Skip to comments.Shirley MacLaine talks about Bernie, Alfred Hitchcock, and Dean Martin
Posted on 04/27/2012 7:16:00 PM PDT by nickcarraway
The actor: Although Shirley MacLaine has only made a handful of screen appearances in the last decade and a half, shes suddenly a hot property, starring opposite Jack Black as a wealthy, spiteful widow in Richard Linklaters Bernie, and shooting The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty for Ben Stiller. Meanwhile, shes attached to half a dozen other ongoing projects. In a career stretching back almost half a century, shes worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler, garnering five Oscar nominations before winning in 1984 for Terms Of Endearment. Bernie (2011)Marjorie Nugent Shirley MacLaine: Whats it like? Ive seen it, but I think it was before the final cut.
The A.V. Club: Its charming, although that seems like an odd word to apply to a movie about homicide. It seems like a very sympathetic portrait of that community and that region.
SM: Exactly. Thats really why I did it, because I found it so interesting that these people would not believe his confession. They decided he was adorable and loveable, and thats all there is to it. And I thought, Oh, Jesus! [Laughs.] I liked that, and I liked that Richard [Linklater]s a good student of human behavior.
AVC: Your character has almost no lines for the first 20 minutes of the movie, during which she and Bernie are, so to speak, a happy couple. Its only when things turn sour that we get extended scenes between them.
SM: Well, its about what people thought of them; not so much about watching them enacted, but its what other people think. Thats what I was interested in. Its a documentary, really.
AVC: People say things about your character like, There are people who wouldve shot her for $5, and Her nose was so high, shed drown in a rainstorm. Did you feel that you needed to see a more sympathetic side of her, even if no one else did?
SM: I like making evil, bitchy people funny. I love that. Fun. I met the real Berniewell, I talked to him on the phone from prisonand he was as adorable as Jack portrays him.
AVC: Did you talk to him about your character? SM: Oh yeah. They really were meant for each other, for a time, but she got very colonialist about him, colonized his spirit. He couldnt take it.
AVC: She was generous with her money, but also made him dependent on it, and didnt like him to spend time with other people, so he became increasingly isolated. Its almost like the way an abusive husband behaves.
SM: Yeah, but in this case, what was interesting to me was the role of money and wealth. She thought, This is the power I exude over him, and hes gonna obey me, and whoaI thought that was interesting.
AVC: Does the fact that her wealth plays such a key role make this seem like an especially timely story to you? SM: Well, yeah, because thats what makes the world go round right now. Thats whats wrong with us. East Carthage [Texas], and the whole personage of Bernie was like a microcosm of money and power in the world. AVC: This isnt something the movie brings to the fore, but when the people of East Carthage talk about how generous Bernie was, theyre often talking about things he bought with Marjorie Nugents money.
SM: He was doing the same thing: He was buying their adoration.
Downton Abbey (2012)Martha Levinson
AVC: The upstairs-downstairs dynamic is central to the show. I gather you cant say much other than that youre playing Elizabeth McGoverns mother, but you have said that your character brings in more of an American perspective in terms of wanting to sweep aside the past, in terms of tradition and social class.
SM: She does talk to them about change, but for me, what was interesting was, How does class fit into your life, day by day? I had it just in wearing the authentic clothes. Theres no way a woman in that time could have gotten dressed without a servant or two. There was no way to zip her up or button her up, or do all those little nooks and crannies that were part of the wardrobe. And the hair. [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you stay in touch with a sense of how class affects peoples lives? Its easy for someone in your position to insulate themselves.
SM: Oh, I live pretty simply. I dont have an assistant. I make a lot of people around me my slaves, but no assistant.
Some Came Running (1958)Ginnie Moorehead
AVC: Youve said Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin did not get along with director Vincente Minnelli.
SM: Oh, they couldnt stand him. He didnt direct actors, he directed scenery. That might be one reason. But they thought he was a walking pansy.
AVC: How did you get along with him?
SM: Oh, I loved Vincente. I loved him, but Im different than Frank and Dean. The night we were shooting outside in the carnivalremember the last scene in the movie? There was this huge Ferris wheel, and it had been lit and prepared, and everything was ready. And Vincente went over and looked through the lens, and instead of saying, Move the camera, he said, Move the Ferris wheel. Thats when Dean and Frank got on a plane and went back home. They thought that was so friggin ridiculous, and they were right!
AVC: One of the things that makes the movie work is that theres a tension between the elaborate design, right down to the powder-blue adding machine, and the easy naturalism of the acting.
SM: Oh, but see, thats what I mean. Vincente directed props and scenery and colors and drapes and carpets. He loved directing scenery.
AVC: Was the flip side of his attention to décor that the actors were left to their own devices?
SM: Well, I thought it was very interesting. He didnt say a word to me on the whole movie. He was busy directing whatever the drape was over my head. And I dont know whether Dean and Frankthey just didnt like a director who did that.
AVC: The backroom poker scene is a classic. When Dean Martin doubles the bet150 and 150you know what and is?
SM: [Laughs.] I think he probably made that up, to tell you the truth, because that was perfect casting for Dean. And thats what Dean and Frank and all of us used to sit around doing anyway, playing cards.
AVC: That was the set where you learned to play gin rummy?
SM: Yeah, basically. [Mob boss] Sam Giancana was staying at the house that Dean and Frank were in. The mob taught me how to play gin rummy. [Laughs.]
The Trouble With Harry (1955)Jennifer Rogers
AVC: Spending more time with the set than the actors is something people have accused Alfred Hitchcock of as well. How did he compare with Minnelli, in your experience?
