The Times Saturday Magazine – November 5 2005
Ginny Dougary

From honorary Rat Packer to early-adopting New Ager, Shirley MacLaine has always been an unconventional broad. In a wonderfully frank interview, she talks to Ginny Dougary about politics, sex, and brother Warren Beatty.

Shirley MacLaine is holding court on a Malibu cliff-top terrace with plunging views of the ocean far below. It is she who has picked this restaurant location – principally because of its proximity to one of her homes, and something about the setting, as well as her untrammelled personality, lends a certain cheerful anarchy to the proceedings.

She has the most penetrating stare, which could intimidate the faint-hearted – for whom she would have no time anyway. MacLaine, herself, is lion-hearted… always steering her own path, way ahead of the rest of us, or in a league of her own: a civil-rights agitator before the great swell of the civil-rights movement (she risked being lynched when she attempted to check into a motel in Mississippi with her black friends); the only female who hung out as a buddy rather than a broad with Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Mafia boss Sam Giancana; an unconventional, long-distance marriage (her late husband, Steve Parker, lived in Tokyo with their daughter, Sachi); she was open about her affairs with spoken-for men – Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand, whom she shared with Marilyn Monroe, Danny Kaye – which, if she were anyone else, would surely have played awkwardly in hypocritical Hollywood; a Democrat campaigner, along with her brother, Warren Beatty, for George McGovern – if he had won, she would have considered going into politics herself; an intrepid solo traveller; an early and abiding New Ager, before the term was invented, who has been mocked for her beliefs in reincarnation, UFOs and other such other-worldy stuff.

To explain her directness at one point in our interview – in something which comes suspiciously close to an apology – MacLaine excuses herself on the grounds that she is old enough now to speak her mind with impunity. A wearer of purple from way back, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of her ever feeling constrained by convention or the need to bite her tongue. She has always appeared younger than her age, and that hasn’t changed. It’s something to do with the curiosity in those startling blue eyes with their spiky lashes, her freckles, “Oh, I’ve always hated them; still do. They used to call me Freckle Face”; the quick turn-of-phrase; the slightly teenage counter-culture bolshiness.

Today, as she moves between tables of expectant journalists, she still has the gait of a dancer. At the end of our rumbustious one-on-one, I ask her to give me a flash of her famous legs. “They’re very white,” she says, and then grabs the hem of her loose trousers to roll them up… and up and up. They are ridiculous, I exclaim. Very slim, seemingly never-ending, taut almost to the very top, not a trace of cellulite or blemishes of any kind. My God, you’re 71! “That’s why I don’t mind telling anyone my age,” she says. “Mind! I love it.” In this spirit of mutual Shirley-worship, she also confesses that she doesn’t have to wear a bra: “I hate wearing a bra.” Didn’t you breastfeed? “Yeah, but she didn’t eat much! Ha ha ha.”

In her new film, In Her Shoes, MacLaine is the grandmother to two motherless and very different sisters (Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz) and plays a pivotal role in patching up and explaining the various estranged relationships. It is an unusually quiet performance for MacLaine – rather English in its reserve – of guilt, subdued regretfulness and long-buried emotion that gradually comes to the fore. It has no trace of the “bombastic serenity” – the apt phrase MacLaine has coined to describe her relationship with the world. As a senior care worker in a Florida residential home, her character – who dresses with tasteful restraint – in no way resembles the colourful woman in front of me, with her pinky-auburn gamine haircut, cerise Indian kurta and layers of turquoise ethnic jewellery.

We decide early on that I shall call her Empress – and it really does rather suit her. She is a powerful presence with an occasionally imperious manner: “Hey! Can I have some ice-tea?” she bellows to her elderly personal publicist, Dale, at one point, and then to the film’s publicist, Hilary. “I asked for some ice-tea. I don’t know where it is! Maybe they went to Starbucks to get it!” But she is also an absolute trouper; submitting to hour after hour of interviews, eating lobster and mussels as she speaks, with no break or discernible outbreak of ill humour.

