Unsinkable

Times Staff Writer

IN the guest bathroom of Shirley MacLaine's Santa Fe home there is a framed and signed Gary Larson cartoon in which two snakes are lying in the desert, one telling the other: "I think in a former life I was Shirley MacLaine."

The walls surrounding the famous and notorious are often exhorted to speak; in MacLaine's home, they actually do. Even without the help of the spirits she believes live here, moving objects when no one is looking, darting past just as she turns to see, these walls speak volumes. The library is floor to ceiling with Proust and Frost and meditation guides and cookbooks. The front hallway is lined with photos of family and friends: her daughter Sachi, as a baby and an adult; Sachi's children; brother Warren Beatty and his family; Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson and, a recent addition, Kevin Costner.

A utility closet off the laundry room is hung with posters from some of her movies from the '80s and '90s -- "Terms of Endearment," "Guarding Tess," "Postcards From the Edge" -- and the dining room is filled with the table, hutch and buffet from Aurora Greenway's house in "Terms of Endearment." "What I had to put up with on that film," says MacLaine, sailing through what she calls the James Brooks room, after the "Terms" director. "I deserved the furniture."

Many of the walls are actually windows overlooking the scrub- and tree-greened hills around Santa Fe. From the front porch, the lights of Los Alamos National Laboratory are visible at night, a reminder of New Mexico's complicated mixture of mysticism and military.

In the middle of it all is MacLaine, unmistakable. With few exceptions, her Hollywood contemporaries are either dead or retired. Her career stands as one of the few lighted windows for actresses older than 50. Unlike many of her peers, MacLaine managed to make the transition from waif to prickly matriarch almost as easily as she moved from stage to film to television and back again.

She has survived the glory days of the studio system and the Internet culture boom, 13 presidents and countless leading men, has documented this life, and many others, in 10 autobiographical books, one of which was made into a movie, and seen her name turned into a punch line even as it continued to appear on Oscar and Emmy nominee lists.

Yet somehow MacLaine remains incalculable, a sum of too many parts to quite fit the traditional social mathematics. She's as singular a presence in the shifting Hollywood landscape as a mesa rising from the tawny dust of the desert floor.

That red hair and stern mouth, the elfin blue eyes and exquisite posture, the abrupt manner -- in the middle of a sentence, she calls to her assistant to put "the goat's milk, those strawberries and a little Splenda" in the blender because, though it's not quite lunchtime, the actress feels like something "healthy." The milk, MacLaine will have you know, is from her goats, who live, along with 13 dogs, the Oscar, the Emmys, all the other awards and even more pictures and books, at her ranch 50 miles away. If this house, surrounded by high desert, seems in the middle of nowhere, the 6,000-acre ranch is an hour or so past the middle of nowhere.

"When it rains you can't get up the road," she says, explaining why she bought a place on the outskirts of Santa Fe. "So I really needed a house in the city." "City" is the literal description of Santa Fe, but coming from a woman who has stormed New York and Los Angeles, it seems a bit hyperbolic. But this is exactly where MacLaine wants to be and exactly where she plans to stay.

"Santa Fe is really the center of the spiritual movement in the U.S," she says matter-of-factly. "I was coming down here all the time for past-life regressions and cleansing, so I figured I might as well stay. All my needs are met right here -- emotional, physical, spiritual. I still keep the place in Malibu, but really, the traffic now. It makes no sense at all. I can't imagine wasting any more of my life sitting in traffic."

And there she is in her own words, the trademark mixture of New Age spirituality and urban pragmatism.

At home in disparate lives

EIGHT years ago, at age 63, MacLaine completed the 500-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, during which time she came to believe she had been, in previous lives, a Moorish girl who cured the Emperor Constantine of impotence and an androgynous being of a time predating Atlantis. But here in New Mexico, she's more inclined to ask a photographer in tight pants what sort of underwear she has on than to read her aura.

"Have you ever worn a thong?" she asks. "I think they would be very uncomfortable, but some of my friends really love them."

The ability to hold two opposing views at the same time is, depending on who you're talking to, the mark of either genius or insanity. Certainly it is the mark of MacLaine, who seems perfectly comfortable commuting, literally and spiritually, from a world of meditative calm to the insanity of Hollywood, who can write about the importance of traveling light while owning two houses within an hour of each other, who craves solitude and the thundering energy of an audience in equal measure.

