As her new film, Bernie, opens, Shirley MacLaine holds forth on men, ageing, and her ‘cougar’ crush on Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle.
Shirley MacLaine is seated in a corner of a beachfront restaurant chosen by her because she likes its coconut cake. She’s wearing a loose grey linen jacket and trousers and a lilac T-shirt. Her hair is a choppy tawny blonde. It is a cool haircut, not too far away from the pixie cut that was her signature hairdo in the Sixties. Her eyes are still piercing and her spidery long lashes are reminiscent of the way she looked in her breakthrough film, Sweet Charity. She always stood out because she never depended on traditional notions of glamour and femininity; she was forthright, open, fearless and a hard worker. None of this has changed.
We are here to talk about her rather wonderful new film Bernie, in which she plays a curmudgeonly widow having a possessive relationship with a funeral director, played by Jack Black. She also has two more films in the can – one with Ben Stiller, the other with Christopher Plummer – several others in pre-production and a book, which she is writing, called What If?. This will take its place alongside numerous other titles (Sage-ing While Age-ing, Don’t Fall Off the Mountain) in which the actress has set out her famously singular view of the universe.
“My father’s favourite expression was ‘If a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his a-- so much’,” she says. “There are lots of what ifs. So I’m asking that question over and over.” Actually, I’m not sure there have been lots of “what ifs” in MacLaine’s life. She’s too driven for that. She was discovered on Broadway in the musical Pajama Game and went on to garner four Oscar nominations – Some Came Running (1958), The Apartment (1960), Irma la Douce (1963) and The Turning Point (1977) – before winning for Terms of Endearment in 1983.
She had an open marriage with the businessman Steve Parker before anyone had really heard of such a marriage, and had affairs with many of her leading men including Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand and Danny Kaye. She had a huge crush on Dean Martin, and went to his house to tell him, but ended up having a drink with him and his wife. There were romances with world leaders like the Canadian premier Pierre Trudeau, Swedish prime minister Olof Palme and Australian foreign minister Andrew Peacock.
She never reached a certain age nor became one of Hollywood’s invisibles. Nevertheless, one might be excused for asking one “what if” of MacLaine. What if she hadn’t taken the part of Martha Levinson in Downton Abbey? Would she have quite so many films in production at the moment?
MacLaine joined the hugely successful ITV drama last year and is about to start filming the fourth series, which is due to air in the autumn. “I love doing Downton,” she replies. “I loved it from the moment I showed up on set. We were all out in the rain and the wind and everybody was acting away and so good. I have kind of a crush on Brendan [Coyle, who plays Bates]. He’s quite mysterious. You don’t really know what he’s up to.” MacLaine told Julian Fellowes, Downton’s creator, that she thought Coyle was “terrific” and he immediately arranged lunch for them.
“I think he wanted to see if there were any cougaring sparks flying,” she says, raising an eyebrow. She is nearly 80 and insists those kinds of film-set frissons are long over, but says she and Dame Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham, liked to talk about men when they were waiting around during filming of the third series.
“We don’t like to walk around much any more so we sat on the bench for hours talking about life, love and the pursuit of happiness.”
Who has had more lovers? “We didn’t get into that. We’re not competitive about anything at all. We just want good lines. I learned to say ‘What’s a weekend?’ she says in a hoity-toity voice, imitating Smith.
“I am not competitive in any way, really I’m not. Honestly, whatever happens happens.”
Suddenly she cranes her neck and points out a woman who is co-ordinated in a symphony of grey and taupe. “Look what she must have gone through to determine what goes with what.” Momentarily she is lost, mesmerised by a woman who could study so hard for an outfit.
When she was asked about her relationship with Smith, whom she has known for 40 years, during a press conference, MacLaine told the assembled journalists that they’d been lovers in a former life. “I thought it was funny,” she says. Over the years, MacLaine has claimed to have been everything from a Japanese geisha to a model for the artist Toulouse-Lautrec in her past lives. She also believes she once seduced Charlemagne, the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, and that her dog, Terry, is a reincarnation of the Egyptian god Anubis.
