Shirley MacLaine

Active - 1955 - 2019  |   Born - Apr 24, 1934 in Richmond, Virginia, United States  |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Comedy Drama, Film, TV & Radio

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

A dancer, singer, highly regarded actress and metaphysical time traveler, Shirley MacLaine is certainly among Hollywood's most unique stars. Born Shirley MacLane Beaty on April 24, 1934 in Richmond, Virginia, MacLaine was the daughter of drama coach and former actress Kathlyn MacLean Beaty and Ira O. Beaty, a professor of psychology and philosophy. Her younger brother, Warren Beatty, also grew up to be an important Hollywood figure as an actor/director/ producer and screenwriter. MacLaine's mother, who gave up her own dreams of stardom for her young family, greatly motivated her daughter to become an actress and dancer. MacLaine took dance lessons from age two, first performed publicly at age four, and at 16 went to New York, making her Broadway debut as a chorus girl in Me and Juliet (1953). When not scrambling for theatrical work, MacLaine worked as a model.

Interestingly, MacLaine's big break was the result of another actress's bad luck. In 1954, MacLaine was understudying Broadway actress Carol Haney The Pajama Game when Haney fractured her ankle. MacLaine replaced her and was spotted and offered a movie contract by producer Hal Wallis. With her auburn hair cut impishly short, the young actress made her film debut in Hitchock's black comedy The Trouble With Harry (1955). Later that year, she co-starred opposite Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the comedy Artists and Models. In her next feature, Around the World in 80 Days (1956), she appeared as an Indian princess.

MacLaine earned her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a pathetic tart who shocks a conservative town by showing up on the arm of young war hero Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running (1959). She then got the opportunity to show off her long legs and dancing talents in Can-Can (1960). Prior to that, she appeared with Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford in Oceans Eleven (1960). MacLaine, the only female member of the famed group, would later recount her experiences with them in her seventh book My Lucky Stars. In 1960, she won her second Oscar nomination for Billy Wilder's comedy/drama The Apartment, and a third nomination for Irma La Douce (1963). MacLaine's career was in high gear during the '60s, with her appearing in everything from dramas to madcap comedies to musicals such as What a Way to Go! (1964) and Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity! (1969). In addition to her screen work, she actively participated in Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign and served as a Democratic Convention delegate. She was similarly involved in George McGovern's 1972 campaign.

Bored by sitting around on movie sets all day awaiting her scenes, MacLaine started writing down her thoughts and was thus inspired to add writing to her list of talents. She published her first book, Don't Fall Off the Mountain in 1970. She next tried her hand at series television in 1971, starring in the comedy Shirley's World (1971-72) as a globe-trotting photographer. The role reflected her real-life reputation as a world traveler, and these experiences resulted in her second book Don't Fall Off the Mountain and the documentary The Other Half of the Sky -- A China Memoir (1975) which she scripted, produced and co-directed with Claudia Weill. MacLaine returned to Broadway in 1976 with a spectacular one-woman show A Gypsy in My Soul, and the following year entered a new phase in her career playing a middle-aged former ballerina who regrets leaving dance to live a middle-class life in The Turning Point. MacLaine was memorable starring as a lonely political wife opposite Peter Sellers' simple-minded gardener in Being There (1979), but did not again attract too much attention until she played the over-protective, eccentric widow Aurora Greenway in James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment (1983), a role that finally won MacLaine an Academy Award. That same year, she published the candid Out on a Limb, bravely risking public ridicule by describing her experiences and theories concerning out-of-body travel and reincarnation.

MacLaine's film appearances were sporadic through the mid '80s, although she did appear in a few television specials. In 1988, she came back strong with three great roles in Madame Sousatzka (1988), Steel Magnolias (1989) and particularly Postcards from the Edge (1990), in which she played a fading star clinging to her own career while helping her daughter Meryl Streep, a drug addicted, self-destructive actress. Through the '90s, MacLaine specialized in playing rather crusty and strong-willed eccentrics, such as her title character in the 1994 comedy Guarding Tess. In 1997, MacLaine stole scenes as a wise grande dame who helps pregnant, homeless Ricki Lake in Mrs. Winterbourne, and the same year revived Aurora Greenway in The Evening Star, the critically maligned sequel to Terms of Endearment.

MacLaine's onscreen performances were few and far between in the first half of the next decade, but in 2005 she returned in relatively full force, appearing in three features. She took on a pair of grandmother roles in the comedy-dramas In Her Shoes and Rumor Has It..., and was a perfect fit for the part of Endora in the bigscreen take on the classic sitcom Bewitched. In the coming years, McLaine would continue to give critically acclaimed performances in movies like Coco Chanel, Valentine's Day, and Bernie.

For a long time, MacLaine did seminars on her books, but in the mid '90s stopped giving talks, claiming she did not want "to be anyone's guru." She does, however, continue writing and remains a popular writer.

Movie Highlights

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  • Made her Broadway debut at 18 as a chorus dancer in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet.
  • When Carol Haney, the actor she was understudying for in The Pajama Game, broke her ankle, MacLaine stepped in; she was subsequently spotted by a producer and signed to a deal with Paramount Pictures.
  • Made her big-screen debut in Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 black comedy The Trouble With Harry.
  • Published her first autobiographical book, Don't Fall off the Mountain, in 1970. It was followed by several other bestsellers addressing her beliefs about reincarnation, UFOs and spirituality.
  • Launched in 2000, offering astrology information and spiritual discussion forums, as well as selling a wide array of New Age-oriented products.
  • Made her solo directing debut with the dramedy Bruno (2000), in which she also costarred with Kathy Bates and Gary Sinise.
  • After several years away from the big screen, returned with three features in 2005: Bewitched, In Her Shoes and Rumor Has It.; subsequently appeared in Closing the Ring (2007) and Valentine's Day (2010), among others.