Shirley MacLaine had a few facts to go on when she accepted the part of Marjorie Nugent in Richard Linklater’s latest film, Bernie: It is based on a true story. Nugent was mean and nasty. She was a widow hated by most of the town of Carthage, Texas. She was rich and stingy. She was murdered by her friend, the town mortician named Bernie Tiede.
Everything else was up to MacLaine to figure out. At first she said she hoped Linklater would give her more clues. But he was “ambiguous.”
“The first meeting was strange because he didn’t answer any of my questions,” said the 78-year-old Oscar winning actress. “I said, ‘Do you want me to look like her? What is the wardrobe like? Do I speak in that accent?’ I had to find my own way about everything. All of us were operating on our own.”
Linklater says he offered some advice and had many conversations with her. But knew he could give someone like MacLaine a lot of freedom. Besides, MacLaine was in communication with both main characters, Tiede from prison and Nugent from the great beyond.
“I am always trying to involve the actor in the creation of the character but everyone is different at how they arrive at that,” said Linklater, noting that MacLaine was the first person he thought of for the role in 1998 when he first read the story in Texas Monthly magazine. But she was too young at the time. “The key to Shirley is that she likes playing that side where people think she is a crazy old bitch. But then during the honeymoon period in the story, Shirley still has that twinkle in her eye and she is still very sexy.”
MacLaine also realized that uncertainty was a major theme in the dark comedy. Telling too much or delving too deep, would turn it into a drama.
“I realized he was making a picture about ambiguity,” she said. “Is Bernie guilty? Is he a murderer? Is he adorable? The whole secret of the comedy is not to go too far. If you go too far you don’t have ‘Springtime for Hitler.’ ”
As she speaks, her light blue eyes shoot out intelligence. Her finely penciled lips are a coppery brown, playing off her salmon-colored suit and her reddish hair. Her jewelry sparkles with diamonds and tanzanite, the color of the vision chakra, part red, part blue. When frustrated by a question, her lips purse, her eyes narrow in a flash of Aurora Greenway, her character for which she won her first and only Oscar in Terms of Endearment.
MacLaine, avid spiritualist and searcher, is comfortable with the unanswerable.
“I think you can have a work ethic about doing nothing,” she said.
One question she has been asking herself lately is why she and so many millions are fanatically gripped by the Masterpiece drama, Downton Abbey, in which she was recently cast. The publicity generated by her hiring prompted the producers of Downton to call her agent, ICM’s Jack Gilardi, to thank him.
“She is so professional and very creative,” said Gilardi, who has represented her for 20 years. “She has a great gift understanding people. She knows how to make you tingle.”
She had never seen the series—but after watching the first two seasons, she was hooked. Now, she is muzzled by creator Julian Fellowes’s edict that no one from the cast can talk about Season 3: MacLaine, who will play Martha Levinson, Lady Cora Crawley’s mother, could not offer much insight.
“Why is this a hit? I haven’t come up with the answer,” she said. “I think Maggie Smith is one answer. I liked Upstairs Downstairs, but not like this. It is really worth an examination.”
She is fond of pondering, and began asking deep questions like “What is this all about?’ ‘What is God?’ ‘Are we alone?’ ” at the age of 10.
Her father, an intellectual with a background in psychology and philosophy, engaged her questions by asking more questions, such as, if there is a God, then we must ask what it means.
And so she is perplexed by folks, like the people of Carthage, Texas, who don’t ask questions and are certain of the unknowable. The residents of the town would not believe that their beloved Bernie confessed to shooting Marge Nugent in the back four times in 1996 and then stuck her in a refrigerated cooler face down below the chicken pot pies.
“The townspeople of East Texas are like the Greek chorus in the movie,” said MacLaine. “The most interesting thing is that they refused to believe the truth. It is, I think, a sociologically important statement on East Texas. It is kind of like another country.”
For MacLaine, there is no border dividing show business and life. In life, we are our own costume designer, our own actor, distributor, producer, director, and writer, she says. During her current one-woman show, she compiles clips from her acting, dancing, and singing life together with her thoughts on meditation, reincarnation, UFOs, and chakras. At the end of the show there is a question-and-answer session and rarely do people ask about Hollywood.
“The questions are never about showbiz. They are about my books,” she said. “They get the compilation that life is show business. They understand that we are just actors strutting up on the stage, as the great man said.”
Perhaps because of her belief in life as show business, her holistic approach about her mind, body, and soul has spared her the fate of many of her contemporaries. She has avoided the pitfalls of fame, money, prescription pills, or drugs or alcohol that brought down many actresses of her generation. Since she believes in the laws of cause and effect, there are no accidents. She has outlived nearly all of her contemporaries.
In June, the American Film Institute will present her with a lifetime achievement award. It is an understatement to say she has achieved much. She has made more than 50 feature films, hung out with Frank, Dino, and Sammy; worked with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Hal Ashby, and James L. Brooks; costarred with luminaries like Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson, and Peter Sellers; received six Oscar nominations, with one win in 1983 for Terms of Endearment, and seven Golden Globes, including the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s written several bestselling books, including her spicy tell all, I’m All Over That—and Other Confessions, last year. It will be challenging to fit her ceremony into two hours, said Bob Gazzale, chief executive of AFI.
“Perhaps more than any other recipient, with Shirley I would underline the word life,” he said. “It’s so much more than just movies. It’s been an epic journey and she has invited all of us to come along for the ride.”
Part of her journey at one time included politics. She was eager and fresh faced in 1972 when she traversed the country pumping up enthusiasm for George McGovern, along with her brother, Warren Beatty. Since then she has only backed one candidate, Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich. She is disillusioned by politics and dismisses the system as so corrupt it cannot be saved. She views America’s materialistic ways as a disaster, in the literal sense of Greek etymology: dis—meaning torn away from, and aster, the stars. Or, the separation from the spiritual.
Although she is highly disciplined, she says she is trying to stop being so goal oriented. It was a lesson she learned when she made her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the route through Spain said to be taken by St. James in the ninth century. Instead of taking in the stars at night and relaxing through the voyage, she rushed through it to reach the end by a deadline.
“One reason I live in New Mexico is that there is no goal-oriented work ethic. I think you can have a work ethic about doing nothing,” she said. “In Santiago de Compostela, I learned we only need a pair of shoes, water, and a good hat. That is all you need in life.”