How do you survive 60-plus years in Hollywood? If you're living legend Shirley MacLaine—that is, an Oscar winner, a charter member of the Rat Pack, and a best-selling author who may have single-handedly changed Americans' perception of reincarnation—then you do it by working harder than everybody else. From her first film, The Trouble with Harry by Alfred Hitchcock, where she learned everybody's speaking parts because she didn't know any better, to the 2000s, where she effortlessly stole scenes from a slew of younger A-listers, including Jennifer Aniston, Nicole Kidman, and Jack Black, in a variety of searing performances that got her late in life Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, MacLaine has done it her way. The Apartment. Irma la Douce. Sweet Charity. The Turning Point. Terms of Endearment. Postcards from the Edge. Bernie—all classics by now, each a testament to what she describes as the tenacity and work ethic she learned as a dancer. "My mentality, my work ethic, everything about my sense of being efficient—dancer," she says in W's Royals issue, an honorific that MacLaine and her brother Warren Beatty have personified for decades. "Don’t know what diva means, don’t know what keeping people waiting means. I don’t like the feeling of that. I’m a team player basically in my head." In a revealing interview, MacLaine looks back on her long career—the good times and bums times, the lead roles and supporting parts, the career twists and turns and reincarnations—and declares, as defiantly as she sang in Postcards, that she's still here, and she's not going anywhere.
What was the first thing you auditioned for?
Probably Me and Juliet. New York, Broadway. Rodgers & Hammerstein. They gave me the job because I had long legs. They thought I was old enough, but I was a minor. I didn’t tell them.
Did you love it immediately?
Oh, yeah. But see, I was dancing my whole life. I started dancing when I was three. I loved it since I was three. I was in recitals since I was three. Loved the audience. Loved the collective mind of the audience. Particularly loved the silence. Because the silence means, oh my, their rapt attention.
And your first movie was Alfred Hitchcock, right? The Trouble with Harry. Wasn’t he a fast director?
He was a director who didn’t particularly have any respect for actors ,but I didn’t know enough then to even feel that. I didn’t know what I was doing. On the first day I had learned everybody’s part. I thought you were supposed to do that. It’s not a good idea. First of all, the sound man had all the pages of everybody, and he was making noise trying to keep up with what I was saying because he thought that because I had learned all the dialogue of everybody else, that he should have that displayed too. It was a disaster. And Hitchcock also had storyboards up, and all he cared about was matching the storyboards. He didn’t really give a damn about the acting, honestly. He just casted brilliantly. Mildred Dunnock, John Forsythe, Edmund "Eddy" Gwenn. Royal Dano, remember him? All these wonderful people who were perfect for the parts. And I was this little pixie out of the chorus that didn’t know what I was doing. Perfect for that character.
Were you happier on Broadway or did you dream of doing movies?
Never dreamt of doing movies, although I was a big fan. My favorite movie stars were Alan Ladd and Maria Montez. I don’t know what that’s all about. I met [Ladd] at the [famed West Hollywood nightclub] Mocambo and my friends knew that I was in love with Alan Ladd. And they said, it’s Alan Ladd. And I went, 'Oh, Mr. Ladd.' And he was below my waist practically.
Did that ruin the crush?
Interestingly, I don’t think so. I think I thought for him to have done The Glass Key and some of those really tough guys movies being that small, I think I admired that.
Where was your first kiss in life?
George Price, sixth grade. Arlington, Virginia, outside of the church. Then came, uh, a series of men in my life history.
When you used to play Vegas, did you love playing Vegas?
Loved Vegas. Learned more playing Vegas than anywhere, because when you hear the ice tinkling in the glasses, you’re doing something wrong. That’s why I say I learned about the silence. And when you’ve got them and it’s silent and they’re not tinkling their ice and having a sip, you’re doing something right.
Do you consider yourself more a dancer than an actress, even now?
I can barely walk now. [But] my mentality, my work ethic, everything about my sense of being efficient and all that—dancer. Never lost it. Don’t know what diva means, don’t know what keeping people waiting means. I don’t like the feeling of that. I’m a team player basically in my head.
Do you have a secret skill that we would be surprised by?
People would be surprised that I am extremely down to earth. You know, half the time they think I’m a dingbat because of these books that I write and my beliefs and how I’ve become so curious about things that are above and beyond the third dimensional reality. I’m basically very, very down to earth.
I ask everyone this question; what movie makes you cry? And one of the answers I get constantly, I would say more than any other, is your scene in Terms of Endearment. What movie makes you cry?
My Dog Skip. For hours. I’ve always had dogs. I don’t know what it was. Leaving the doggie alone makes me cry.