The director of the new film, Curtis Hanson, wanted no wigs (MacLaine’s hair is thinning at the back) and no make-up, even for the close-ups – and MacLaine admits that was daunting at her age. I liked her performance, particularly for its quality of watchful distance, so subtle you find yourself sharing the character’s apprehension about opening herself up to the pain of feeling again. I’m not all that surprised to hear the actress say that she found motherhood tough; Sachi was only five when she went to Tokyo to live with her father. “It’s very hard, but I gave up the guilt,” MacLaine says.

And then a second later: “I beat myself up still.” I wonder to myself if she drew on these feelings for her role as Ella, who holds herself responsible for her daughter’s death. But she says that playing the part made her understand her own mother better: “Because she was so contained. She was Canadian, you see, so she never told you what she was frigging thinking.” Oh, I didn’t know that’s what Canadians were known for.

“I’m serious,” she says. “They live in snow. They don’t talk.” Sounds more like the English. “No, the English are more perverted. Ha ha ha. You know exactly what you’re dealing with. With Canadians you never know what you’re dealing with.”

Did MacLaine feel that she missed out on her daughter growing up? “Yes… and so did she.” Was she cross and resentful? “Little bit. Little bit. But now she’s learning, because she’s got two kids – a boy and a girl, nine and seven, and she’s seeing you can’t do anything right. She’s a little over-attentive.” MacLaine leans over to pick up an enormous wide-brimmed hat decorated with antique roses, to protect her pale face from the Californian sun.

“I look like a bag lady now,” she snorts when I compliment her on it. So does she enjoy being a grandmother? “Of course, because I can spoil them and I can say ‘You really shouldn’t do that’ or whatever and send them back to their parents in Connecticut… Oh, it’s totally liberating. And I also like being an aunty. Although everyone thinks I’m their grandmother anyway,” she grimaces.

There have been periods of estrangement between MacLaine and her younger brother. My guess is that there may have been an element of professional competition. MacLaine’s longterm ex-beau, the writer and journalist Pete Hamill, who left her for Jackie Kennedy, was uncomfortable with MacLaine’s attachment to the mystical – and I would imagine that Beatty, who is still very much concerned with the inequities in this world, would be in the same camp. And MacLaine, despite her own sexual adventurousness, was probably uncomfortable with her kid bro’s conquesting reputation.

When I ask her how they’re getting on these days, she says: “Look, I understand the workings of a family better now – brothers and sisters, sisters and sisters – I mean, come on. We’re in a very good and cordial period now… I don’t know how long it will last but we’re there now.” Is it stretching it to find anything about the difficulties between the two sisters in the new film which might correspond to the history between her and her brother? “Oh, I think there can be sibling rivalry between brothers and sisters. I was always watching the way he treated women.”

Aha, and…? “I think he was interested in women because of mother, you know; he could never hear her. Therefore, I think he’s very good with women and understands women. Maybe he didn’t have to understand as many as he did…” her voice goes up. Do you think he has a strong feminine side? “Oh, very. He does, but I think he was searching for what a woman means and needs and loves and hates and wants and is afraid of.”

I say that I had spoken to him at some length on the telephone a few years ago, in an attempt to persuade him to be interviewed. We talked about politics, mainly, but what was alluring about him, compared to most actors I’ve encountered, was his informed interest in the world about him. “He’d have loved to get you into bed,” is her bizarre response. Oh! “Are you kiddin’ me or what?” she squawks. Well, gosh, you know, I feel sort of insulted and embarrassed, and also rather flattered. “You see, he knows that he has that appeal which overcomes the sensibility that you know that he has, and it makes you forget that you know he’s doing that to you.” Hmm. How complicated. Moving on swiftly… What do you think of our new English national treasure, Madonna? “I’d like to bronze that horse.”

I take it you were not all that thrilled when your brother and she became an item? I think you said something quite rude at the time? (Asked how she would feel about having the singer as a sister-in-law, MacLaine’s response was that it would be as easy for her “as it would be for me to nail a custard pie to the wall”.) “I said it would be like hanging bubbles on a clothes line, or pissing up a rope,” she says, in case one were in any doubt about her feelings.
MacLaine is still sufficiently concerned with this life – I feared that she had completely retreated from the here and now – to care about who is holding the reins of power. I wondered whether she was still friends with Julie Christie, a famous Beatty ex, who shows no signs of political apathy. “I liked her a lot. I thought he should have married her.” Do you approve of this one? (Annette Bening.) “Love her. She’s smart; she wants to be a mother; she certainly is a brilliant actress, but if the roles don’t come along – that’s all right, too. I was just over there last night. We had a wonderful time.” I ask her whether she will intercede on my behalf to secure that interview with her brother. “I’ll do it on one condition,” she says sternly. What? (I’m thinking: copy control; I have to become a Buddhist…) A very big pause and then: “You have to go to bed with him.” Hysterical laughter on both our parts. What is she like?

