Channeling Chanel

Shirley MacLaine captures Coco’s essence in a biopic.


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.

As much as MacLaine is interested in Chanel the woman, rather than the wardrobe, she’s not entirely unimpressed by fashion. She wore Chanel-like styles throughout the Fifties and Sixties—“All knockoffs; I couldn’t afford the real thing”—and actually attended a Chanel show in her 20s, around the same time she was working with such Hollywood costume-design legends as Edith Head and Irene Sharaff. “They used to drape me, because I’m a dancer or used to be—I can’t even walk up the stairs now,” MacLaine recalls. “They used to put me in front of mirrors, just like a dancer, and make up shawls and evening dresses and stuff like that.”

Given its subject, this production naturally takes its look seriously. And although the house of Chanel contends it had nothing to do with the project, the set—the showroom’s mirrored walls, spiral staircase and facade on the mock rue Cambon—and the costumes, MacLaine’s in particular, bear an uncanny resemblance to the real deal. “It’s been totally scrutinized,” says Duguay of the film’s style quotient. “You see it from [Chanel’s] perspective, from the high heels to the shortening of the skirts to having the arms being able to move properly and why she puts chains at the bottom of the jackets so they hang better.”

But despite going beyond due diligence to achieve the look of the film, it seems that, like MacLaine, Duguay is less interested in the fashion angle than in Chanel’s personal story. “We brought [the fashion] in without trying to make a fashion film. I think they’re boring,” says Duguay, whose directorial experience includes the aforementioned Human Trafficking as well as the controversial Hitler: The Rise of Evil. For him, the appeal is in the theatrical qualities of Chanel’s life. “We have rags to riches and a tremendous love story—they always work on film,” explains Duguay. “And what I think is interesting is the emergence of a woman who’s defining herself in a society where women are always there for their man. They’re always dressed to please their man, and she has a very modern perspective.” That point of view is one that Chanel expressed quite publicly and poetically in her many bons mots, some of which are featured in the film and which, according to Duguay, the forceful MacLaine delivers with considerable aplomb. “She wouldn’t talk, she would pronounce,” says MacLaine, before reciting some of Chanel’s more famous quotes, such as “Fashion belongs in the street, not in the home” and “Whatever makes women free makes them creative,” as well as one of the actress’s favorites, a rather graphic statement: “My c— belongs to the world; my heart belongs to France.” MacLaine maintains that Chanel’s conversation was “like delivering a lecture—that’s what she did. So, yes, I suppose I do fit right into that.”

Indeed, during a post-interview photo session MacLaine has the Chanel act, complete with obstinate attitude, down pat. “Shoot at a downward angle,” she commands the photographer. “See, that’s better. Now get another girl with a hat, and they should be talking to each other,” she says, directing the extras in the background before striking a brooding profile pose. “It was always like this with Chanel. She never smiled in her life.”

It’s quite a performance. Yet it’s not the first time the character has been brought to life by a famously headstrong actress. Indeed, Katharine Hepburn played Chanel in a Broadway musical in 1969. Yes, MacLaine saw it, but when asked if Hepburn’s performance influenced her take, she doesn’t mince words. “No, not at all,” she says before breaking into a long laugh. “Love Kate Hepburn, but it wasn’t that great a show.” Well, considering MacLaine’s well-publicized beliefs about the supernatural and reincarnation, perhaps a past-life connection to Coco herself has come into play? “Oh, yeah,” she says with a laugh. “She’s talking to me all the time. She’s saying, ‘Don’t stoop over like I used to. Stand up straight.’”