But, I say, I didn’t know she’d ever been a lesbian. MacLaine is happy to send herself up and has written jokes about herself for talk shows. “That wouldn’t necessarily mean that we were women lovers,” she fires back. “I could have been a man and so could she. We make too much of sex. Good God, sex has become a weapon of mass destruction.”
She orders a veggie burger but can’t decide if she wants fries or salad. She wants half of each. The waitress says that’s not allowed. MacLaine looks at her, through her. She gets both. She once said: “I don’t know what it’s like to not have what I want. But there again, I don’t want too much.”
Last time we met she was wearing a wig. It looked perfect but maybe a little hot. “Yeah, it was too much trouble. Today I put on this scarf [multicoloured – green, red purple]. I thought it would detract. What it detracts from I’m not sure. I feel, though, that I’ve given up on façade. I live in New Mexico but it’s been a bad winter and my asthma has meant that I’ve been in Malibu these past three months and I’ve worn the same workout pants every day except for this. This is for you.” I tell her in that case I’m honoured for the return of façade. “You should be,” she says, and means it.
MacLaine talks about Downton as if she’s a fan, as opposed to one of its stars. “And what about what’s-his-name who died in the last 30 seconds?” she says, referring to Matthew, played by Dan Stevens, who quit the show at the end of series three.
“Julian has either on purpose or inadvertently appealed to the time tolerance of the internet generation,” she continues. “He has got 15 or so characters and gives them two-and-a-half minutes apiece. We don’t have to get bored. We don’t have to wonder. He just cuts away.”
Does she think of her Downton character as a kindred spirit? Martha is outspoken, a liberal thinker, ahead of her time and very forward. “That sounds like a description of me, so, yes,” she says. “And she’s kind to people, she wants to help and to change, like in her relationship with Lord Grantham. She wanted to help him to change.”
When I first met MacLaine, around eight years ago she was not particularly excited by the kind of parts she was being offered. Downton seems to have changed all of that. Her new film, Bernie, by Richard Linklater, director of Dazed and Confused, is a brilliant dark comedy and it sounds like MacLaine and her co-star Black forged a great friendship. But, despite having a good time on the film, the actress couldn’t care less about plugging it.
Instead, we return to the subject of love. Has she ever been in a relationship where she was as possessive and demanding as her character in Bernie? “What, you mean in life? I don’t know the meaning of possessive!” she says.
She was, indeed, always a free spirit, sometimes perceived as a dangerous one. She pokes around at her chips. In her fifties she had a facelift. You are not supposed to have a mobile face while your stitches are in. She managed to ruin hers having a giant orgasm. She smiles wildly as she remembers. “He was a composer. He was bisexual, and I knew it, and he didn’t love me at all.”
Was he monogamous while they were together?
“Oh, I really don’t know. I don’t think it would bother me, really. I’ve never really had sexual jealousy. Well, maybe once. If they sneak around I don’t like it. It’s the sneaking part that I don’t like.”
I wonder if her lovers took advantage of the fact that she wasn’t sexually possessive. “Well, so what?” she says with her “nothing’s going to hurt me” look. “I really don’t think I would have minded. Usually, I didn’t have to test out that theory because they were too busy with me and I’m a handful. But you know, that’s an interesting question about possessing another person.” She’s still thinking about it.
“I was never possessive with my husband or him with me. That’s why I had so many affairs when I was married.” It also had something to do with the fact that the husband, Parker, lived for much of the time in Japan while MacLaine pursued her acting career in America.
“Most of the men I was with wanted to get married. I was married already and stayed that way precisely so it wouldn’t become an issue.”
Was it also, maybe, to ensure she didn’t fall too hard in love, go too far? “What’s too far?”
When you make yourself vulnerable? She once said she’d kill someone if she thought they were going to break her heart. “Oh, I’m not there yet,” she laughs. And when she laughs her whole face twinkles.
She says her husband really was the love of her life but had no understanding of the need for the institution of marriage. I had read it ended because he spent large amounts of her money. “Not really. He put it into projects that he thought were worthwhile but without asking. But when we divorced he didn’t want anything. It really was just over.”
I wonder, though, just how vulnerable she really is. Recently her daughter Sachi, who was largely brought up by her father in Japan, wrote a Mommie Dearest-style memoir that painted MacLaine as an absent, uncaring mother and ultra competitive. “I am so horrified I don’t want to talk about it,” she says with an actual physical shudder.
