Shirley MacLaine on Sexual Identity, Contemplating Alone, and More

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·15 min read
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Shirley MacLaine in Only Murders in the Building
Shirley MacLaine in Only Murders in the Building

I remember the first time I saw Shirley MacLaine on the big screen. It was in Terms of Endearment, where her Oscar-winning character, Aurora Greenway was simply irresistible and utterly indescribable. I’ve seen that movie countless times, and each time I find something new in Aurora. She is at once ballsy, brash, direct to a fault, and then fragile, sentimental, and big-hearted.

Since I fell in love with Aurora, I ended up making a point to watch as many Shirley MacLaine movies as I could. Each character seemed to encompass some of the attributes of Aurora, and I was always left with the impression that MacLaine was putting so much of herself into each part she played.

I imagined her to be ballsy and fragile, brash and sentimental and direct and big-hearted. She has remained my favorite actress for nearly 40 years.

Her body of work is a tour de force of the many facets of Shirley MacLaine. She made her debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry in 1955. She won the Golden Globe that year for New Star of the Year (actress). Along the way she shined in such films as The Turning Point, Sweet Charity, and Postcards From the Edge.

Then there was The Apartment in 1960 with my all-time favorite actor, Jack Lemmon. One regret I have is that I never met Jack Lemmon. And as I grew older, I worried that I would miss the opportunity to meet or at least talk to MacLaine.

I watched her films at every opportunity. It was the closest, I thought, that I would ever get to knowing hwe.

I loved her in Being There, a gem of a Peter Sellers film. MacLaine plays Eve Rand, the much younger wife of a high-ranking presidential adviser, Ben Rand, played by the legendary Melvyn Douglas. In a reply to a question about who the simple Sellers character is when she first meets him, Eve hilariously mishears "Chance, the gardener" as "Chauncey Gardiner," and the rest is epic.

Of course, most of us gay men of a certain age — and then some —will always remember her in Steel Magnolias, where she and the late Olympia Dukakis played warring adversaries who were best friends. The film has become a sort of coming-of-age movie for gay men, and mainly because of our love of MacLaine’s acerbic character Louisa "Ouiser" Boudreaux.

Besides her Oscar and several competitive Golden Globe Awards, MacLaine has received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes' Cecil B. DeMille Award.

When I saw MacLaine recently in her fabulous guest-starring role on the Emmy-nominated Hulu comedy Only Murders in the Building, I began drumming up an excuse to reach out to her.

Turns out, I discovered she’s up to quite a bit at the age of 88, including a starring role in the film American Dreamer, opposite Peter Dinklage, which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival.

What intrigued me perhaps the most about speaking with MacLaine is her point of view on sexual identity — which is becoming the buzz term of 2022. MacLaine has long believed in and written and spoken about reincarnation.

In her 2011 book, I’m Over All That: And Other Confessions, she wrote, “One of the explanations for homosexuality and transgenderism could, I believe, be a profound identification with a recent incarnation as a member of the opposite sex.”

She also said in a 2015 interview, “Was I ever a man? Was I ever confused about being a man? Was I ever gay? I think, absolutely. I think we all have been around that block many times.”

There was a time in my life, when I thought I had all the answers, that I scoffed at reincarnation; however, as I’ve gotten older, I realize that all the answers I had when I was younger were merely guesses.

Who among us knows the definitive truth about who we are, where we come from, and where we will go? Reincarnation doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me anymore.

When I began my phone conversation with MacLaine, I envisioned talking to an amalgamation of all her iconic characters, and MacLaine did not disappoint. She is at every turn sharp, intuitive, witty, and perceptive.

What follows is a condensed version of my conversation with the legend that is Shirley MacLaine.

The Advocate: Can I just begin by saying it is wonderful to hear your voice?
Shirley MacLaine: Thank you so much. That’s very sweet.

I hear that you’ve just returned to California after spending most of the pandemic in New Mexico.  
Yes, I spent about a year and a half alone in the mountains of New Mexico. It was quite interesting.

Did you get tired of yourself after a while?
Not at all. I don’t get tired of myself. Being alone in nature can be very revealing. You’re able to reflect on the universal intelligence of the world we live in. We don’t spend enough time alone and, for that matter, trying to understand and contemplate the universe around us. Being in the mountains you can connect to the world. It’s beautiful, and it provides an opportunity to take a measurement of emotional intelligence of yourself, whether you’re at peace or not. And it helps open up your thinking about what prior civilizations might have been like. What was life like then? Was it more peaceful, considering things aren’t in the best of shape in the here and now?

