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 Robbins’ The 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 leave New York, move to Hollywood and co-star opposite John Forsythe in the director’s comedic mystery, The Trouble With Harry. “[Pajama Game producer] Hal Prince and company told me, ‘Oh God, don’t go. You’ll get lost. You’ve got to dance in the chorus of more shows, get more experience.’ That’s what they told me. I didn’t listen to them. Frankly, I liked Hitchcock. I thought it was funny,” MacLaine says. “I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know the first thing about it. I wanted to experience California and this new thing called acting. I had been dancing since I was 3. I was really ready for something new. I’ve always been ready. That’s why I traveled so much. And got myself caught in coup d’états and revolutions.”
After The Trouble With Harry, MacLaine appeared with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models, then co-starred in Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. “He had full control over friggin’ nature,” MacLaine says of Todd, whose death in a 1958 plane crash widowed Elizabeth Taylor. “Whenever we would go out and decide to shoot somewhere, he was controlling the sun, it seemed to me.”