Shirley MacLaine has been lighting up the silver screen for 60 years now, and she doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The 80-year-old actress’s latest film, Elsa and Fred (a remake of the 2005 Spanish-Argentine film of the same name) is a charming romantic comedy that finds her canoodling (and occasionally bickering) with another venerated vet, Christopher Plummer, no spring chicken himself at 84. After Elsa, MacLaine has four more movies coming up the pipe.
The Oscar-winning actress, who describes herself as “half-Canadian, half-Virginian,” has drawn six decades’ worth of adulation for the strong-willed, sharp-tongued women she regularly portrays. On top of her body of screen work, MacLaine is also a dynamic storyteller, as we found out when we sat down for a candid conversation about her most famous film roles, which you can watch in the video above.
The Trouble With Harry (1955)
MacLaine had done a fair amount of theater when she was cast in her first motion picture… but this wasn’t just any picture, as she points out, it was an Alfred Hitchcock picture (and one of the Master of Suspense’s rare comedies). MacLaine and Hitchcock hit it off so well that they became breakfast buddies: “I was not tall, thin, blond, and heavenly, so that made me his good guy eating partner,” she says, adding that she gained 25 pounds during the production. “The head of the studio called and said, ‘You’re ruining your career and it’s only 15 minutes old. Do something.’ I stopped eating a little bit.”
Some Came Running (1958)
"That’s when I got to know the mob," MacLaine says matter-of-factly, noting that known Mafia members were on the Indiana set of this post-war drama. Just as she’d buddied up with Hitchcock, MacLaine also became friendly with the Rat Pack’s two most eligible bachelors, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But as she points out, it was strictly platonic: "Absolutely no thoughts of sex. … They never came on to me that way. … I wasn’t really attracted to them. Frank was too skinny. Dean a little bit of crush I had later, but not during that time."
MacLaine became somewhat of unofficial member of The Rat Pack: Her newfound card-playing expertise ended up inspiring an added-on rummy scene in The Apartment, and of course she made a famous cameo in the 1960 Vegas caper Ocean’s Eleven.
The Apartment (1960)
Legendary writer-director Billy Wilder was behind some of the greatest romantic films of all time, but MacLaine says he wasn’t the friendliest filmmaker for females to work under. “Billy was not exactly acquainted with feminist equality, let’s put it that way. He could be very harsh with women,” she says. “I think that’s one of the things that bothered Marilyn [Monroe, who Wilder directed in the comedy classic Some Like It Hot]. She was afraid of him, so she would be late and stuff like that.” Wilder’s tough-love approach at least paid dividends, professionally. The Apartment, starring the late, great Jack Lemmon, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Being There (1979)
MacLaine says that Peter Sellers, an actor best known for comedy but here showing off impressive dramatic chops, went beyond method to play the simpleton gardener Chance in Hal Ashby’s beloved film. “He developed his own reality, to tell you the truth. He didn’t have dinner with me, lunch with me, or anything, and we were friends.” MacLaine later found out that producer Richard Zanuck believed the two were having an affair after walking into Sellers’s dressing room and hearing him have phone sex with MacLaine. Or so he thought; she wasn’t on the other end of the line.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
After four previous acting nominations (for Some Came Running, The Apartment, Irma La Douce, and The Turning Point), MacLaine would finally win an Oscar for James L. Brooks’s Houston-set family drama co-starring Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson. She recalls the spontaneity of Nicholson, who in one scene would answer the door differently in every take (“once half-nude, once with a hooker, once with something smashed all over his face”) and says the two fully improvised their famous water scene. “Fabulous to work with, adored him,” she says of Jack.
Steel Magnolias (1989)
MacLaine says she got very close with her co-stars on this crowd-pleasing favorite, including Sally Field, Dolly Parton, and newcomer Julia Roberts. And they had a common cause: no warm fuzzies for their helmer, Herbert Ross. “We had the best time together, but we didn’t like the director. … He could be very disrespectful. Once he said after a scene to Dolly Parton, in front of the crew and everyone, ‘You should think about taking some acting lessons.’ Come on, you don’t have to do that.”
The actress also says she knew right off the bat that there was greatness in store for Roberts. “When she walked on the soundstage where we were rehearsing Steel Magnolias, I called my agent and said, ‘This kid’s gonna be a real star. Do something, find her.’”
"I loved playing the big, bad witch," MacLaine says of the real-life Texas woman she played in Richard Linklater’s dark comedy about a small-town schlub (Jack Black) who ends up murdering his much older (and much richer) companion. MacLaine particularly loved the celebrated indie filmmaker Linklater’s directorial approach, which apparently on this film consisted of answering every one of her questions with, "I don’t know." As she puts it, "What I learned was that sometimes when you don’t answer every question to the people around you, that you force everyone to lead the highest level of their own excellence."