by Patricia Grandjean
Mar 22, 2012
10:39 AMBox Office
Q&A Web Exclusive: Shirley MacLaine
If you had a month to interview Shirley MacLaine, you'd still only scratch the surface of her life and philosophies. So, imagine how frustrating this half-hour Christmastime interview was for me. There is a way to get more information: attend her one-woman show, "A Conversation with Shirley MacLaine," at 8 p.m. on March 24 at Torrington's Warner Theatre. For info and tickets, call (860) 489-7180 or visit warnertheatre.org.
How are you today?
I'm snowed in—I can't get up my driveway. It's quite interesting.
Where are you living these days?
Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I'd imagine most people wouldn't expect you to have such weather.
People don't get it; it's time they wake up. Because this is quite a diverse state. It's the high desert, just beautiful. I moved here 20 years ago. But it does seem like all the weather that should be in Connecticut is here now.
And in Connecticut, we had that weather back in October, before we were supposed to.
What do you think is going on?
I believe it's global warming. But obviously, we haven't all been given the information and understanding needed to convince us that's truly happening.
Because there's a lot invested in keeping us from knowing these things?
It's just amazing that in a democratic, free society, we're not being told enough about what's going on. What do you do with those feelings that there must be some kind of conspiracy going on?
Good question. In my immediate circle I rant and rail, in the larger community, very little. What is your take, by the way, on Occupy Wall Street?
I think they know that something we can't even define is running us. All you can do is express your displeasure, and that's what's happening in this case. The criticism has been that they're not very organized, but neither was the Arab Spring or the American Revolution at first, for that matter. I feel the frustration whenever I go out and do live shows—oh, man, do I feel what those people are feeling, because they just step up and say it out loud.
Can you tell me more about your live show?
It's a retrospective of my whole world. It's dancing, singing, my movies, my books, everything. I have a remote control and I stop it during certain points in the show, and tell the audience what really went on behind the scenes. There might have been some perception or other that they had, but that wasn't the truth. I like to say that it's an evening about the truth. And then, when that part of the show is over, I open everything up to questions from the audience. I tell them, "Anything you want to ask me, you can ask me." And that goes on for as long as I can stand up. Longer than the actual show.
People want to know about my books, about the issues we're discussing. It's rare that I get questions about show business. The audience knows That I knew everybody in that world and still do, but they're not interested in that—they're interested in what they're not being told about their daily lives.
What's the most interesting or surprising question that you've been asked?
Oh, shit, I can't remember that . . . c'mon! [laughs] "Where do humans come from"—how's that?
I always assume it's going to be like that Woody Allen line from Hannah and Her Sisters—"I just want someone to tell me how the can opener works."
[Laughs] That's true. I will tell you what I'd like to have a huge discussion about, but I don't know quite how to start it: What the electronic age is doing to the human brain and its role in the breakdown in human communication. That's why I decided to go out and do this, Patricia—to get the actual feeling of a live audience and the combined sensibility of how they are when they're together.
On a film set you're protected, and you can go back and do everything again; you're in your own wonderful world—I wouldn't call it real, but it's real for the time you're making the movie—but when I'm on the road talking to people, I just love hearing what's on their minds. Sometimes people are too shy to ask what they think is ridiculous, and I see that, too. I try to help them overcome it, because we all have to start speaking out. Maybe that's what Occupy Wall Street is doing, reminding us that we all should be asking more questions.
So maybe the reason we don't ask the questions is not that we're afraid of the answers, just afraid of admitting we really don't know what's going on?
I think one of the tricks of this electronic age is to perfect the manipulation of humiliation.
Because we're tied to these little machines. And being so tied means that no one has to see your face, the breath in between your words or the space in between your thoughts. It's just like hieroglyphics, or some damn thing, and it doesn't reveal any of you, it's just words on paper. Half the time, those words are indecipherable—it took me forever to understand what "OMG" meant.
True. There is a communication code that leaves people out.
I think they do it on purpose, like certain singers who sing so that you can barely understand a word of the lyric. I'm having trouble, not just with young people and how fast they speak—they certainly seem to speak a different language so they won't be understood—but also with older peopl who work in a fast-paced economy. I'm finding I have to tell people—maybe because I was trained this way as an actress—to slow down and enunciate. And because I'm an old eccentric they'll actually do it for five or seven minutes.
And if I go to one more restaurant and see the young people communicate with one another at dinner by texting . . . I mean, that's insane.
It does seem totally antisocial.
Absolutely right. And then the other day I went to a movie and there were a couple of teenagers sitting in front of me, watching an entirely different movie on their BlackBerry. Is that called multitasking?
[Laughs] I suppose so.
I decided I was going to buy an iPad, because I see so many people enjoying it. The staff at the store showed me how to make a phone call. I tell you, the iPad is a muder weapon if you're not careful.
Anyway, getting back to the pleasures of being in front of a live audience: You've done a great deal of both theater and film work. What about each of those experiences appeals to you?
There's nothing more satisfying to me than an audience that is silently focused. It's absolute bliss, because it means people are thinking, they're involved with waht you're saying. When I performed in Las Vegas, whenever I heard a glass tinkling with ice, I knew I was doing something wrong.
But it's harder, much more difficult, than film. You have to be in excellent shape, and if there's something bothering you, you have to compartmentalize, so that you're in that immediate moment with the audience. But it's a collective moment of expression.