SM: Thats true. Hitch said very little to actors too. Thats true. But of course, there is usually a murder involved or something, which would appeal to a masculine stars nature. [Laughs.]
AVC: That was your first film. It must have been quite an introduction to the business.
SM: He would direct me, and everyone, with Cockney phrases. For example, his first words to me on the set, the first day, were [English accent] Genuine chopper, old girl. Genuine chopper. I didnt know what the hell that was, and I asked Johnny Forsythe, and he said, Look, just think of two synonyms that match genuine and chopper. And so I did: I came up with real for genuine and axe for chopper. So what does that mean? Relax! And thats the way he directed. I got a little bit, Oh my God, what am I into here? The great Hitchcock. What if I dont figure this out? I dont know what he means. So he activated your sense of mystery, but he could be cruel. Not to me, really. He insisted that I eat with him, every meal. I gained about 20 pounds on that movie. I mean, there was a moment when the head of Paramount called me and said I was sabotaging my new career, because they couldnt even match me from one scene to another. I looked like a different person. [Laughs.]
AVC: That was a before he fell into his love of icy blondes onscreen.
SM: Oh, no, no. He was always into icy blondes and all that; I just wasnt the type. So I was the little girl he would feed or something. Im not sure what I was to him.
Artists And Models (1955)Bessie Sparrowbrush AVC: Frank Tashlin, who you worked with right after Hitchcock, was another great stylist.
SM: Oh, he was terrific, wasnt he? He was really good. My God, you go back a long way. Whew! He was able to deal with Dean and Jerry [Lewis], because they were having a terrible time.
AVC: How did he deal with them? By keeping them apart? SM: No, by doing it Jerrys way. [Laughs.]
AVC: It worked out that way for Jerry in the long run. SM: Yeah, and thats what Dean walked away from.
AVC: Jerry Lewis wanted to be the total filmmaker.
SM: Yeah, he needed to be the director. He needed to be the one whose word was law. So instead of an equal, comedic standup act, it was now Jerry finding his way into directing.
AVC: It seems fitting that he invented video assist. SM: Did he do that? Maybe youre right. Maybe thats when video village got invented. I didnt know that. That makes a lot of sense.
AVC: For him it did, because it allowed him to play his own performance back on the set.
SM: Thats right, but then it adds such time to the schedule, because you always want to do it again and make it your way, or better, or whatever.
The Apartment (1960)Fran Kubelik
Irma La Douce (1963)Irma La Douce
AVC: The Apartment is highly esteemed; Irma La Douce is a little overlooked by comparison.
SM: Yeah, well, Irma shouldve been a musical. It was a big hit as a musical on Broadway and in France. I think Billy [Wilder] was intimidated by the music. He didnt know what to do with music, so he cut it out.
AVC: Was it different working with him on Irma La Douce than on The Apartment? Irma is a much more stylized movie, where The Apartment is more intimate and black and white.
SM: It was different because on The Apartment, we only had 29 pages of script, and what he did was wait to see how the relationship and the chemistry and all that between Jack and me would develop, and then he wrote it accordingly. Actually, he put the gin scene in, where we were playing cards, because he knew I was playing gin with Dean and Frank all the time. And then in Irma, it was a much more peopled picture. Many more people, much more stylization. I think it was the same DP [Joseph LaShelle] too, the same crew.
Postcards From The Edge (1990)Doris Mann
AVC: Carrie Fisher based your character on her mother, Debbie Reynolds, whom you know. Did you put your knowledge of her into the performance, or steer clear of that?
SM: I didnt think about her at all. I just did it like it wouldve been me. And, of course, Meryl [Streep] was nothing like Carrie. So we just did it as though it were a piece of art from the book that she wrote.
AVC: Youve had periods where youve acted more and acted less, but youve never really gone out of style in the way the character in the movie has. Did you ever think that might have been you?
SM: Me? No, Im not ditzy like that character. [Laughs.] Although sometimes people call me that because I believe Ive lived before, but ditzy, Im not. I dont think you go out of style when youre living in the present most of the time. And I think that is what I do.
AVC: You seem to be suddenly attached to a lot of projects.
SM: Oh, isnt that the truth? 2012 is my year. I dont know what thats about.
AVC: Is that just a coincidence? Did you decide, I want to do more this year, or did it just happen?
SM: No, what happenedI dont believe in coincidence. I think we plan everything, somehow, on another level. So I think 2012 makes sense because of all my beliefs that 2012 would be a really wonderful, good year for me. Just like 1984 was.
Terms Of Endearment (1983)Aurora Greenway
AVC: Speaking of which, Terms Of Endearment was a huge movie at the time, and it still affects people profoundly.
SM: Sure, of course. I think it was an honestagain, an honest mother-daughter relationship. I read the book, and its quite different than what Jim [Brooks] wrote, but he was so brilliant in terms of his interpretation and evaluation of mothers and daughters. I knew as soon as I read it [that] it was going to be important. I told him that. And we didnt get the money for it for two years.
The Evening Star (1996)Aurora Greenway
AVC: When you got the chance to revisit the character later, were you skeptical about it, or did that seem like something you wanted to do right away?
SM: Oh yeah, anything Aurora Greenway did, I would want to do, even now. I love that character.
Being There (1979)Eve Rand
SM: We used to say Peter Sellers had a leaking aura, and all of the lifetimes he had ever lived were accessible to him at any time. And so he was never really sure who he was now, be cause he was all of them. He was an extraordinary actor.
Although Irma la Douce (1963), was great.
How very Liberal of her!
How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze . . .
Who knew she was still alive?
A very cute dingbat.
The very best...............
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