It is as well to mention, perhaps, that neither MacLaine nor I have been drinking. So this drift towards bawdiness – at poor Warren’s expense – is merely his sister’s idea of natural ebullience and fun. The only occasion I have come across such ribald behaviour, in this context, was with another great celluloid diva: Elizabeth Taylor, who was equally outspoken and shameless. They make the present crop of female megastars seem colourless in comparison.

I tell MacLaine that I had been warned that she would be on her toes and quick with the verbal come-back: a legacy of her upbringing. “Nooooh,” she says. Her parents, Ira and Kathleen – the name of Warren’s oldest daughter – Beaty, had a long but difficult marriage. MacLaine once described it as a partnership of “blended neuroses”. Her childhood home was full of “disappointment and longings”. She has also compared her parents to the drunk academics in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. Now she says: “They weren’t that bad and therefore not that funny.” Her father was a bad enough “cyclical” drunk – to make her wary of getting involved with any man with similar tendencies. Which is interesting, since the only man who seems to have dented her heart – Robert Mitchum – always conveyed the impression of being over-attached to the bottle.

She was born in Virginia, a southern gal but not a belle – which meant that she was never burdened with the anguish of losing her looks. One of the many astute comments MacLaine has made about herself was this: “See, I wasn’t afraid of getting old, because I was never a great beauty. I was never a sex symbol. I did, however, have great legs because I was a dancer. But I didn’t have that baggage. I wasn’t interested in my stature as a star. Ever. I was just interested in great parts.”

MacLaine adopted her mother’s maiden name when she became frustrated by a director who seemed unable to pronounce her surname correctly (Bait-y not Beat-y). Warren merely chose to embellish the family name with an extra “t”. The two siblings could not look more disimilar; it must have been vexing, I think, to have a brother who was considered prettier than yourself. MacLaine says that she’s not even sure that she is the offspring of her parents. You think you were adopted? “I always felt I was so different from anyone in this family.” Different from anyone, full stop, I say… and she laughs.

There seems to have been a rapprochement between parents and daughter in later life which was partly to do with their shared interest in the unknown. “My mother’s metaphysics had to do with nature: her rose garden, for example. ‘I understand reincarnation,’ she would say, ‘because the rose’s stem is the soul which has a different rose every spring’. Dad was a serious metaphysician – which he never told anybody. His best buddy died in the Second World War, and at the moment of being shot, appeared at the bottom of my dad’s bed. And he told me about one night when he was drunk and crashed the car and had an out-of-body experience. ‘So,’ he said, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’”

For those of us who remain sceptical about the beyond, it would seem more constructive for MacLaine to apply her considerable energy to addressing the problems coming out of America. Does she actually feel American? “Oh, yeah, but an American that is the result of the founding fathers’ wish. I’m very ashamed of being in this country and of what we’re doing.” Of the war specifically? “Our imperialistic attitudes, our desecration of the environment, the whole Christian crusading that the Bush administration is doing, the marketing economy… it’s a freakin’ disaster!”

So why not re-enter the political fray? (Her brother has been reported to be considering taking on Arnie.) “No, I’ll sit back and…” But why sit back? “Politics are not what it is about now. What it’s about now is really what I’ve been writing about and thinking about for most of my life. Who are we? Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What is God? We might have an apocalypse with everyone involved and armies killing each other over God.”

Has MacLaine ever fooled herself about herself? “Yeah, now this is interesting… I fooled myself that the country would wake up to Richard Nixon. I fooled myself that we would see that in the name of, quote, ‘Democracy in the Arab world’, we’re losing it at home. I thought we would be more aware than that, and we’re not. I fooled myself for a while that people would understand the nature of my metaphysics. It is now mainstream but I thought they would be ready for it sooner.”