On the screen, you're missing that moment. I like them both. I'm very nervous on a live stage, except when I'm myself and talking about my own thoughts—I'm not nervous at all with that. I'm nervous if I have to memorize something; if I'm behind the proscenium arch. But I'm never nervous on a movie soundstage.
What are some of the movie clips you include in your show?
Oh my God [laughs]. I've done about 65 movies; I haven't yet counted them up. I decided I'd include the ones that had been nominated or won something, because I didn't know what else to pick. And some of them are better than others. But I have a remote control that I can use to stop a clip and tell what went on during the shooting. I try to give a glimpse of the people behind the characters. Because we're all creating another reality, then putting it together and calling it a movie.
So I tell them about all that stuff and what it's like, and what the creative differences were. And how you can fall in love because you're on set with the most attractive people in the world, and it's the edict of the day that you're honest and truthful about your emotions. And we all know, in the movie business, that what happens on the set stays there. So basically, you're safe.
Is that really true though? Because these days, there's so much gossip from the press . . .
But the brilliance of that is, they tell you so much you can't believe any of it.
I've been thinking about two movies of yours I've seen recently. The first, I'm sure you've been asked about a billion times, and that's The Apartment. I always wondered what it was like to film that, because it still seems such an astute reflection of the corporate culture. But the other one I saw—which I hadn't seen since childhood—was What a Way to Go!
[Laughs] The wardrobe movie!
I know that wasn't well-received at the time . . .
But it was well-received—as a hoot. Nobody took it seriously except Edith Head. I never had a lunch hour on that movie. It was all about not eating and being thin. I did make friends with the monkey who was in the sequence with Paul Newman. That was really fun. The two of us would have breakfast, then we'd ride around on a bicycle and stuff like that.
You did have quite a string of dishy co-stars in that movie.
Well, I was having a love affair with [Robert] Mitchum at the time. Gene Kelly was a real taskmaster—at times I'd say, a "dancing fascist"—but brilliant. Dean Martin was the funniest person I'd ever met. My crush on him preceded the film; that was over. Dick van Dyke was also funny, I admired his physical humor.
Paul Newman used to saty in his trailer and was devoted to the Lee Strasberg "method." He wanted to know whether the character he was playing wore shoes when he painted. I couldn't answer that and didn't know who to direct him to, so I basically hung out with the monkey.
You worked with Jack Lemmon on a couple of occasions. I know you've said you never "crushed" on him . . .
Oh, no—he was just a great buddy and a real friend. We started The Apartment with 29 pages of script, and Billy [Wilder] used to watch our relationship and how we interrelated with each other, then he and his collaborator [I.A.L. Diamond] would write the pages for the next day. They knew that I was then learning gin rummy rather seriously from Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack, and that's why Billy wrote in the gin game we play after my character's suicide attempt.
Would it be fair to call Wilder a "directing fascist?"
Well, he used to say things like "Do that scene again and take out 10-and-a-half seconds." I don't call that fascistic. He wasn't good with women, I will tell you that—he was much more comfortable with men. He was basically from Austria. Do what you want with that. [laughs]
And of course he fled the Nazis, so mine wasn't the best analogy . . .
Exactly. That's why he left Austria, and worked his way here from South America. He was so funny, so cryptic and so cynical. The real brilliance of Wilder's films was Doane Harrison, his associate producer. Doane would walk onto the set and say very quietly, but strongly, "Billy, you did not break my heart today. You have to go back and do it again. You're too cynical, you think you're too funny." And Billy would listen to him.
Wow. Talk about a remark that cuts to the heart of why we love movies.
Absolutely. And Lemmon, in Billy's movies, was the fulcrum around which the real emotion spun. After Doane Harrison died, some of Billy's films did not do so well. He was the heart behind the throne.
Your latest book, this year's I'm Over That: And Other Confessions, is your thirteenth. Does writing become more challenging as you go along, or is it something you're increasingly comfortable with?
Writing never becomes more comfortable. It's difficult. But I like to be alone, and I like to sit in my office and do it. When I write, it's either four pages a day or four hours a day. I'm a dancer, so I discipline myself, and that's what i deliver. I've done 20 pages in four hours, and I've done half a page—it goes either way.
How does the "dancer's discipline" permeate the rest of your life?
I'm very dependable, I do what I say I'll do. I've danced en pointe with a broken ankle. I'm not a diva—I can't stand that. On the other hand, I can't stand inefficiency in other people: people who don't work as hard as they can, who are just goldbricking. I can't bear that.
You've been involved in a number of political causes over the years—I know you were active in George McGovern's presidential campaign. What do you think of our current chief executive?
[laughs] Well, I think the poor guy inherited something nobody can do anything with. It's just overwhelming, what can I say? Although the world is overwhelming, and I think we're going to have to develop a new set of values for ourselves. It's not just a matter of "what is Obama doing for the fate of America," but what about the world? I like the fact that he seems like a citizen of the world. Sometimes he seems more comfortable at the Brandenburg Gate than a Midwestern barbecue.
Definitely a change from the message of his predecessor.
Well, I don't know what his message was—I'd like to get into that DNA and study it from a metaphysical perspective.Q&A Web Exclusive: Shirley MacLaine