It isn't so much contradictory thoughts that define MacLaine as it is separate sorts of lives. This is a woman who wrote "Out on a Leash," an ode to her profound relationship with an unremarkable-looking rat terrier named Terry, from the point of view of both owner and dog, then turned around and put in an old-pro performance as the regret-tempered grandmother of "In Her Shoes."

The comedy came and went, but critics agreed that MacLaine stole the film from beneath the feet of stars Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette.

"The book," she said earlier in the day, speeding down the desert highway in an old and very doggy Volvo wagon. "Maybe I went a little over the top with that book. My friends certainly thought I went a little over the top. And with all the dog owners in this country, it should be selling better. Oh, well," she said, looking in the rearview mirror at Terry, who was sitting, one must admit, quite regally in the back seat. "Terry and I know it's true."

It's not terribly surprising to learn that when director Curtis Hanson first approached her about starring in "In Her Shoes," he was concerned about her flamboyance. "He said, 'What I want is a controlled performance, a subdued performance. Do you think you can do that?' I said, 'Of course I can do that. It would be a relief to do that. Because I am actually a very controlled person.' "

And that's true. Though much of what MacLaine believes comes with the socially imposed ambience of crystals and purple Gypsy scarves, she herself does not. Trousers and boots suit her better; she has three earrings in each ear, but two of them are tiny. No bangles rattle at her wrist; no tangle of turquoise and moonstone sways from her neck. So when she mentions that she sleeps most nights on a futon outside "because a roof keeps the stars from imprinting on your brain," it makes as much sense as another grandmother telling you she sleeps on the floor because of her bad back.

"Billions of stars in the universe, just this universe," she says over her shoulder as she passes by the futon, returning to the house. "Anyone who thinks we're the only ones around, they're the ones who are nuts."

"It's amazing what a broad will do for a buck," was friend Frank Sinatra's comment on the spiritual workshops MacLaine held in the mid-'80s after the publication of "Out on a Limb" and "Dancing in the Light." But compared with Sinatra in his alcoholic, temper-plagued later years, MacLaine, at 71, is practically midcareer, with three movies out this year, including the upcoming "Rumor Has It."

There's a film version of Richard Alfieri's "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" -- in which an older woman receives instruction from a younger man -- in the works. She's making notes for a new book -- "I'm going to call it 'Saging, Not Aging,' " she says -- and contemplating a one-woman show to celebrate her 75th year. "It's going to take me six months to learn how to dance in heels again [for 'Six Dance Lessons']," she says. "It'll take me three years to get in shape for a one-woman show. So I guess I need to start next week."

Whether it's the goat's milk or the visions or the retreat into the desert, MacLaine is clearly doing something right. In conversation, she breezes past many of the major touchstones of 20th century America. Politics and spirituality, travel and sex and celebrity, the role of serenity and good old industry gossip form the patterns of a gorgeous, unfathomable tapestry. As with MacLaine herself, it is almost impossible to comprehend the whole, but the details are amazing enough.

Inventing her own template

ANY attempt to define Shirley MacLaine was defeated long ago. She arrived on screen in the mid-'50s, when the sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor played whore to Debbie Reynolds' and Doris Day's Madonna. MacLaine was something else again. In films like "Some Came Running" and "The Apartment," she embodied a little of both, a good-humored, street-wise innocence that was a subtle but significant sexual statement.

A less subtle attempt to address the sexual hypocrisy of the times fell flat -- one of MacLaine's biggest regrets is how watered down "The Children's Hour" became. The movie version of the Lillian Hellman play strips away the subtext of almost romantic intimacy between teachers accused by a student of being lovers. "We shot all the scenes -- me combing [Audrey Hepburn's] hair, fixing her clothes -- that stuck more closely to the text [of Hellman's play], but they all got cut," she says, clearly still irritated after all these years. "When the play debuted, they raided the theater; who would have raided that movie? No one."

Meanwhile, what branded her as "kooky" back in the early '60s -- her travel lust, her political involvement, her frankness about sex, her penchant for dressing down, her beach house in Malibu -- is, 40 years later, a template for the modern movie star.

She's been nominated for seven Oscars and finally won as best actress for "Terms of Endearment," she has won five Emmys for various musical specials, and while others talk of the joys of performing live, she took her show on the road as recently as 10 years ago.

