By Alan Hurst
John’s recent look at the Oscar snubs of Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks got me thinking. They’re both winners and multiple nominees, but they also have a resume of performances that somehow Oscar overlooked. Coming from another generation of stars, Shirley MacLaine is another one who can be listed with Kidman and Hanks as someone you do not immediately think of when it comes to being passed over by the Oscars, but dig deeper and you find some surprisingly overlooked work. Of course none of this probably matters to them, but this kind of speculation is catnip for some of us.
Shirley MacLaine has five acting Best Actress nominations: Some Came Running (1958), The Apartment (1960), Irma La Douce (1963), The Turning Point (1977) and Terms of Endearment (1983), winning her first Oscar for the latter. She also received a nomination in 1975 for Best Feature Documentary for The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir.
But Oscar hasn’t turned its attention MacLaine’s way since her deserved win for Terms of Endearment. I remember watching the Oscars that year and she was thrilled to finally get the award, which probably should have been her second (I think she deserved recognition for The Apartment but Elizabeth Taylor and her near death from pneumonia that year were unbeatable). But 38 years is a long time between nods for an actress of MacLaine’s calibre. She can sometimes veer over the top if she doesn’t have a director to reign her in, or if the script gives her very little to work with, but I can think of a number of post Terms of Endearment performances that should have drawn more attention, as well as a couple from earlier in her career.
SWEET CHARITY (1969)
This was Bob Fosse’s first film as a director and it shows with his sometimes frenetic camera and visual gimmicks (he learned a lot between this and the filming of Cabaret three years later). But even with its flaws, I think it’s still a good representation of the 1966 Broadway hit that starred Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon. The jazzy score is well represented and Fosse’s staging of the musical numbers is, at times, wonderfully exciting – particularly “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “Rich Man’s Frug”, and “I’m a Brass Band”. But the anchor here is MacLaine. She’s a perfect fit for the downtrodden but ever optimistic dance hall hostess. At this point MacLaine wasn’t the dancer that Verdon was on stage and her co-stars leave her in the dust during “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”, but she’s terrific in her other numbers and her performance is achingly perfect in its neediness and vulnerability. Musicals were quickly becoming out of fashion at the time, and this was another big, expensive nail in their coffin for a while. Still, there was definitely room for MacLaine on the list of nominees that year.
DESPERATE CHARACTERS (1971)
This is one of MacLaine’s more obscure films, coming after her pairing with Clint Eastwood in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and before her ill-fated TV series Shirley’s World (1971-72). It’s the story of a marriage with the urban paranoia of the seventies as a backdrop. Fifty years later the problems of this childless couple feel both dated and oddly current, if that makes sense. It’s almost as if we’ve come full circle – accelerated over the last two years of the pandemic – in terms of self-destructive self-examination. MacLaine is excellent as the wife of a lawyer who’s not getting what she needs from the marriage or herself. This was her most dramatic role since The Children’s Hour (1961), and she really succeeds in getting the most she can out of Frank D. Gilroy’s script. MacLaine won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival and was a finalist for the New York Film Critics’ Award.
BEING THERE (1979)
I think MacLaine’s lack of a nomination for her sophisticated and daring work in Hal Ashby’s subtle but brilliant comedy was due to category confusion. It’s the story of a simple minded gardener (Peter Sellers) who is forced out into the world following the death of his employer. He quickly becomes the unlikely advisor of a powerful tycoon (Melvyn Douglas) and a power player in Washington D.C. politics. MacLaine plays the younger wife of Douglas’ character and soon develops romantic feelings for the gardener. MacLaine looks very pretty here and there’s a spark of both compassion and screwball dizziness in her work. Although she’s billed along Peter Sellers (who is perfect), she doesn’t show up until well into the film, and then the male actors seem to carry things for the bulk of the movie. There’s no question that she’s wonderful in the part, but voters didn’t know where to place her – lead or supporting? A Best Supporting Actress nomination would have made the most sense, but it didn’t happen.
MADAME SOUSATZKA (1988)
Following her success as the larger-than-life Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment, MacLaine went even larger with her role as Madame Irina Sousatzka. A combination of Miss Jean Brodie, the Madwoman of Chaillot and Auntie Mame, Sousatzka is an extravagant teacher of music who prefers to exist in the world she creates for herself – she is all about her music and her teaching, working with her group of specially selected students. John Schlesinger’s film balances (barely) the story of Sousatzka and her new protegee with a backstory about being evicted from her apartment. But the story doesn’t really matter. The role offers MacLaine a flurry of things to play and she plays them to the hilt – without ever going over the edge. The character is both a little insane and laser sharp, flamboyant and sensible. MacLaine won the Golden Globe that year for Best Actress in Motion Picture Drama – tying with Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist and Jodie Foster in The Accused. They were ultimately both nominated for the Oscar (Foster won), but not MacLaine. She should have been.
STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989)
The movie – and the play it’s based on – are both hokey and sentimental, but just try and stop watching once it starts. The film is about friendship and family as it details the relationships of six women: mother and daughter Sally Field and Julia Roberts, hairdresser Dolly Parton, her assistant Daryl Hannah, and long-time friends Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis. The cast saves this movie, particularly Field, Parton, Dukakis and MacLaine. They all work beautifully together, sparking both laughter and tears. A lot of the laughter comes from MacLaine as the ornery, opiniated and foul-mouthed Ouiser. She’s at an age where she can say what she wants and doesn’t have to care about the consequences. But MacLaine also lets you see the heart under the crusty exterior, a heart that’s been bruised and closed off for a lot of years. Unfortunately a lot of Ouiser crept into some of MacLaine’s later work, but in this first go-round she’s a delight. This should have netted her a Best Supporting Actress nomination that year, definitely over the work of co-star Julia Roberts who was nominated, definitely benefitting from being the hot new star that year – and because she played a pretty character with a terminal disease.
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990)
This is one of Mike Nichols’ best films and it should have been a much bigger Oscar player than it was in 1990. In addition to the nominations it received for Meryl Streep as Best Actress and for Best Song, it should have been in the running for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Shirley MacLaine’s terrific performance. The film chronicles the recovery from an overdose by an actress, Suzanne (Meryl Streep), her stumbling navigation through life in Hollywood, and her complicated relationship with her mother Doris (Shirley MacLaine), also an actress of some note whose glory days are behind her. The film is based on Carrie Fisher’s screenplay which was based on her own best-selling novel. The film spends less time in the rehab facility than the novel, which allows for the shift in focus to the relationship between the mother and daughter, based in part on Fisher’s relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds. MacLaine is a both tragic and a hoot as she tries to help (i.e. control) her daughter, offering advice, show biz tips, with very little self awareness and barely hiding her own dependence on alcohol to get through a day. There’s a prickly spark and perfect comic timing in MacLaine’s performance that works really well with Streep. A confrontation scene on the stairs between the two actresses is classic. Again, MacLaine eschews vanity for substance and it’s a great performance.
IN HER SHOES (2005)
I love this movie. I didn’t catch it in theatres, but later on DVD and it quickly became one of my favourites of the decade. I had not read the book by Jennifer Weiner so I was basically expecting a North American twist on Bridget Jones Diary. It was much more than that – a funny, sometimes uncomfortable look at, among other things, the bond between sisters, the stumbles we go through to pull our lives together, the stigma of mental illness, the loss of family and ultimately reconnecting. The story focused on two sisters – Rose (Toni Collette) and Maggie (Cameron Diaz). Rose is the smart one, a single lawyer with self esteem challenges, and Maggie is the pretty one who spends her life partying and hiding the fact she cannot read. The two lost their mother at a young age and, as Maggie hits bottom, she discovers a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) that their father never told them about. Collette’s Rose is probably the centre of the film because of Collette’s strong performance, but it’s when Maggie and her grandmother connect at a retirement village in Florida that the themes of discovery and healing really take flight. MacLaine is so good as the grandmother that, as your watching, you realize it had been a while since she had a part this good. She plays the character’s conflicted emotions perfectly – wanting to step in and help her granddaughters, but not knowing how far to go, and concerned about admitting she failed their mother, who died by suicide. MacLaine’s work here should have been among the five for Best Supporting Actress that year.
Bernie is a dark, dark comedy based on a true story about a mortician (Jack Black) in a small town in Texas who befriends the wealthy, recently widowed, and very nasty Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The two become companions, socializing and lunching together, but Marjorie’s demands increase and Bernie ultimately murders her which leads to his being sentenced to life in prison. Director Richard Linklater gives the film a buoyant steam of energy that lasts all the way through, with his expert cast finding laughs and making the audience cringe in equal and expert measure. Jack Black gives his best performance here, but MacLaine is equally good, showing the flinty nastiness of the character, but also letting you see that the cracks of neediness and loneliness that attract Bernie. Both Black and MacLaine should have been nominated for Oscars – Best Actor for him, Best Supporting Actress for her.
MacLaine is now 87 and still working with three films in either pre or post-production: American Dreamer with Peter Dinklage, Men of Granite with William Hurt, and People Not Places. Maybe one of those will get her back to the party.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.