLaine was about to make her premiere.
MacLaine arrived on the Hollywood scene in 1955, fresh-faced, innocent, and possessing one of the cutest haircuts since Audrey Hepburn. She made her debut in a somewhat minor film from one of the greatest cinematic artists from the 20th Century, Alfred Hitchcock.That film was The Trouble With Harry, which gave MacLaine a role defined by the sort of independent spirit which would become a staple of her filmography.
MacLaine followed her work with “Hitch” with a part in the gargantuan film, Around the World in 80 Days, which was bizarrely bestowed the title of Best Picture for its respective year. While 80 Days continued to elevate MacLaine’s career, it wasn’t until she teamed up with a pair of crooners, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, that she was accepted as a legitimate leading lady. In the 1958 film, Some Came Running, MacLaine played the role of Giny Moorehead, an somewhat uncouth woman hopelessly in love with Sinatra’s gruff and troubled, Dave Hirsh. MacLaine’s fully realized performance gained her a slew of positive notices and accolades, including her first Oscar nomination. More importantly, the film positioned MacLaine to take on a new role in a film which would become known as one of the best from its decade.
In 1955 a hotshot director named William Wilder met a gifted young performer named Jack Lemmon, who he put a dress on and cast in Some Like it Hot, a film which is now wildly considered to be one of the best comedies ever put out by the studio system. This pairing sparked a long and fruitful relationship and the duo would make seven films together. However, probably the most effective of the seven is The Apartment, which benefits enormously from the chemistry between Shirley MacLaine’s adorably despondent Fran, and Lemmon’s lonely C.C. Baxter.
The Apartment was a film way ahead of its time, powerful, yet still capable of eliciting laughs from its characters’ emotional turmoil. The film makes its audience really root for its central characters and MacLaine’s performance during her character’s attempted suicide and subsequent convalescence is probably the film’s most affecting attribute. The role further cemented her as a star and gained her another nomination for Best Actress.
As the 1960′s wore on and war exploded in Southeast Asia Shirley MacLaine continued to light up the screen just like the napalm was lighting up the Vietnamese forests. In 1963 MacLaine reunited with both Wilder and Lemmon for another classic blast of comedic talent in Irma la Douce, a terrific comedy about a cop (Lemmon) who falls in love with a prostitute (MacLaine). Douce was another example of the potency of the two stars’ chemistry, and also another indicator of MacLaine’s range and ability to leave an impression on an audience. One of the film’s best scenes personifies MacLaine’s contribution, where she takes center-stage at a wild, rampaging dance party.
As the 1970′s began, the actress refused to let herself slide, or phone in performances for an easy paycheck (despite the fact that she had been doing her profession for almost twenty years at this point). MacLaine began the decade in the Clint Eastwood western, Two Mules for Sister Sara, (which was humorously channeled in a Will Ferrell skit as “Two Balls for Sister Sara”), before appearing in the drama film Desperate Characters, a film which gained mixed notices as a whole but for which MacLaine’s performance was widely embraced.
Mid-decade MacLaine made a transition behind the camera, taking on the roles of writer, director and narrator for a documentary entitled: The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. In 1977 MacLain scored with the critics once more, appearing in The Turning Point opposite the luminous Anne Bancroft. Turning Point was nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards, (including MacLain for Best Actress), but, once again, she left the ceremony empty handed. In 1979 she appeared opposite the great Peter Sellers in his pen-ultimate performance in Hal Ashby’s last iconic film, the classic, Being There.
After again pushing herself for a decade , assuming new roles in the filmmaking process and producing challenging work in a variety of film genres, Shirley MacLaine entered the 1980’s, the era of Regan, on yet another professional high. Still, the band was not done playing. As the country rushed to embrace the glory of things which “trickled down,” MacLaine’s work moved decisively in the opposite direction and soon she was poised to collect the largest accolade of her career, a Best Actress Oscar for her work in James L. Brooks melodrama, Terms of Endearment.
Terms of Endearment was a huge hit when it was released. It racked up over 100 million dollars in box office returns, 11 Oscar nominations with five wins, (including MacLaine’s long overdue win) and a boatload of other notices from a myriad of different film critic associations. Now for the most part the enormously positive reception is deserved, although Terms of Endearment can’t really hold a candle to some of the groundbreaking work that preceded it during the late-60’s through the late 1970’s. What is truly responsible for the film’s success is the dramatic and remarkably nuanced performance between MacLaine and Debra Winger (who’s also excellent). As fun as Nicholson’s bloated and hammy performance is it is the Winger and MacLaine dynamic which gives the film its heart.
Other notable performances from this wonderful time period include a part as the titular Madame Sousatzka in, you guessed it, Madame Sousatzka. Also, MacLaine performed in what is probably the most humorous entry to her filmography, the star-studded Cannonball Run II, before closing out the decade in the excellent estrogen-fest, Steel Magnolias.
The beginning of the 1990’s brought around additional successes for MacLaine. To mark her fifth decade of work in the business MacLaine teamed up with acting goddess, Meryl Streep, in Princess Leia’s semi-autobiographical tale, Postcards From the Edge. While not a huge deviation from the self-absorption and overbearing qualities which defined her part in Terms of Endearment, MacLaine still managed to create a fascinating character who seems intent on tearing her daughter (played by Streep) down while simultaneously fixated on trying to build her up.
After Postcards From the Edge one could possibly make the case that MacLaine’s career never obtained the same level of acclaim that she enjoyed throughout earlier decades. However, even during her 60′s an into her 70′s, where many actors would maybe slither into an early retirement, MacLain managed to keep working consistently, and has been turning in performances of valuable up to the present day.
From her comedic work in Guarding Tess, (1994), and Used People, (1992), to her critically acclaimed turn in 2005′s In Her Shoes and successful supporting work in 2012′s Bernie, Shirley MacLaine’s abilities as a performer seem undiminished after nearly 60 years in film. It can’t really be disputed that MacLaine certainly belongs on any list of legendary actors. Because with her boundless range and a insatiable need to continually explore new artistic territory, that is exactly what Shirley MacLaine has become.