Are you sad that you left what sounds like paradise?
No, I love it here in Malibu as well. I take walks on the beaches and the nearby hills. I’m still trying to stay away from people — not that I dislike them, but as I get older, I’m perfectly happy with myself.

So overall you’re more at peace?
Yes, I’m more at peace with myself. Being alone in the mountains of New Mexico, I was able to better grasp the chaos we’re all in when we don’t take those moments by ourselves to commune with nature — we miss out on something. More peaceful despite the complicated and complex country we live in right now. Could be a reason that I don’t go out much. It can be a reminder of all the turmoil. I’m more settled about how to be part of a screwed-up and complicated culture.

That’s not to say I’m not paying attention. I watch and read the news. I think I could have been a journalist or might have been one in a prior life.

It’s never too late to become a journalist. I read a couple of your books. You’re a great writer. 
I’ve been thinking about writing, but the problem is after a while I have difficulty holding the pen with my hand. For me, I like to write everything down; however, I’m thinking about maybe trying despite the limitations of my hand.

I’m sure you know this, but you can dictate something into your phone, and it will even transcribe it. Or you can have someone transcribe it for you?
That’s not for me. I like pen and paper. Too much technology these days. It gets in the way of people engaging one another.

Yes, I agree with you. People who walk down the streets of Manhattan and have their heads inconsiderately buried in their phone. It’s a pet peeve of mine.
They end up walking into open holes!

That’s what I hope will happen to them.
Not me! I don’t wish harm on anyone.  We’re all trying to navigate our way through this life, which is hard enough. We should be there for each other.

This life. Glad you brought that up.  I always believed that this was the only life we had, but as I’ve gotten older, I can now appreciate your wisdom on reincarnation. My friend who is an engineer said we are all energy, and you can’t kill energy. Do you believe that’s true?
Where does it go? I’ll tell you, if you understand universal intelligence, then there’s no stretch in understanding the laws of karma and balancing thoughts about when you come back. The thing is to get in touch with reality. We have lived and experienced many civilizations. When you understand that, everything becomes easier to behold.

I thought of you when I saw the amazing first images from the Webb telescope. What do you think about the new worlds we’re seeing?
It’s incredible, isn’t it? All the colors and vibrancy are what I expected since I think like a creative person. I feel like I do think about the world beyond our galaxy when I’m alone in silence, and I decide to speculate on it. On what’s out there. It’s kind of an exercise and a way to stimulate your imagination about everything. We are nothing if we don’t have imagination.

I agree with you on that.
Like we were discussing before. To me, technology, in a sense, is like a prison. It is sapping our imaginations and how we might imagine who we were and who we might be. We just ask Google a question, and we get the same answer everybody else gets.

Well, speaking of imagination, I have dreamed more than once that I was a member of the Rat Pack, partying away with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop ,and Peter Lawford. I know you were an honorary member and the only woman they let in the club, so to speak. Do you mind talking about that period?
Oh, the Rat Pack! You know, I often reflect on that time in my life. We were in the middle of all the comedy planets. Those guys took such pleasure in all aspects of comedy, including when you make fun of somebody, and let me stress in a way that isn’t negative.

I know one thing for sure, they improved my sense of sarcasm. I was around them and watching them, and they knew my history as a dancer, and in a way, they protected me. Their creativity and love for being together was unmatched.

What a time. It sounds like there wasn’t much peace.
[Laughing] I did have my moments of peace. I spent time with the Dalai Lama. That was amazing. He is literally out of this world. He is a great man. I was there when he went through some of his problems out of Tibet. I was spending a lot of time in India.

I really began to like the Dalai Lama after he endorsed marriage equality. I was glad to see that he’s become more open-minded.
You know who else was very open-minded was the Rat Pack. Back then, we were called “lefties,” or liberal I guess in today’s parlance, and they were too. What people don’t know about them is that they discussed everything, from politics to what was going on in the world, even science. They were smart.

They handled well and were very accepting of sexual identity, and if you wanted to make them unhappy, all you had to do was say something derogatory about someone’s sexuality, race, or religion. They may have made jokes about those things, but that’s all they were. If you said anything that was mistreating someone, they were done with you. I did six films with Dean and Frank, and those were just trips on laughter.