She was never competitive about getting parts and on more than one occasion, when actress friends rang her, stricken that they hadn’t won a role, she bowed out so they would get it. For instance, she says, she turned down Breakfast at Tiffany’s in favour of Audrey Hepburn. Also because it was “too souffléish”.
Could it be Sachi is just envious? Might the jealousy gene have skipped a generation, missing MacLaine but hitting her daughter? “I don’t know, Chrissy. You’re good, but you’re not that good. I’m not going to talk about it.”
A few days earlier I had watched her speech accepting the Oscar for Terms of Endearment, when she says: “I deserve it.” Probably the best acceptance speech ever. She says what most people wouldn’t dare to. She points out her daughter is sitting next to her. Did she draw on their relationship for that performance. Is that what made it so good?
“No, it wasn’t that,” she replies. “It was the tension on set.” Because Debra Winger was so awful? “I didn’t say that. Jack Nicholson, he was cool. One day in a kitchen scene he slammed really loud and said ‘Can we dispense with all the f------ b-------?’ to the whole crew, for effect. He did it spontaneously, as he is. He lives in the moment to a large extent. And it was b-------. I can’t even remember what triggered it, but things were OK for about two weeks.”
So Winger was very difficult? “I don’t like speaking bad of her because I just don’t like that stuff.” (In fact, she devoted an entire chapter in her book My Lucky Stars detailing what a nightmare it was working with Winger.)
She and Barbra Streisand are astral twins. They were born on the same day, April 24, but not in the same year. Does that make them similar? “Well, Barbra is Barbra. She is more talented and more difficult. I am not that talented and I am not that difficult. I don’t have a difficult reputation. I have a reputation of being efficient and abrupt. I am abrupt.
“I watched A Star is Born last night. She sang that end song in one take. Absolutely brilliant.”
Then she announces: “This avocado and this tomato is absolutely tasteless. We should have just gotten the coconut cake.”
She has just finished a film, Elsa and Fred, with Christopher Plummer and James Brolin, Streisand’s husband. “Jim and I had some dinners on location. He loves complicated talented women. They are well suited.”
She thinks the movie might be good. She enjoyed Plummer. “We had dinner every night. He tried to educate me on wine. I’m trying to learn. But you know, it’s like my clothes. I’m not into gourmet dressing or gourmet cooking. I’m probably so simple-minded…well, I’m not so simple that I don’t know what I’m talking about.” She is complicated and direct. “Yes, I am that. Let’s have coconut cake. My idea of heaven would be sleeping on a coconut cake.”
It’s hard to believe that next year she’ll be 80. She is such a force of nature. Her brain certainly has no signs of slowing down. “I can’t believe it either. That’s what it says on my birth certificate.
“I’m going to do a picture before Downton. Prep time and shoot will be about eight weeks. It’s one of two. I have told them I’ll do whichever one puts the money together first and I’ll do the other one after Downton. They are really good scripts. Comedy dramas. I don’t want to take the time to tell you what they are.”
That’s another thing I love about MacLaine. She’s more interested in conversation than plugging her projects, although she does tell me that in one, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, she plays Ben Stiller’s mother. So she and Barbra have something else in common – a screen son.
“When we met and I told him I had an affair with Danny Kaye [the first Walter Mitty], he was shocked because he thought he was gay. He was not. Or maybe a little, I don’t know.” The bisexual lovers certainly seem to like you. “Well, they weren’t [gay] with me. Or maybe I was the man.” She laughs. “Maybe that’s what it was. Oh my God, I hadn’t thought of that.”
These days she’s very friendly with her brother Warren Beatty. They’ve had their fallouts. “I was over there the night before last in the beautiful house he’s built and with the kids. Annette [Bening] wasn’t there, she was in New York. She’s great for him. It’s going to be interesting to see how his kids turn out with such famous parents.”
On the whole children of famous parents don’t do well. “Yes, they have a hard time. I think I’m going to write a final chapter in my book on fame.” She nods. She’s never had a problem handling fame.
The waitress appears and we order the longed-for coconut cake. We share a giant white fluffy thing. And in that moment MacLaine looks seriously happy.