The trick, always harder for actresses than actors, is to sustain a career everywhere along the bumpy road of chronology from pert newcomer to senior character.
The child stars do not always survive a change of voice; the sexy ingenues don’t survive to do marital comedies in the suburbs; the romantic leading ladies don’t necessarily transit successfully into character parts. Playing another actress’ mother for the first time, for example, is a career statement not made without a slight shiver and intimations of mortality.
Shirley MacLaine, who is 54, figures that she is about 10 years ahead of schedule. Bored with all the scripts sent her in the five years since her Oscar-winning performance in “Terms of Endearment,” she made what she calls a leap of faith to play a grande dame part that for the moment left the sexy and romantic MacLaine an almost indecipherable memory.
To become Irina Sousatzka, a Russian-American piano teacher living in a neurotic clutter in London, MacLaine ate herself 25 pounds heavier (“I had to feel those extra folds of flesh beneath the wardrobe”). Her hair was frizzed into a kind of orange Brillo; her makeup, theatrical and unbecoming in equal measure, was of chalk-white powder interrupted by a thin, hard gash of lipstick and two welts of rouge that suggest tribal markings.
Many critics have cheered the emergence of MacLaine as a grande dame character actress who almost gleefully effaces her previous image as a romantic heroine. A few critics have been less charitable about the performance, seen as a self-conscious star turn.
But “Madame Sousatzka,” made as an ensemble labor of love for about $5 million, can hardly fail. (“I stayed with a friend to save money, and I only had a car until 6. The one luxury was the food, which was wonderful,” MacLaine said at lunch in Los Angeles last week.)
“I can now draw on the meatiest roles I can find. I can go in both directions and not just play leading ladies. It’s happening 10 years ahead of when it should happen, but I wanted it to happen.”
MacLaine’s metaphysical writings and the ancillary events like the television miniseries have been so successful that she has no need to act at all any more. Her newest book, “Going Within,” is finished and has already been announced for spring publication. She can pick parts as she will, which is, she says, “when I read a script and my scalp tingles. Then I know it’s good.”
There is a link between “Sousatzka” and the theme of the new book. “Metaphysical investigations,” MacLaine says, “aren’t ends in themselves but means to ends. I had to get through the feeling that spiritual technology was everything in itself to realizing that it was a tool for everyday living. It could apply to whatever I do--dance, write, act or just get through a Hollywood meeting.
“In a way, it’s remarkably like acting. When you commit to a character, you’re making a leap of faith, believing she’s real. You have to learn how to commit to leaps of faith in other things.” Picking “Sousatzka” was a leap of faith.
She hadn’t worked at her craft for more than four years, MacLaine said. “With another craft, you’d be rusty, but acting is so esoteric, so ephemeral; it has more to do with human observation. You can do it for the rest of your life.”
The question, she says she has come to realize, is what kind of roles she will do. “I want to step aside from the usual concerns--will I be loved by the audience, will the picture do business, what kind of salary can I get. It’s more nourishing to the craft to commit to each of the characters, let them be themselves. You put your own ego frustrations aside. You don’t act just to pay bills; I don’t have to. You don’t do parts for survival; you think from the point of view of the craft and your talent.”
The script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and director John Schlesinger made her scalp tingle. MacLaine had known several teachers like Sousatzka. One taught sixth grade; the others gave ballet instead of piano, but the dictatorial principles were the same.
“I remember being thrown across a ballet class by my ear because I wasn’t getting something right. I had a teacher who was very like Sousatzka. She was 4-foot-4 and drank beer and carried a stick and yelled constantly.”
MacLaine’s aunt, her father’s sister, gave piano lessons and MacLaine had memories of her as well. “John Schlesinger’s mother gave piano lessons, and he studied piano.”
Like the other committed teachers, MacLaine said, “Sousatzka is a monument to indomitability. I’m sure she’s still there on that street, ignoring the demolition crews, and in 10 years she’ll still be there.”
Since “Madame Sousatzka,” MacLaine has filmed “Steel Magnolias” in Natchitoches, La., playing quite another kind of grande dame, in a beauty parlor, in quite another idiom. There were resemblances: That script made the MacLaine scalp tingle as well, and another lady with an iron will was involved.
MacLaine, whose early screen image was as a breezy kook who hung around with the big guys if they’d let her, has turned out to be a more durable phenomenon with her own will of iron.