She has, as they say, forgotten more about Hollywood than most people will ever know. "A young man came out here the other day," she says, "working on a book about my films for MGM, I think, and he had all these deep and probing questions like, 'In that scene with Robert Mitchum, what were you thinking?' " MacLaine throws up her hands. "My God, that was so long ago, who knows what I was thinking? I told him he should write what he thought I was thinking and we could talk about it later."

If certain things in her career didn't seem quite fair at the time -- she was only 49 when she played grandmother Aurora Greenway -- she chalked it up to the vagaries of the business. She has no idea what her Hollywood "legacy" will be and does not care much. "I don't know what to think of my movies," she says. "I never have. 'The Apartment,' that was a good film. The rest? Who knows." She is much more interested in opening people's minds to a world plagued by man-made ills.

"It's as bad as it's ever been," she says, referring to the problems of war and global warming and seeming political cynicism. "Before, you could argue, 'Well, it's just people killing each other,' but now we're destroying the world. Literally."

She has survived Hollywood, she says, because her relationship with the industry was, and is, as "open" as her one marriage -- 15 years to producer Steve Parker. "I think I was able to maintain my sanity because whenever I finished a film, I immediately left town," she says. "I wasn't going to get down to a size 4 and model for Chanel. God knows I can't do it now," she adds, laughing, "but I couldn't do it then either. And I certainly couldn't stay, going to the same parties, talking to the same people. If you keep your focus too narrow, it will make you crazy."

This doesn't mean she is ambivalent about being an actress. "Oh, I'll never get sick of it," she says with a wide-eyed laugh. "They might get sick of me, but I'm having too much fun. And if any [actor] tells you it's not fun, they should get out of the business right now."

Neither is she careless about how she looks; throughout the day she applies and reapplies her lipstick with the no-mirror-necessary precision and much-used lipstick tube of a woman in a 1950s film. She learned the tricks of the trade from Marlene Dietrich, she says, who taught her always to be shot from a few inches above eye-line and how to use a small chain to pull in loose chin folds.

When a camera crew descended on her house recently, she says, she had to explain to the cameramen the importance of cross light. "They were going to make me look like I was 100," she says. "I mean, I don't mind looking how I look, but I'd like to look good."

Her personal life is as difficult to categorize as her career, which is why it is easy for people to reach for terms like "kooky" or "nuts." She believes in feng shui and democracy, intelligent life on other planets and the importance of teamwork on a set. She is intensely loyal -- she has had the same publicist for 40 years -- and she's tolerant, but if she thinks you have said something stupid, she will tell you so.

In conversation, she moves seamlessly from a rant against FEMA and the Bush administration's feeble efforts during the first days after Hurricane Katrina to a discussion of the disparate brilliance of the two Jacks (Lemmon and Nicholson) to the possibility of beings from another dimension walking among us (including, she says, Nicole Kidman, whom she finds far too ethereal to be completely human. "I mean seriously," she says. "Would it surprise you? It wouldn't surprise me.")

Yes, herbal remedies of every sort litter the island in her kitchen, but so do all sorts of faxes, including one with her itinerary for the Toronto Film Festival.

"Seven a.m.," she groans, looking at the press conference schedule. "Why are these things always at 7 a.m.?"

There isn't much MacLaine's afraid to say. She has her own website, after all, on which conversations about reincarnation and UFOs are interspersed with pages of the star's personal reading list and products she endorses, sort of like the New Age Oprah.

And having been in show business for 50 years -- "50 years," she says, eyes wide, "can you believe it?" -- having run with the Rat Pack and met with any number of world leaders, being Warren Beatty's sister and still involved heavily in Democratic politics and having had a spiritual awakening that resulted in books and seminars about past lives and the existence of alternative dimensions, well, there isn't much she's afraid to hear, either.

Jokes on talk shows? Johnny Carson's writers used to call her. "They'd say, 'We're going to do some Shirley MacLaine jokes,' " she says. " 'Can you think of some?' So I would."

Scandalmongering in various celebrity biographies? Kitty Kelley insisted in her version of Sinatra's life that MacLaine had slept with him. "This I do not understand," MacLaine says. "I told her I didn't, and why on earth would I lie about not having slept with Frank Sinatra? It's insane. He was too skinny for me. I liked Dean [Martin] better anyway."

