Right after Shirley MacLaine received the Academy Award for her portrayal of Aurora, the bossy but brave mother in Terms of Endearment, a reporter asked if she thought she’d won for this performance or her entire career. “Both,” she replied, “and for my body.” As an author and activist, and actress for 31 years, she has defied convention as well as conventional wisdom. Last week in New York MacLaine, who will be 50 on April 24, readied her song-and-dance show for a five-week engagement on Broadway. Before heading back to rehearsals, she spoke with associate editor Scot Haller about the challenges and contentment of facing half a century.
My 40th birthday was the one that was hard for me to adjust to—because other people were having a problem. They would call my secretary and say, “How’s she taking it? Is she all right?” I was amused by those calls because I didn’t feel that way. Now nobody’s making those calls. Now it’s more, “Isn’t it wonderful to be 50 and doing all this?” Friends think it’s just a great celebration. Maybe because that’s the way I feel.
When I saw the invitations for my party, when I saw in black-and-white letters: “Come and help celebrate Shirley’s 50th birthday,” I realized how dissociated I am from the meaning of time. To me, the moment is the only time there is now. The present.
The positive approach is to be one with yourself. And in some ways you sense that it stops the aging process. I’m my own witness to this. Until about five years ago I was living too much in the past, worrying about what I should or shouldn’t have done. At the same time I was more concerned about the future, about what I should or shouldn’t do. In each case I was ripping off the present. So if the past is not something you’re thinking about and the future is not something you’re addressing yourself to, then what does 50 mean? It’s the same as being 12.
I remember hearing Norman Mailer on The Larry King Show, and he said that when he writes, “it’s almost as if the gods are speaking through me.” Mailer has learned to get out of his own way when he writes. That’s beginning to happen to me in acting. To live in the moment is to get out of your own way.
Look at Katharine Hepburn. Look at Bette Davis. Some of Hollywood’s great actresses came into their primes in their middle 40s because you’re better at your work if you let it happen and do not fight the passage of time.
I learned a lot from Aurora because she grew in Terms. She grew to be more tolerant, whereas the astronaut was still stuck and the daughter took the negative route. I’m finally getting to where I’m beginning to really fall in love with people’s defects—because I’m more tolerant of my own. The more I’ve learned about me, the more I’m interested in others, so I can now feel more committed to a character. I think I’ve just begun to do my best work.
One of the reasons I admire Aurora so much is that she comes to terms with sex. When she stopped being so judgmental and commanding and demanding and such a pain, she could relax and have sex after 50. I’ve had a really fulfilled life in that area. I’ve had a lot of relationships and I’ve enjoyed every one or I wouldn’t have had them. I was never really promiscuous. I mean, the relationship I was in would be it. Usually. I went through a period of experimentation with sex for sex’s sake, which was wonderful, but that other dimension was missing. I wouldn’t be interested in that now. Physical sexuality is important, but it isn’t as important as it was. The communication is what’s important.
I was never paranoid about death, though I worried that I didn’t have time to finish everything I wanted to do. Time and death were synonymous. Because I’ve changed my ideas about time, I’ve changed how I think about death. If you don’t feel that anything ever dies, it reduces the fear.
Last year on my birthday, I went to the top of a mountain—I’m very big on mountains—and I sat there and projected what I wanted: the acceptance of Terms of Endearment, that my book wouldn’t be too controversial, a live show that worked. And it’s all happened. I’m not suffering from a sense of half a century at all.