PARK CITY, UTAH – In addition to being a Broadway hoofer, movie director, political activist, memoirist, metaphysical free spirit and queen of the Turner Movie Classics film library, Shirley MacLaine remains one of the busiest actresses at the Hollywood dream factory. To call her artistically spry at 82 would be an understatement. Her oft-reincarnated life force seems to be having the last laugh.
With six Oscar nominations and one win to her credit, she has as many Academy Award statuettes as her kid brother, Warren Beatty. She also has a far bigger body of work, recently including a leading role as a viperish wealthy widow in Richard Linklater’s 2011 true-crime comedy “Bernie” and recurring TV roles on “Downton Abbey” and “Glee.”
She is also an irrepressible storyteller, as she demonstrated in January at the Sundance premiere of her latest film, “The Last Word,” opening Friday. She stars as Harriet, a wealthy retired businesswoman determined to control everything around her. When she decides to write her own obituary in glowing terms, a young journalist begins researching the life of this tough, exacting perfectionist, forming an unexpected, life-changing bond.
Director Mark Pellington recalled that first-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink offered him the script with one stipulation. “He said, ‘I only have one person in mind to play that person. That’s Shirley MacLaine.’ I said, ‘That’s a good choice.’ ” So did film financiers. Once she was attached to the project, it was greenlit and filmed “pretty quickly in these ways of getting movies made.”
Recalling her reaction to a curmudgeonly role in a newcomer’s script, MacLaine gave a wry shrug.
“Well, I knew there was no money in it,” she said in an acerbic tone. “I mean, I’ve been around a while. And I realize that there’s two Hollywoods. One is the tent pole Hollywood,” making special-effects blockbusters for teenage viewers. Beside it and considerably more frugal is “the Hollywood that really does try to reflect life back to itself. That’s what I loved about the script.”
“So I said yes, even though we didn’t even have lunch,” she said, sounding ever so slightly peeved.
She also felt drawn by a study of a woman her age who rose in a male-dominated business world by taking authority over every aspect of her career and private life. It was a position she knows from personal experience.
“Because being born in the ’30s, which I was, if you really wanted to do something in your life, you needed to have a control first over your own alignment,” she said, “then actually make certain that your vision was being executed by others. So I immediately identified with that character.”
Dancing to fame
MacLaine said she owes her career to having weak ankles. Her mother thought sending her to dance school would help strengthen her, so she began studying ballet at age 3. She loved the music and discipline of performing, branched out to acting and became the classic understudy-turned-star by the time she turned 19. Alfred Hitchcock discovered her onstage filling in for an injured lead and picked her to star in “The Trouble With Harry.”
She started playing kooky pixies before moving to bigger, more demanding roles. She was the token woman in the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr. Rat Pack. At a time when there was not much in the way of a feminist point of view, MacLaine’s dual role as a boys’ girl and girls’ girl gave her a singular sort of celebrity. During the golden age of Hollywood, actresses were glamorous icons of consistent cinematic characters, “wedded to the characters.”
Her film career, still going strong more than 60 years later, broadened as women began to explore and expand their identity. She won her Academy Award as a prickly, occasionally cruel widow in 1983’s “Terms of Endearment.” In the kind of complex, layered role Hollywood often ignores for women, she moved between comedy and drama with a ballerina’s energetic grace. At the time, she said, she felt so close to her character that “in principle, I won an Oscar for playing myself.”
In both art and life, MacLaine said, “Honestly I think there’s nothing more important than going inside and knowing who you are. And what you believe. And extending that out” to share with others. “Of course these days the problem is how do you do that within a kind and un-angry way. But I think it’s necessary. And that’s what I love about also what’s going on” through proceedings like January’s Women’s March on Washington, which triggered a spinoff rally in Park City the day before her new film’s Sundance debut.
While the culture is in a time of disarray, “I hope we all find this inner democracy in ourselves so that we can resolve some of these angers and chaos and problems of judgment,” MacLaine said. “Watching the march the other day I understood that the comprehension of the female and the talent embedded in each woman … is what that march was all about in relation to violence and anger and war.”
“The Last Word” also offers a vision of intergenerational solidarity. MacLaine’s cantankerous character connects with several women decades younger, often as music fans teaching one another about their favorite sounds. A natural born DJ, Harriet brings Big Band sounds from the 1940s and gems from the ’70s to an insipid local radio station.
That make-believe led to what she described as the least honest point in a film she otherwise praised as “truth-seeking.” She recalled Pellington’s excitement when he unexpectedly got approval to use the Kinks’ classic “Waterloo Sunset,” which has been covered by the likes of David Bowie, Wilco and Def Leppard. Amanda Seyfried, her co-star and executive producer, personally persuaded the rights holders to forgo the song’s standard fee, which Pellington said was more than the cash-strapped movie’s entire budget.
Unmoved, MacLaine said she didn’t understand what all the hurrahs were about: “I had never even heard of the Kinks.”