Changes in the industry? "In the '60s everyone drank. In the '70s there was so much dope on the sets you wouldn't believe it. In the '80s until now," she adds, in a harsher tone, "there are no parts for women. Look back at the days of Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth -- where are those roles? Gone. Now the only people the studios care about are teenage boys. Who don't even like real movies."

Career stall-out? Let's talk about the seven years between "Sweet Charity" and "The Turning Point," marked by the best-forgotten TV travel series "Shirley's World." MacLaine snorts. "I took some time off, worked for [George] McGovern, made a documentary ['The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir,' which was nominated for an Oscar]," she says. "Then I came back and I realized, 'Hey, they're serious. You turn 40 and you are out of work.' It was not," she says, with a well-placed pause, "a particularly pleasant time."

But then came "The Turning Point" and the acceptance that the cute-as-a-button ingenue days were over, replaced by the complex mother roles, which were few and far between. "Now I'm the grandmother of all the hot actresses," she says. "And until Meryl Streep decides that she can play grandmothers, and God knows I hope she never does, I usually get first crack."

The perks of longevity

LIKE her friend Sir Michael Caine, with whom she reunited on "Bewitched" -- "Oh, we had a blast," she says, "just talking talking talking" -- MacLaine believes the best remedy and revenge is to just keep working. She has learned, she says, that if you hang around long enough, people tend to come around.

For a woman who remembers when it was considered weird and bohemian to live in Malibu, it isn't inconceivable in the least that what people now consider her "out there" theories will eventually become mainstream.

"They already are," she says. "Look at 'Lost.' Look at all the shows about aliens and different dimensions. People are interested in these things for a reason. Two-thirds of the world believes in reincarnation; encounters with extraterrestrials have been documented for years. It's just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up."

She is sitting on the back patio waiting for sunset, though a layer of fitful clouds seems intent on denying her this. Strangely, it is difficult to keep Shirley MacLaine on the subject of her own life, or rather her own professional life. She'd much rather talk about how she yelled at a local theater owner for letting children into a showing of "8 Mile" -- "I like Eminem," she says, "but that movie was just too gratuitous" -- or offer her thoughts on the millennium.

"I thought something would happen," she says, referring to the fears of a Y2K computer breakdown. "And I am not convinced there was not interference. From other beings. I think they help us when they can. When it won't interfere with our karma."

But when she speaks of performing live, in front of an audience, that reluctance drops away. "There's nothing like it," she says, with a reverence in her voice that has not been there when discussing the spiritual, the political. "Pictures you make and you think they're terrible, but they turn out to be great. Or you think [a film's] an artistic masterpiece and it turns out to be artistic masturbation. But on a stage, it's right there. You know immediately if you are connecting with an audience. And that feeling in your stomach never goes away. Frank [Sinatra] always said that if you lose that feeling in your stomach, that edge, you don't have anything."

And so MacLaine's idea of doing a one-woman show for her 75th year is a serious one. She has talked to Elaine Stritch and Bea Arthur, who have done similar shows (Stritch's is still running), and they say the key is to write it yourself. Which, MacLaine says, shouldn't be a problem but is.

"It's so daunting," she says. "What would I put in? What would I leave out? But I can see it. A small orchestra, the singing, the dancing, telling some stories. I usually do two hours, but maybe an hour 35 with no intermission ... "

She stares off into the twilight; miles away the highway is a bright, narrow ribbon threading through the desert, and the lights of Los Alamos could be mistaken for a far-off party or a playing field. It is utterly silent, until the coyotes begin to howl. Even the soil of New Mexico is made up of crystals, MacLaine said earlier; the restorative powers of the desert are legendary.

But now her mind is on lights and power of a different sort, the ones that called her from her childhood home in Virginia to Broadway, to Hollywood.

"I could do it," she says quietly, of her one-woman show. "It would take a while for me to get back in shape. But I could do it when I'm 75." She turns her bright blue eyes away from the horizon and blinks. "Why wouldn't I?"

Contact Mary McNamara at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction Shirley MacLaine -- A Nov. 27 Calendar article about actress Shirley MacLaine said she had been nominated for seven Oscars and had won five Emmys. In fact, she has been nominated for six Oscars and five Emmys, and has won one Emmy. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday January 22, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction Shirley MacLaine -- A Nov. 27 article about actress Shirley MacLaine said she had been nominated for seven Oscars and had won five Emmys. She has been nominated for six Oscars as well as five Emmys (winning one).
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