Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

In Shirley MacLaine's New Movie, She Has 'The Last Word'


The movie "The Last Word" opens with a series of photographs. We see a baby then a little redheaded girl becoming an ingenue and, ultimately, a sprightly woman in her 80s. These are all pictures of Shirley MacLaine. She plays a character obsessed with designing her obituary.


SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (As Harriet) These are obituaries from newspapers all over the country. I want you to read them and see what other obituary writers are doing.

AMANDA SEYFRIED: (As Anne) Wow. I'm sorry you don't like what I wrote, but that's that was just me reading about your life.

MACLAINE: (As Harriet) My life is not over yet.

SHAPIRO: So when this grande dame of Hollywood came into our studios, I had to ask, where do you want your obituary to begin?

MACLAINE: Probably, The New York Times (laughter).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Front page, lead story.

MACLAINE: Well, I don't know. What would mine say? I don't know.

SHAPIRO: Shirley MacLaine told me when she does live question and answer events at theaters around the country, people almost never want to know about her Hollywood roles.

MACLAINE: No. They ask about reincarnation and UFOs and how to find one's center and how to meditate. It's all about the stuff in my books.

SHAPIRO: How could they not ask about - I don't know - "Terms Of Endearment," "Steel Magnolias," your years with the Rat Pack or on and on and on - "Sweet Charity," going all the way back to Broadway.

MACLAINE: Ari, can I call you that?

SHAPIRO: Please.

MACLAINE: They're interested in themselves. And they come to the different places that I speak to learn about themselves not me. I consider that a great compliment.

SHAPIRO: It's funny. I read an article about this movie that described this as your first major film role since last year. (Laughter) And I just thought, you know, a lot of actors in their 30s and 40s are not making a movie every year. You are 82 and easily could have retired long ago if you wanted to. You keep up this incredible pace.

MACLAINE: Well, I do have energy. I'm healthy. I'm having a good time. I'm too interested in everything. I could sit and watch people all day. And I remember I used to do that when Warren and I were kids.

SHAPIRO: Warren Beatty, your brother.

MACLAINE: Oh, really?

SHAPIRO: I'm just letting some listeners know who might not be informed (laughter).

MACLAINE: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So the two of you would sit and watch people? Describe this for me.

MACLAINE: Well, my dad would visit some kind of - above a store place. I never knew what it was up there. He was certainly not into drugs. We would be left in the car with mother. I'm talking for hours, it seemed. So I learned to be very observant about human behavior, body movement, rhythm, what people are thinking, feeling and expressing really early. And it's never left me.

SHAPIRO: I've read a few interviews where you said, you don't know how to act. You can't act. You don't know anything about acting.

MACLAINE: Haven't got a clue.

SHAPIRO: When I look at your just litany of awards of roles of standout films, what do you mean when you say that?

MACLAINE: Listen, really, I don't know how. I'm not interested in learning how. I like to be in the present of the idea that occurs to me. And you can't plan that. You can't make a study out of that. I'm not sure how I do it. I wish I could help people understand it, so they could do it themselves. The closest I've come to is, I have no past and no future in my thinking at that moment and just do what seems right for the character if we're talking about character.

And by the way, having a dancer's mentality, I don't want to leave anybody out. So I don't make plans that would leave out the other actors, leave out the director, leave out whoever else - the DP for goodness sakes who wants me to do some standing up because he doesn't have to move the lights, you know?

SHAPIRO: That's the director of photography, yeah.


SHAPIRO: Just letting listeners know. I know you know the term. I'm just filling listeners in (laughter).

MACLAINE: OK, Air, really? (Laughter). And so I just live in the present, basically, I guess is my answer to all that.

SHAPIRO: You referred to yourself as a dancer just then, and I know that throughout your career you've always thought of yourself as a dancer first. In real terms when you're making a film, what does that mean that you see yourself primarily as a dancer?

MACLAINE: How she moves, how she sits - physical decisions to make about her expression relating to her body.

SHAPIRO: Her meaning the character you're playing?

MACLAINE: And then the other thing is my discipline. I have a work ethic of a dancer. I'm not a diva. I try not to keep people waiting. I think my - I mean, don't do any research on this but think my extension of kept them waiting is maybe five and a half minutes.

SHAPIRO: You were about 15 minutes early for this interview.

MACLAINE: That's early. We're talking late here. And I don't do that. I can't stand thinking that people are expecting me, and they have other things to do.

SHAPIRO: So when you talk about bringing a dancer's physicality to a particular role, can you give me an example of how the physicality of one character that people might be familiar with you having played is different from another one?

MACLAINE: OK. Let's take Ginny in "Some Came Running" - one of my favorite characters by the way. She was this woman who always wanted to please Frank Sinatra - Dean Martin and them. And so she would sit with pigeon-toed kind of look.


MACLAINE: (As Ginny Moorehead) I'd do anything. Ask me.

FRANK SINATRA: (As Dave Hirsh) Would you - would you clean up the place for me?

MACLAINE: (As Ginny Moorehead) Oh, could I?

MACLAINE: My character Aurora in "Terms Of Endearment" would never sit in a pigeon-toed fashion because she's always displaying outside.

MACLAINE: (As Aurora Greenway) It's time for her shot, you understand? Do something. All she has to do is hold on until 10, and it's past 10. She's in pain. My daughter's in pain. Give her the shot, you understand me?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) You're going to behave.

MACLAINE: (Aurora Greenway) Give my daughter the shot.

MACLAINE: But every character has a kind of body swish to me because I was educated in dancing.

SHAPIRO: Your character in this film "The Last Word" is sharp-tongued, difficult to be around. One could say the same of the character you played in "Steel Magnolias" and the character you played in "Terms Of Endearment." These are some of your best-known roles. Do you think there's a pattern here?

MACLAINE: (Laughter) Yeah.


MACLAINE: I think I am myself sharped tongue. And they are written in penetratingly in that direction.

SHAPIRO: Well, we began by asking what you want your obituary to say.

MACLAINE: Ari (laughter). Why does this make me laugh? Why am I laughing? Because you think I'm going to die, and that isn't going to happen.

SHAPIRO: No because the whole film is about a woman thinking of and designing how she wants to be remembered. You spent how many months inhabiting this character who is single-mindedly obsessed over her legacy?

MACLAINE: Yeah. Well, isn't this fascinating? OK, that's what I was doing. When I am the person who doesn't believe anybody ever dies, so what's the point of writing an obituary?

SHAPIRO: And yet, you know they will be written.

MACLAINE: Sure. I could say, listen, I didn't really die, so beware. I'm watching (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Beware, she's watching - is that the first line?

MACLAINE: (Laughter) You want to make a headline here, babe. I know, but I don't.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MACLAINE: Let think about this. It's a good question. Nobody's asked me this. Let me think about it, and I'll get back to you in another life, how's that?

SHAPIRO: In another life? Shirley MacLaine, it's been an absolute joy. Thank you.

MACLAINE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE ARROWS SONG, "WE CAN'T EVER DIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.