Mainstream? Well, only up to a point. My partiality to MacLaine – an admirer of her talent, sassiness, and courage in forging her own way – meant I found myself editing out the parts of her that alienated me. From kooky to cuckoo, after all, is but a short UFO-mystic hop. I had not read her copious volumes of spiritual travels and tried to brush over the outlandish musings on her past lives: as Charlemagne’s mistress; an orphan brought up by elephants; Nefertiti’s handmaiden; a model for Toulouse-Lautrec. I was doing pretty well, but then I came to the most recent cutting in her many files and my heart sank: four pages in Hello! publicising a new book, Out on a Leash, Exploring Reality and Love, which she has “co-written” with her dog, Terry. Shirley, I read, has Terry the terrier “sign” documents for herself, and says that she talks with the dog in a “purer, more direct form of language”, which she calls “Humanimal”.

She lives alone in her main home in Santa Fe and I had been asking her, as she has become older, whether she finds herself becoming increasingly reclusive or more reliant on friendship. “I’m a phoney recluse,” MacLaine says. “Because I like being alone. My idea of being really alone – no, of being lone-ly – is never to be alone. I love my own company. How I would feel now about my own company without Terry, my dog, is another question.

“But she and I have an arrangement that when she goes, in about ten years, she’s going to come back right away again. So I will wait until I’m drawn to the right puppy. I know more about the meaning of love with her – this is important what I’m saying now – nature and animals have taught me more about love than people.”

One might be tempted to say this sounds barking – ho ho – but MacLaine is in full Empress flow and not in the mood for jests. I say, instead, that it’s quite common for older people living on their own – particularly women – to form extremely strong attachments to their pets. “I’ve noticed that, too, and I do feel very much in the ranks of older women who have their pets,” she concedes. “But maybe it’s because we are really searching for the definition of love. We know that what we’ve experienced before comes and goes – came and went. The child thing is another thing, of course, that’s love – in that you can’t help but love, but you’re always worried about whether you’re doing the right thing.” And so we keep circling back to this niggle of long-gone decisions returning to haunt MacLaine in some way.

I wonder whether she had worries at the time about sending her daughter off to Japan, or did she close them down? “No, Steve and I had arguments,” she says. But there had been kidnap threats and a drunk nanny sleeping with her boyfriend, while Sachi was left sitting outside on the doorstep, and MacLaine was concerned about the general perils of Hollywood life and, in any case, her husband – a dancer turned director turned producer – did not want to stay in a town where he was known as Mr MacLaine.

The couple finally divorced in 1987 after 27 years of marriage. MacLaine’s father had died the previous year and I wondered whether this had been the catalyst. “Oh no, it was because I found out that Steve had been stealing all my money,” she says. The marriage had been amicable till then; more of a long-distance friendship than a partnership. “Yes, that’s right. He had his affairs and I had mine. But take my money and you’re outta here! I’m far too Scotch for that. Ha ha ha.” When Parker died in 2001, MacLaine did not attend the funeral: “He didn’t want me there.”
Passion doesn’t feature in her life any more: “I think it’s the ageing process and also wisdom.” She says that she feels completely peaceful, and happier than she’s ever been. “I have zero stress. All that over-achieving has been transformed into not planning,” she says. “It’s daunting but you should try it.” Instead of going to swanky dinner parties, with place settings and fabulous wine – and where it’s all over in three hours – she prefers to have her friends stay with her for three days in Santa Fe, where they go hiking and riding, feed the chickens and talk. She says that, although she doesn’t like to socialise or go to parties, when she does go, she’s always the last to leave.

So you like to drink martinis and kick up your legs? Oooh, what kind of look is that you’re giving me? “What does having a martini and kicking up your legs mean?” I suppose it’s shorthand for asking you whether you turn into the life and soul of the party. “No. I’m over in a corner talking deeply with someone who no one else is talking to.” Did you object to the suggestion you drink, or the idea that you kick up your legs? “I just thought it was a stupid question.” Oh. “I thought it was a clichéd question.” Oh. “I hate cliché. Hate it. But I have to get over this because now everyone is speaking in cliché.”

