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Shirley MacLaine: Apparently sane

TORONTO -- Shirley MacLaine hadn't made a film for almost five years, not since she won the Oscar for "Terms of Endearment," and so when the role of the old piano teacher came along, maybe her first thought was to take a pass. She would have to play old and look old, and be just as stubborn at the end of the movie as she was at the beginning. Was this trip necessary?

"This script was submitted to actresses as far back as 15 years ago," MacLaine was telling me one afternoon during the Toronto Film Festival. "Bette Davis at one point was interested. I think Kate Hepburn and Anne Bancroft looked at it. Vanessa Redgrave. Something always happened with the agents, or the deal, or the unavailability of somebody. It was like this script was just waiting for me, all those years, for me to make the transition into character acting."

"You're the star of the movie," I said. "What do you mean by `character acting'?"

"It's the type of character," she said. "The eccentric of indeterminate age, who time has certainly not been kind to. That's not a traditional leading lady. So I had to make a decision in terms of how I would look on the screen, how I'd be perceived. I hadn't made a film in (more than) four years. Now I was going to play this. I had to pry myself away from the priorities of cosmetic vanity."

But the role was so rich. Maybe it was worth looking frumpy and sad. MacLaine is the star of "Madame Sousatzka," playing a spinster who teaches the piano in her second-floor flat on a London street that has seen better days. Her dark and musty rooms are filled with rich fabrics and deep shadows, antique furniture, shawls, plants, long curtains, and the photographs of the students who have passed through her life. Most of them do not amount to much. Occasionally, one seems to be gifted. At present, she has high hopes for a 16-year-old Indian boy named Manek, who plays the piano like an angel. Her problem is, she falls a little in love with all of her students, and doesn't want to lose them. Manek wants to make his concert debut, to earn some money for his mother, who bakes pastries for a department store. Madame Sousatzka doesn't think he's ready yet. The movie is about their struggle, the people in her life, her loneliness and the beauty of her soul.

"It was time," MacLaine was saying, "to stop taking parts that are traditional leading lady movie-star showcases, and rather take the parts that are questionable and dangerous but wonderful, parts that you can get into. Instead of being concerned about how much money you're going to make, it's better to be dangerous and surprise the people. Since I think I'm all these people anyway, and since I think I've lived all these lives, I'm sure there's a Sousatzka in there somewhere. It's a whole different approach these days."

"And never mind how you look?" I asked. "When you saw the rushes for the first time, were you depressed that you look so much older on the screen?"

`No, I saw the character, and I saw the absence of me, and I thought - that's what I did it for, and it worked. I helped them to age me. I was the one walking around the set telling them to put the light up above me to accentuate parts of my face that are beginning to age. If you're going to do it, you have to do it correctly and with courage. Every now and then, seeing myself on film, I'd have a twinge. I gained 25 pounds to make her look more lumbering, so my body wouldn't be so flexible and dancer-like, but most of it I did with my attitude. I did some aging under my eyes and lips and eyebrows, and I used a wig. I know where the camera is every minute. I've learned to work with my face, and I know if I do this (she made a face) the bone structure will show and it won't be the character, and people will say, `There's Shirley.' "

So she made a decision not to let the people see Shirley, and even in the movie's first moments that is Madame Sousatzka on the screen, not MacLaine.

"I had to let it go," she said. "I might write about it someday, how I felt when I went to my trailer between shots and I knew what I had allowed them to shoot me to look like. It's not like I wasn't concerned. Because I don't look like that in real life, and people are all going to think I do."

We were talking about the movie a few hours before its Toronto festival premiere. I'd seen it at a morning press screening, and had been very deeply moved by its story, by the way that director John Schlesinger and his writer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, had taken the time to tell the story well. "Madame Sousatzka" (opening Friday in Chicago) isn't a canned formula movie in which all depends on the kid having a triumph at his big concert, while tears of joy glisten in Madame's eyes. This is a movie about passages in life, about people coming to a crossroads and looking back and seeing clearly for the first time where they have been.

MacLaine was as MacLaine always is: bright-eyed, clear-spoken, her sentences not just jumbles of movie-star narcissism, but betraying wit and intelligence. She knows the Shirley MacLaine jokes as well as anyone, and wrote some herself for her last awards telecast ("I've got to hurry home and watch next year's show"). Despite what some people think about her journey into the world of psychic phenomena, her best-selling books about past lives and channeling and other planes of existence, she is not a nut. Eccentric, yes. But smart eccentric.

"What do you think people think, when they hear me talking or read my books?" she asked at one point. "What's the general impression?"

"Surprise, that you are apparently sane," I said.

