MIAMI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine, a guest at the Miami International Film Festival, comes to terms with her career

 

On the cusp of 80, Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine remains fearless and uncensored.

“That was really stupid,” she says during an interview, laughing, when asked why good films tank at the box office. “If I could answer that, I’d head a studio. Are you kidding me or what?”

MacLaine, special guest at Friday’s opening of the Miami International Film Festival, was just as candid at 40, when her political outspokenness landed her on President Richard Nixon’s notorious enemies list.

“Oh boy, did I ever,” MacLaine says, recalling how in the early ’70s she couldn’t find film work. “All of Hollywood was basically Democratic. But some of the real power monsters were not. They were for Nixon.”

Until then, MacLaine led a charmed professional life. At 19, Warren Beatty’s older sister danced on Broadway in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet. A year later, she became understudy to musical star Carol Haney in George Abbott and Jerome RobbinsThe Pajama Game, choreographed by Bob Fosse.

That led to instant stardom when Haney sprained her ankle and, in 42nd Street fashion, MacLaine went on in her place.

Alfred Hitchcock then asked MacLaine to move to Hollywood and co-star opposite John Forsythe in the director’s comedic mystery, The Trouble With Harry.

MacLaine quickly scored three Best Actress Oscar nominations ( Some Came Running, The Apartment, Irma la Douce), plus a Best Documentary nod for her film, The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir. She lost ’em all.

In 1976, she returned to the stage in a high-profile song-and-dance show. “Because I had politicized myself out of work and Hollywood. . . I went back to Vegas. And I started there and then ultimately ended up at The Palace. I absolutely loved it. Love it so much more than making movies.”

MacLaine’s professional turning point came in 1983, when producer-director James L. Brooks cast her opposite Debra Winger in the mother-daughter hit, Terms of Endearment.

Terms was my part,” MacLaine says. “You know everybody in town, literally every studio, turned that picture down twice. I think they said it’s not a comedy or a drama. Something like, ‘Oh, you can’t have the daughter die.’ 

In 1984, MacLaine finally won the Best Actress Oscar playing Aurora Greenway. Jack Nicholson, as her Terms love interest, won Best Supporting Actor.

“You know, Burt Reynolds was supposed to play the Nicholson part. But he wouldn’t take off his toupee, and he wouldn’t put on any weight. He wanted to keep exercising so he looked thin. It was a vanity question,” MacLaine says.

Now, MacLaine is internationally recognized as Martha Levinson, Elizabeth McGovern’s TV mother in Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is such a hit among discerning people, people who don’t remember what I did in the old days. They want to know, ‘What did she do? What is her résumé?’ ” MacLaine says. “I think that show is basically being catered to, with the expert help of [creator] Julian Fellowes, to the Internet generation — which is, we can do 17 characters but we only have to spend 15 seconds with each one.”

MacLaine’s newest theatrical film, Elsa & Fred co-starring Christopher Plummer, will be shown Friday night at the Miami International Film Festival. The Olympia Theater screening is sold out.

“It’s a love story about older people. I am very interested in the fact that you can awaken that spark of trusting someone, being in love with someone when the guy is 80 and she is middle-70s,” she says.

Will younger audiences find Elsa & Fred appealing? “I don’t know,” says MacLaine, who will turn 80 on April 24. “But it certainly was to me.”

STEVE ROTHAUS

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