Shirley Maclaine Talks About Women, Politics, Brother Warren and Being Back on Broadway

From her days with Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack to George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign to her highly publicized odyssey as the leader of the first American women’s delegation to China, Shirley MacLaine has stirred up controversy. It has never seemed to slow her multifaceted career, which includes four Oscar nominations, two best-sellers (Don’t Fall Off the Mountain and You Can Get There from Here), a China documentary called The Other Half of the Sky, several television specials and now a razzle-dazzle club act. After a successful European tour with it, MacLaine, 42, is back on Broadway for the first time since 1954 when she was plucked from the chorus of Pajama Game after the star injured an ankle. Her other current projects are a novel, a contract for three more CBS specials, a return engagement in London plus plans to produce and star in a film biography of Amelia Earhart. MacLaine ranged across subjects as varied as her accomplishments in a conversation with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.

Which is the real Shirley MacLaine—the hoofer at the Palace or the political activist and author?

I’m trying to figure that one out myself. That’s why I became a writer. That’s why I got involved in the McGovern campaign. That’s why I travel. Of course, we’re all a mass of contradictions. I suppose on my deathbed I’ll look up at the ceiling and say, “Oh, that’s who I am.”

Are you sometimes too outspoken, as when you called New York “the Karen Quinlan of American cities”?

That was terrible and tasteless, and I’m sorry I said it. It was just something off the top of my head opening night. Afterward I called up the parents of Karen Quinlan and apologized. But it is a line that happens to be going around in Washington, which does have the power of life and death over New York City; it can pull the plug economically any time. Christ, I’m never sure what I’m going to say. When a London reporter asked what I thought about John Kennedy’s sex life, I told him I’d rather have a President who was screwing women than screwing the country.

Why do you attract controversy?

I do everything in public. I make my mistakes in public. My attitudes, my behavior, my love affairs are all in public. I like to try on my colors. There are stars who are proficiently paranoid enough to hide what they really think. I can’t.

Why are you politically inactive this election year?

No candidate is standing for anything. No one is advocating a specific plan for nationalizing the oil industry or for national health care. I get the feeling the candidates are all putting America on hold.

How do you rate the candidates?

Jimmy Carter looks like Howdy Doody, and the people who grew up watching Howdy Doody are the ones who are voting for him. Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, Mo Udall, even Ronald Reagan are all nice men. I like them as people very much. They just aren’t saying anything.

And President Ford?

How can you dislike a guy who eats a tamale with the wrapper still on it?

Were you disillusioned by McGovern?

Not at all. McGovern was totally about change, and that scared the hell out of the public. Men like McGovern are necessary at times in history to let us know we are going too slow. Regret my involvement? I’d do it again.

Will you be politically active again?

I think so, when the right candidate comes along. I’m an artist, therefore I think I am sensitive to human pain. It’s impossible to be happy when people are suffering. Politicians organize and artists humanize. We need a lot of each in the other.

What did you learn from your trip to China?

I’m less materialistic. I have no car, no expensive jewelry, few clothes. I never cared that much about possessions, anyway, even when I was a member of the Rat Pack. Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin were very materialistic, but I really couldn’t understand it.

Why did you credit Chairman Mao with your decision to plunge into a splashy, all-American nightclub act?

There is no question that Chinese art and movies are abominable—more effective than Seconal. Art democratically executed is a disaster. What China taught me was that the individual can do anything, even rebuild an entire society in just 27 years. It had always been easy for me to get up in front of people and hide behind a character, but I never had the guts to get up onstage and be myself. I found that courage when I returned from China.

What do you think about the status of women in America?

The main problem is to liberate the males. Every man I know is a chauvinist, and none of them is happy about it. We’re getting to the point where it won’t be okay for anybody to cry. If a woman cries, the feminists get her. If you’re a man and you cry, the rednecks get you. I want women to be liberated and still be able to have a nice ass and shake it.

How difficult is it to find a good woman’s role in the movies?

It’s practically impossible. Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Michael Caine and Sean Connery. Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. I think they’d rather play with each other than play with us. Really, I’m glad to see the superstuds coming out of the closet. The only women that the moviemakers in Hollywood know are housewives and hookers. Out of my 37 roles, 14 were hookers. Hollywood must realize that portraying real women would be a commercial success.

Why, in this feminist era, have women’s roles dried up?

First, the women’s movement has inhibited the creativity of male writers, producers and directors. If they create roles for women, they’re afraid they’ll expose their chauvinism. I think the buddy-buddy pictures now being made actually expose latent homosexuality. Actresses also suffer from the rebellion against the old movie censorship days. When the Hays office went out, everybody rushed into the bedroom. We’ve got to get off this stuff about sex, which is demeaning to women, and onto love.

How does television stand when it comes to women?

It’s far ahead. Women dominate the airwaves. Look at Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Mary Tyler Moore, Phyllis, Maude, Rhoda. These are good programs about real women. And Cher! Where else are you going to find a woman with someone else’s baby in her body co-hosting a prime time variety show with her ex-husband? It takes courage to put on a show like that. Maybe TV is more daring in its treatment of women because network executives realize that if a show doesn’t click it can be tomorrow’s fish paper pretty quick. Unlike films, it disappears completely. Bad ratings can kill a show fast. I know. It happened to my show, Shirley’s World.

Why are you producing and starring in a film biography of Amelia Earhart?

She was a woman who early on found out what she wanted to do with her life and did it. Men were important to her but didn’t submerge her identity. I’ve been learning to fly for the role and have researched the movie in the FBI files and in Tokyo. I’m convinced that she was not just on a stunt trip when she died. She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were the first casualties of World War II. One theory is that she was on a mission for President Roosevelt to photograph Japanese installations in the central Pacific. One man who really knew all the answers was Howard Hughes because he was a close flying buddy of Amelia’s.

Don’t you find it ironic that your brother, Warren Beatty, is working on the film biography of Hughes?

It’ll be rough for Warren to get to the real story. I don’t think anyone knows the real story about Hughes.

How would you characterize the differences between you and your brother?

He sees things in terms of black and white. I see the gray, the nuance. I tend to be more philosophical, almost abstract. Warren’s very much into money, lots of it. I’m only three years older, but really I’m a lot older.

How important is it for you to be performing onstage?

On opening night at the Palladium in London this winter, I was waiting to go on before an audience filled with royalty when I overheard two men arguing in the wings. One said, “Don’t tell her about it now. After all, not all bombs go off.” Just then the orchestra struck up and I had to go onstage. There in the front row were two empty seats, one with a suitcase on it. It turned out not to be a bomb, but at the time I thought it was. Do you know, I didn’t even pause. All I cared about was whether the audience liked the show.

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