Six movies with Frank and Dean? That would be like a dream come true. You’ve done so much, and television too. I love you in Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, and you’ve got a new film out with Peter Dinklage.
I love making movies. Again, I keep coming back to creativity. I loved part the part of Leonora Folger in Murders. It was such fun shooting those scenes. It was great to catch up with old friends Steve [Martin] and Marty [Short], and I’ve known the creator John Hoffman for years. I just loved being with them.

That character just fit me like a glove. When Leonora is trying to cut the cheese and can’t, she just says “Bullshit” and picks the whole block up and eats it. That was me. I was having trouble with the cheese, and you know at this age, if you can’t cut a piece of it, just pick the whole thing up and take a bite out of it. That’s what I did!

That was classic, for sure. What’s the best part of working on a production for you?
Oh, that’s easy. The kindness and brilliance of the crew. I adore film crews and their ability to solve problems on set and make magic. It’s all just so exciting. Being on a set is like how society should be. One reason I’m still doing movies and television, like Downton Abbey, is because you’re within the creative culture of the entire cast and crew. Now, unlike most every other actor today, I have no desire to be in a Marvel movie, and I’m fine with that. Oh, I won’t work on something with early calls like 5 or 6 a.m.

Those times sound like the hours you’d be calling it a night with Frank, Dean and Sammy. How was it with Peter Sellers in Being There? He was a genius.
Wow, that was quite an experience. Peter and I were good friends, and we all vacationed in Europe where Peter lived. When we began production, I couldn't get near him. You couldn't go into his traile, or talk to him on set or between takes. He was completely off-limits and spent the entire production constantly in character. It was the craziest thing.

Was it the craziest movie you ever made? 
Oh, no, not at all. If a production wasn't crazy, I was bored or unhappy. I thrive on crazy.

OK, let’s talk about sexuality. First, just curious, who was or is your best gay friend or friends?
Everybody I know! It’s impossible to pick just one person. Gay men have been such an important part of my life forever. I was a ballet dancer starting at 3 years old. I remember there were people I knew who were questioning who they were long before junior high.

Then I was on Broadway. To me, there was no separation, in other words, I never looked at someone and said, “Oh, he’s gay.” There was no kind of acknowledgment of different sexual orientation, it was just acceptance.

How about sexual identity as a whole. As you know, people are not just coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. This generation seems to be so much more open about who they are.
Of course. It’s easy to contemplate that there are more than two sexes. Let yourself speculate on that for a minute, and it will be very revealing as to who you are. Contemplating has led my mind to be open to a lot of speculation. How do you relate to just two sexes? I really ask questions about how we will identify in the future. Or even how prior civilizations defined sexual identity — there could have been two, three, or more sexes, or ones that we’ve never even thought about. The fact that there might be many is something that shouldn’t be denied. Where does it say that we have to only have two sexes?

Just say, for example, that there’s a third-choice neutrality — not identifying at all. I wonder how much more at peace we’d all feel in the world if we had to go without identifying our sexual identity in any way.

Wow, Shirley, you're right. It really sucks to be categorized. We should all be free to be who we want to be. I think it's why I love drag queens so much. They are just so free and happy. Oops, now it sounds like I'm contemplating.
Yes, that’s what you should do. That’s what we should all be doing more of. We don’t appreciate all that we have around us and think about how we got here and how our souls have traveled. All of our souls have many stories to tell.

Before we go, I have to ask you about your favorite film and character.
Oh, Terms and Aurora!

I’m so glad you said that. Aurora is a legend.

It was Jimmy Brooks's [writer, director, and producer] first film, and we were all working so hard to try and support him. He was so nervous, but we all knew his script and the story were priceless. You just knew that this film was going to be something that was really special.

That reminds me, I owe Jimmy a call. I’m going to call him after we hang up.

Tell him I said hi!
[Laughing] I sure will. So much of that film was spontaneous, and Jack [Nicholson] brought so much to each scene we did together. He’d just bring it, and I’d go along with him.

Like the first time your two characters slept together?
That was Jack, and I just took what he gave me, and we went from there. That was such a fun scene to shoot.

And your lunch scene at the country club was hysterical.
All Jack. We just played off each other so well. That’s why it worked, because we just kept reacting to what the other person did. He looked at the table at the other women next to us, and I just got mad at how rude that was.

Speaking of lunch, I think I’m going to go out to lunch now and have a lychee martini!

By yourself.
Yes!

To contemplate?
Of course. Like always.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.