I wonder whether, perhaps, MacLaine has turned into one of the Californian New Puritans. But she only stopped smoking last December, and she still wants a cigarette every day. Pot wasn’t for her because, like the ex-Pres, she never inhaled. And now, since her hiatus hernia, drinking’s pretty much out, too. How very boring for you. Yes, particularly since she loves a good martini, she says, especially a Dirty Gibson. This is an evil-sounding concoction: gin (it has to be Tanqueray), a tablespoon of onion juice and a great big pickled onion. “I’ll go make one for you because I make really good ones,” she says. Lovely, I say, but possibly not quite yet. (It’s 11.30 in the morning.)

A few questions on and MacLaine is fretting that she spoke too harshly to me. “You know, I had a pang of guilt when I said that was a stupid question. In my head, I didn’t think that out, and I am guilty over things like that. But I explained myself and it was all right. Still feel guilty.” It was a bit mean? “Mmm. I do that. With age and the right to tell the truth, and then people have their feelings hurt…” Do you mind that? “I do. It bothers me because I’m kind, but I’m also extremely direct and I can’t stand being a phoney diplomat.”

She may never have been a sex symbol, as she says, but that didn’t stop some pretty hunky men finding MacLaine sexy. When we go on to talk about romantic love, there is something about her that reminds me of her character, Ella, in the new film. For all her apparent transparency, there is also a sense of something buried or unacknowledged – which makes me wonder whether the actress really is as tough, deep-down, as she likes to make out. In her youth, and later, she considered herself to be a sexual person. There were liaisons with a number of politicians: the assassinated Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme; Australia’s urbane Andrew Peacock, twice leader of the conservative opposition – are you still friends? “Oh, yes!”; a British Labour MP who remains anonymous. Were you attracted to their brains or their position? “I was probably slumming in power,” she says. There were also a couple of truck drivers whom she found sexy, she would like to point out, possibly in the interests of egalitarianism, “but only for one-night-stands”.

Now, she says: “It wasn’t really about sex. Never is. It never really is. What is sexual attraction anyway? When you think about it, it’s not about sex, it’s not about f******, it’s not about how big it is or anything like that. It’s about the person inside that body. It’s to do with a certain energy and values and sense of humour. And I was always attracted to a man who was basically a mystery to himself, because that kept my interest and gave me something to do.”

Were you ever romantic? “Basically not. I understand that romance will kill a relationship.” Did you ever have your heart broken? “No, but there were some periods with Robert Mitchum [they had a three-year affair] where I just wanted to kill him… does that mean I had my heart broken?” she seems to be asking herself. “No, I’d kill a man before he broke my heart.” How did you manage to insulate your heart and still be an open person? “I didn’t insulate it. But…” Then I believe you must have had your heart broken. “But I don’t see myself as a victim. I turned being hurt into action: ‘What did you do this for? Why? What is on your mind? Let’s talk.’ Yes, I am a good communicator.”

You’ve written about flying halfway around the world to meet your lover in hotels. “And he wouldn’t be there.” So what on earth did you do? “Ask myself, ‘What am I doing this for?’ See, I was fascinated by how weak he was… this big guy. I couldn’t stay away from investigating the passivity.” I liked that beatniky phrase about Mitchum having the soul of a poet; a poet with an axe. “That was his description of himself,” she says. “I think he was lying about the axe.”

Our time is up, but MacLaine is damned if she’s not going to show off her martini-making skills, which throws Hilary the film publicist into a state of some alarm. I follow the Empress, tape recorder in hand, and watch her create havoc in the restaurant. The young staff are so far from being obsequious that their attitude is almost rude. MacLaine rolls her eyes but carries on indomitably till she has mixed me her Dirty Gibson. Oh God, I gasp, reeling from the neat alcohol, perhaps it needs a bit more onion juice. “Ha ha ha… this girl is really Dirty!” she says.

I mention Elizabeth Taylor whom I interviewed in Beverly Hills where I also interviewed Madonna, and say how much more gracious one was than the other. “Why would you even mention them in the same breath?” she asks. “Did he screw them both?” Screw? Who? What? Him? Your brother? “Did he do Elizabeth? I don’t know. I think he tried to on that picture in Paris.” Well, honestly! What is Shirley MacLaine like? I think the answer has to be: like no other.

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