IT'S SHIRLEY'S SHOW : Madame MacLaine Retakes the Stage, Upfront and in Rare Form

Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

Perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of interviewing a show-business celebrity is knowing in advance that you are likely to elicit a bland reply to almost any question.

Celebrities are timid creatures, after all, eager to make a splash without ruffling anyone's feelings. They have a tendency to be disingenuous, evasive and even downright dishonest when dealing with the press.

You can't always blame them. They've heard too many questions from too many prying reporters. They have too many handlers giving them too much advice: how to dissemble, how to be saccharine, how to banish candor from their remarks.

But Shirley MacLaine, who is bringing her one-woman show to the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim for a three-night stand beginning Friday, is not your ordinary show-business celebrity. Ask her a question, and you're liable to get a deliciously bold reply.

What does she think about critics?

"A lot of the time they're really full of crap."

Even when they write positive reviews?

"Oh yeah. They can be so pretentious."

Theater critics or film critics?

"Both."

Now that's my kind of celebrity.

MacLaine was talking recently by telephone from her home in Malibu, which she built during the early 1960s with money earned from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Trouble With Harry," the first of her 41 pictures.

"People don't pay that much attention to film critics," MacLaine said above the whir of a blender at her kitchen counter, where she was making herself a vanilla-flavored diet milkshake. "We pay attention in the business. But the moviegoing public? I don't think so.

"The theatergoing public really listens, though, to Frank Rich (of the New York Times), because the seats on Broadway are so expensive. They need somebody to tell them, 'OK, it's worth it.' "

MacLaine has no quarrel with that. What disturbs her is something else entirely.

"To sit in creative sessions," she said, "and to watch the quaking knees of giants like (John) Kander and (Fred) Ebb and Cy Coleman and Mike Nichols and Stephen Sondheim, who worry about whether Frank Rich will like their talents, is rather sickening."

At 56, MacLaine has developed a certain immunity to critics. She has won enough acting awards (one Oscar, four nominations), sold enough copies of her six books (at least 10 million in print) and made more than enough money (also in the millions) not to give them a second thought.

Besides, she's just not built to quake.

Consider her reaction to a devastating notice in The Times, which described her one-woman show last summer at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles as "a slice of stale ham." MacLaine dismisses the reviewer with a combination of polite disdain and disarming humor.

"That wasn't nice of him at all," she said. "It sounded like he was on some kind of vendetta. Any man who is that vindictive, who is that cruel, has some real problems. He probably hates extraterrestrials and meditation. My show has gotten raves all over the world."

Actually, MacLaine was never built to quake.

During the 1950s, a Hollywood gossip columnist made nasty, inaccurate remarks in print about her personal life. MacLaine didn't sue. She checked the legal definition of assault, drove down to the columnist's office and slammed him.

But she also made sure to deliver the blow with an open palm. And she purposely did it in front of witnesses, in case she needed testimony in court about her fighting style. "If you hit somebody with a closed fist, that's assault and battery," said MacLaine, recalling the incident. "But if the fist is open, it's not."

Given her feistiness, it comes as a surprise to hear her admit to an "awful" case of stage fright. You'd think, moreover, that someone who has been in the public eye as much as she has would hardly suffer from flop sweat.

MacLaine recognizes the paradox, but cites her long absence from the stage as the cause.

"I was away for six years," she explained. "I lost my communication skills. I didn't even do a plie. It's a whole different thing to get up on a stage and perform for an audience.

"But now I'm getting much more comfortable. I don't ever want to be away from the stage again. That's going to be my life between pictures and books."

MacLaine has already made it something of an obsession. Except for writing her seventh book, due out in October, she has done nothing but her 90-minute stage show over the past 13 months. It has played in scores of cities in this country and abroad, from Boston to Las Vegas, London to Rio de Janeiro.

The show includes a 25-minute dance number, a 12-minute takeoff on Mama Rose in a medley from "Gypsy," and MacLaine's theme song, "I'm Still Here," which Stephen Sondheim customized for her from "Follies" with lyrics about incidents in her life. (Moviegoers got a satirical glimpse of her doing a snippet of that song as an over-the-hill musical star of the '50s in "Postcards From the Edge" last year.)

