Shirley MacLaine makes playing difficult women look easy.
MacLaine, who became a near-instant screen icon after her film debut in the late 1950s, has played characters who run the gamut from gamine to grandmother, but she always seems to add a little extra fire to her acting furnace when the lady in question’s an ornery sort. She crafts another divinely difficult performance – maybe her most cussed, and most minimal – in director Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” a taken-from-the-headlines tale in which the denizens of small Texas town refuse to suspect their local undertaker (Jack Black) when his wealthy, elderly companion (MacLaine) turns up missing – mostly because he’s beloved for his good deeds and she’s so loathed for her mean-spirited attitude.
The actress herself was far more smiles than snarls when she sat down for an exclusive chat with PopcornBiz about her latest project, as well as her past on-screen lives.
I imagine as an actor, figuring out how someone ticks is the first approach to anyone you play, but this character challenged you.
Well, I'm very interested in human nature – you know, behavioral studies and things like that – but I didn't know enough about Marjorie, except she was this evil bitch that everybody f**king hated.
You never got any notion as to what got her there? What turned her so dark?
Tried. Couldn’t get it from her nephew, from her son, from all the relatives. Couldn't get it.
Did the comedy strain in the movie make her easier to play?
Oh, sure! I wouldn't have if done it if it was a drama, if I hadn't detected in Rick [Linklater] this ambiguous sensibility that, he's like that in real life, I probably wouldn't have done it. But I knew it was going to be funny. Why did I know that? Because of Jack [Black]. He is brilliant in this movie. In my opinion, he's brilliant.
As a seasoned live performer yourself, what was it like for you to see what Jack's able to do musically in this film, as well as on the acting side?
I was shocked. The night that I came in to shoot a scene late and he had been rehearsing the '76 Trombones' thing and he treated me to the whole choreographic spectacle of him doing that. And it went on for a while with really difficult moves. I was just floored.
Do you ever still want to grab the mic and do some singing?
I might do some singing-acting, but no dancing.
Done with that?
Yeah. Or it would be done with me.
I was looking at all the films that are listed on your IMDB that are coming around the corner. What keeps you so interested in coming back and doing the job that you've been doing, after so much accomplishment?
I just love all the different aspects of life. Particularly with what the human race is going through now, and the kind of characters that this conflict and dilemma produces. I’m interested in the times, always. And I love creativity. I love trying to interpret what are people talking about. It's insane now. And this picture, in many respects, exemplifies that insanity: how a whole town could know that he's the killer and still refuse to believe it.
Speaking of being interested in the times, you’ve stayed so busy, work-wise, throughout your entire career. Whereas a lot of other performers might have their memories of their day, you know what Hollywood was when you started, what it is today and everything in between. What do you like about show business now? What don't you like? I'm just curious if you could compare the two.
Yeah. Two things, and maybe one is fortunate and one unfortunate: the corporate mentality running the business – and Broadway, by the way – is so debilitating because it smothers anarchy. It smothers the specificity of creativity. On the other hand, because the corporations are running the studios and so forth, you've got now an independent film industry the likes of which we never had. And that is the natural result and the cause-and-effect law. I've always been in the studio system. In fact, they tell me I'm the last of the contract players. I think I might have been. I sued Hal Wallis, I was under a five-year what they called ‘white slave’ contract, and basically I won – or let's say we settled, which means I won. So I won the battle and lost the war. That was the end of the studio system. [Today] I don't work in the studio system very often. I work now in the independent. I find that very exhilarating. And you have to shoot faster. And you have to talk faster. You have to be there and be healthy, instead of all of the perks and the formality of the old studio days. On the other hand, what a time that was!
You're getting a special honor from American Film Institute this summer – the Life Achievement Award.
Isn't that wonderful?
What does that mean to you?
It means looking out and seeing all these extraordinarily talented people and what I can say to them that exemplifies my experience and my thanks. That's what it means to me. It's a little nerve-wracking, but I hope it doesn't keep me up.
You've got so many great films in your filmography, from ‘Some Came Running’ to ‘The Apartment’ to ‘Being There’ to ‘Terms of Endearment.’ But are there some films that you would encourage the Shirley MacLaine fan to check out that maybe didn't get their due in their day?
That's a good question. I would say 'Desperate Characters'. Frank Gilroy directed. We made it for $250,000. A performance of real economy on my part. It said a lot about human nature in New York. I would say 'Madame Sousatzka' if they haven't seen it, because it's about an a musical art teacher and her insistence on discipline. I did a picture called 'Two Loves’ and I remember loving it when I did it, but I can't remember what it's like.
You were sort of the lone female member of the Rat Pack. They've been celebrated in so many different ways. Especially in the last 10-15 years. What do you think people don't know about them that they should appreciate? Things that you know about those guys because they were your friends that the public personas have eclipsed over the years?
I think people didn't realize that all of the saloons that Dean and Frank played in were owned by the Mob, and that's why the associations with the Mob guys came into being. It was all because of who owns where they performed – but everything is about who owns what these days, and it's important for people to understand that. And that 'Murder, Incorporated' was financed by talent.
As I leave I'll throw out one more. They're starting to make films about people you worked with and knew personally, like Alfred Hitchcock being played by Anthony Hopkins, and Martin Scorsese's Frank Sinatra film. What does it mean to you to see these people you know now becoming the subject of films themselves?
They were like walking movies at the time. It's no different to me. I mean Hitchcock was a caricature of himself. Knew it. Capitalized on it. Frank, of course, was bigger than life. Aren't they doing one on Dean, too? He was more subtle about being bigger than life. But he was. And the funniest of them.
Seriously, brilliantly, inventively funny--which people didn't understand.