Freda Cooper talks to the legend that is Shirley MacLaine about her latest film, The Last Word…
It’s not often you get a phone call from a Hollywood legend. The line from Santa Fe crackles, there’s a time delay but there’s no mistaking the voice of Shirley MacLaine and, even though she’s just had flu, she dismisses it as having been “over in five days.” Which is pretty good going for flu.
At 83 years of age, she shows no signs of slowing down. Nor does Harriet, her character in her latest film, The Last Word, a successful, retired businesswoman who commissions a journalist to write her obituary in advance. Harriet, to put it mildly, is fearless, unafraid to try anything new. But MacLaine’s not so sure she’d describe herself in the same way. “People have often asked me what I am afraid of and I would say lightening – and some audiences. There’s nothing like a conglomeration of human beings in an audience that don’t like what you’re doing or adore what you’re doing. And I don’t think there’s any better teacher than a big human audience to teach you that fear. I love English audiences – there’s nothing like them. Because they allow me to be quite bawdy – in fact, not allow, they demand it! I learned a lot about what I was capable of from the English.”
She admits to having given serious thought to her own obituary. “Maybe just one line. You think I’m dead?” That is, though, a joke.
MacLaine was bowled over by the character of Harriet. “I loved the way she perceived the role of women: remember, she was born in the 30s and so was I, so I identified with what it took to be born in that time and to come to your maturity at a time when there was no such thing as feminism or women’s liberation. I remember asking my mother once what are girls are supposed to be like and she said they’re supposed to wear bows in their hair and wear a nice dress and be polite.”
Did she try to live up to that? “What do you think?” That question was my joke – and it gets the full-throated MacLaine laugh.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, she’s not playing supporting roles or cameos, but still concentrating on leading roles. There’s a reason for that. “If you try to cast me in a movie in a cameo role or a supporting one, I guess my character is so strong that it has to be a leading character!” And she doesn’t see things changing on that front. “I’m going to stay healthy and be the representative of what I call an underserved demographic, and that’s people over 70. Or maybe over 65. And I want to play those roles so that I can represent the senior citizen, because those questions of loneliness, isolation, and disability haven’t really been examined. And little by little, as I get older, I’m noticing how, in the USA, not so much in Europe, it’s such a youth oriented civilisation. If you’re of a certain age, you really are invisible. And that is not a good idea.”
And she doesn’t rule out an appearance in a super-hero movie, like so many of her male counterparts. “I guess if they paid me great amounts of money, I might do it!” After the success of Wonder Woman, who knows? – although when we spoke, she hadn’t seen it as yet. But she’s looking forward to “experiencing the whole socio-political meaning of it.” She thinks what Patty Jenkins has done is “just brilliant.”
Shirley MacLaine as an older super-hero – or, as she prefers, “super-heroine.” Why not?
The Last Word is released on Friday, 7 July. Read our review here.