"I also make fun of my New Age beliefs in the show," said MacLaine, referring to her faith in reincarnation and psychic mediums as well as her own claims to past lives and out-of-body experiences. "All that stuff I talk about--death, life after death--needs relief. Comedy relief. It also deflates my own power. I don't like having a lot of power."

Because the stage show involves plenty of singing as well, MacLaine has paid special attention lately to improving the range and quality of her voice.

"I'm not basically a singer," she explained. "So I've been working with a 'voice-builder,' who's opening up the throat muscles. I had been studying before with people who really didn't know what they were doing, frankly. It guaranteed laryngitis."

Though MacLaine has a joke writer, she also comes up with much of her own comic material and then rewrites it after trying it out on an audience.

"You've got to get up there and do stuff that might fall flat on its face," she said. "That's the great thing about a live audience. It tells you the truth."

But if she takes chances with jokes, one thing she does not gamble with is money. Whenever MacLaine appears in Las Vegas, for example, she instinctively avoids those green-felt tables.

"The croupiers hiss at me when I walk through the casino," she said. "I have never dropped a dime. I'm too Protestant and middle-class for that. I can't gamble with money. I'm Scotch."

"But I'll tell you what I do gamble with," she added. "I gamble with relationships. I gamble with emotions. I gamble with my career."

In fact, her entire Hollywood career was launched on an incredible piece of luck.

MacLaine--born Shirley MacLean Beaty in Richmond, Va.was a 19-year-old, ballet-trained dancer not long out of high school when she landed a job in the chorus of the 1954 musical "The Pajama Game." The night before the Broadway opening, she was made understudy for the star, Carol Haney.

Within a week, Haney broke her ankle and a petrified MacLaine took over the role on a half-hour's notice without a rehearsal. She brought down the house. The next night Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis came backstage after the show to offer her a multiyear movie contract.

Thus propelled, MacLaine left New York for Hollywood with a brand-new husband, producer-to-be Steve Parker (they have a daughter, Sachi, and were divorced in 1987), only to languish in so-so roles. Then, in 1958, along came "Some Came Running," which featured MacLaine as a waiflike tart and earned her her first Oscar nomination.

More nominations followed--for "The Apartment," "Irma La Douce," "The Turning Point"--until, in 1983, she won the best-actress Oscar for the indomitable mother in "Terms of Endearment."

Looking back at this year's Oscars, MacLaine said she "expected to be nominated" for her featured role in "Postcards From the Edge" and felt disappointed when she wasn't. Meryl Streep, who got a best-actress nomination for playing the daughter to MacLaine's mother in that movie, apparently felt the same.

"I know she was disappointed because she said so to some people in the press," recalled MacLaine, a note of appreciation in her voice. "She saw the roles as a left hand and a right hand."

In the meantime, MacLaine would "love to find a musical that would make a fabulous movie. But that's very difficult."

Neither of the two movie musicals she starred in during the 1960s--"Can-Can" with Frank Sinatra and "Sweet Charity" with Chita Rivera--really worked, the great success of the Broadway originals notwithstanding. The screen version of "Can-Can" lacked charm, while the screen version of "Sweet Charity" lacked grit.

In the latter, for instance, the title role was a prostitute with a heart of gold. "I think she should have been an actual prostitute," said MacLaine. "Then the movie might have worked, just like the original 'Nights of Cabiria.'

"Of course," she added, "if I were to play a hooker now, she'd have to be a madame."

What: "Shirley MacLaine Live," a singing, dancing musical revue.

When: Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 14, at 6 p.m.

Where: Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim.

Whereabouts: Take Harbor Boulevard south from the Riverside (91) Freeway or north from Santa Ana (5) Freeway and head east on Broadway. The Celebrity is on the left, just past Anaheim Boulevard.

Wherewithal: $35.

Where to call: (714) 999-9536.

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