On a Tuesday morning in late January, Shirley MacLaine is on her knees prepping a model for a Chanel fashion show. Given the spring 2008 couture schedule, one might have thought she was assisting Karl Lagerfeld at Paris’s Grand Palais. But in fact, MacLaine, clad in a tweed suit and a multitude of pearls, her signature red curls replaced with a brunette bob, is in Rome, playing Mademoiselle Chanel circa her 1954 comeback collection. The city’s famed Cinecittà Studios, used by Fellini and Scorsese, has been transformed into a retro rue Cambon for the original Lifetime program Coco Chanel.
The two-part series, set to air in the fall, chronicles Chanel’s life, from her hard-knock beginnings in an orphanage to her glamorous rise, fall and eventual return as a fashion icon. And, as in all good dramas, there are the requisite romances, including her ill-fated affair with Arthur “Boy” Capel. Slovakian actress Barbora Bobulova plays young Coco, while MacLaine stars as the older Chanel, who returned to Paris after a 15-year exile during and after World War II.
If the subject and star seem a little out of Lifetime’s sometimes schmaltzy league, consider this: The “women’s” network’s recent miniseries repertoire has featured such weighty material as 2005’s Human Trafficking and has attracted such award-winning talents as Mira Sorvino, Donald Sutherland and Peter Fonda. MacLaine, however, says that she actually took the role partly on the long-ago advice of a trustworthy friend—none other than Audrey Hepburn. “When we worked together, she said to me, ‘You should think about doing Coco Chanel when you’re older,’” recalls MacLaine. “That was in my 20s. I said, ‘You should do Coco Chanel.’ She said, ‘No. You.’ I’ve thought about it all that time, and then this came up. I couldn’t believe it.”
Of course, regardless of the source, a 50-year-old suggestion holds only so much weight. Among this project’s more current draws were director Christian Duguay, with whom MacLaine worked on 1999’s Joan of Arc miniseries, and the opportunity to play a post-50 Chanel. By that age, the designer had long since made fashion history with her little black dresses and corset-free sportswear, but MacLaine was lured more by the character than the clothes. “Fashion, I don’t know,” she says. “But what it takes to make fashion, when you know her life, you see it.” After researching the role, she says, she was struck by the designer’s strength and indomitability: “What’s wonderful about her is she’s not a straightforward, easy woman to understand. She was born into poverty and would do anything to keep from going broke again.” Newspaper articles and interviews provided the main source of insight into Chanel’s psyche. “She was very tough. She was extremely bitter. Very colorfully complicated and contradictory,” says MacLaine, adding that she would love to do a feature film about the designer.