Totally Shirley

MacLaine on life, death and film


It turns out to be true: Shirley MacLaine was named after Shirley Temple. And all because her parents saw Temple’s name on a marquee on the way to the hospital where MacLaine was born.

“They decided right there that if it was a girl her name would be Shirley,” MacLaine says by phone, during a quick interview from Los Angeles. “There’s no other business I could have chosen.”

Another story confirmed: MacLaine really did get her first big break as an understudy to an actress who apparently took the phrase “break a leg” literally. “Shit, everybody knows that,” MacLaine says. “How long have you been around, anyway? It’s a true story that really happened. Carol Haney had just broken her ankle that night. I went on in Pajama Game, and I hadn’t rehearsed. Lucky I had such good training.”

MacLaine has done a flabbergasting amount of travel since but she finally comes to Santa Rosa for a one-night-only show on Sept. 23.

“What I’ve done is put together a kind of retrospective of my life on film. I’ll be talking about my brother [Warren Beatty], my dancing years as a kid, then Broadway, then Hollywood. I’ve been privileged to be around the world, so I’ll also be talking about world leaders like Nikita Khrushchev and the Dalai Lama. I’ve got a big story about Khrushchev. At the end is a retrospective of my dancing. And after the dance stuff, the audience can ask me any question they like.”

Consider MacLaine’s indelible roles in The Apartment, Terms of Endearment and The Trouble with Harry. Yet MacLaine herself doesn’t usually watch her old films. “Why would I do that?” she says. “To see what I did wrong?” (I ask if any of her films were particularly neglected, and she mentions the 1971 film Desperate Characters and 1988’s Madame Sousatzka, one of her finest performances.)

When not acting, she’s writing. The Camino is MacLaine’s account of making the St. James pilgrimage over the Pyrenees on foot, an arduous journey for a lone woman, then in her mid-50s and pestered incessantly by reporters.

“The villagers helped me and misled the paparazzi,” MacLaine says. “I really do regret hitting that camerawoman over the head with a boulder.”

Has the camerawoman ever gotten in contact, I ask?

“No. I guess I killed her,” she jokes.

“That’s OK,” I say, “they probably forgive that at the cathedral if you’ve made the pilgrimage.”

“See,” she explains, “that’s the difference between being religious and being spiritual. If I were religious, I probably would have really killed her. But I’m spiritual.”

Shirley MacLaine appears Friday, Sept. 23, at the Wells Fargo Center. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $49&–$69. 707.546.3600.