She got a good laugh out of that.

`Somebody wrote an article called `Coming to Terms with Shirley,' " she said, "and I guess that's what I'm asking people to do. Even though I write a lot about how important spirituality is, and how important it is to evolve to the point where you find inner peace, I'm also a tough dame, and I don't deny that. That must be confusing for people. I want to get things right. That's my personality."

"Maybe it's the fact that you seem so clear and convinced," I said, "that has made you a leader of the movement."

MacLaine was already shaking her head.

"When I saw that I was beginning to develop a personal following," she said, "I stopped giving my seminars. I have no desire to turn into a guru. Everybody has to go home and do it for themselves. Whether people believe what I write or not, whether anyone believes any of this stuff, is irrelevant. Everybody's got their own attitude about expanded reality, or whether one dies or is eternal. I don't have a franchise on that."

"There's something I want to ask you about," I said. "In late summer, the newspapers kept writing about peace breaking out. There were pictures of missiles being disarmed, and troops leaving Afghanistan, and peace treaties being signed, and a Paris paper called it the `Summer of Peace.' What I was wondering was . . ."

"I can feel the question coming," MacLaine said.

"That thing you were involved in a year ago," I said, "where everybody got together and meditated. Harmonic convergence? Getting all the energy channeled in the right direction? Do you think that had anything to do with the feeling that the world seems more at peace than usual?"

"It's so sweet of you to bring that up," MacLaine said, just slightly ironically. "The whole point of the summer of a year ago was to take that window of energy that we all felt was being provided, and collectively meditate, to send out light. But did those days have any influence on world events? The main thing is, why pooh-pooh it? Why bad-mouth it, why ridicule it, why make ir a subject of derision, why call it `moronic conversions,' which is what some people did. Why? Who's it hurting?"

She was silent for a moment.

"I like to think that we helped," she said. "And whether we did or not, wouldn't it be more productive to think it helped? How can prayer ever be bad?"

She screwed up her face into a picture of troubled thought, and said she knows that "New York left-wing intellectuals" think she has dropped the ball since the 1960s and 1970s, when she was a prominent supporter of liberal Democrats and social causes. "They think I have been responsible for diverting political activism into a self-indulgent me-ism, sort of a natural slopover from the 1960s. They think my current activity, the spiritual stuff, is a diversionary tactic, encouraging people to be self-centered instead of involved in the political world. I could write a book on that. Transformation in the world begins in yourself. We were out there doing good, and doing good, and doing good - with no sense of being good people! It was almost like, the more good I could do someone else, the better I'd feel about myself.

"But it never works that way. It's the other way around. Feel good about yourself, and then you'll be able to channel the areas where you can best be effective."

I asked her if she was, indeed, less politically active.

"If either one of the candidates came up with an idea in their administration for a Council on Self-Esteem, I'd work for them. I'm basically a Democrat, basically a liberal, a left-wing liberal, but what I'm hearing from the candidates is mumbo-jumbo. What I'm saying is clear. Not what they're saying. An internal awakening is essential, to understand what you're doing with politics. The left-wing intellectuals are themselves afraid of looking at who they are."

She did recently meet an intellectual who knew precisely who he was, MacLaine said. After she finished filming "Madame Sousatzka" in London, she traveled up to Cambridge to spend some time with Stephen Hawking, the legendary theoretical physicist who seems to know more about the nature of the universe than anyone else alive. Hawking has been confined to a wheelchair for years, his body gradually being shut down by a progressive and wasting disease until now he can communicate only by a laborious interaction with a portable computer. But his mind is as awake and alive as any mind on the planet.

`Hawking said he doesn't believe in God," MacLaine said. "He said all my mysticism was bunk." She smiled. "And then he added, `But my wife agrees with you, and I need my wife.' He is one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. We had this long talk using his computer, about the harmony of the universe, and he said, `I can prove everything that happened in the last 15 billion years, back to the first one-eighth of 1 percent of a second.' Because he's in a wheelchair, people don't think that's arrogant."

She laughed with affection.

"What about the first one-eighth of 1 percent?" I asked. "What happened then?"

"He doesn't know about the God part. But for a man who perceives himself to be an atheist, he's one of the most loving human beings I've ever met. I've never been in the presence of a person more totally saintlike. One of the talents I've developed as an artist is the ability to communicate on non-verbal levels. I was talking to him on that level, and he knew it, so we were talking to each other in a whole new way. It was disconcerting to say something, and then five minutes later came the answer from his computer. The timing was off. But in the process he's learned to develop his ESP, and I've learned to receive it. That's why I loved being with Hawking. I was feeling things with him that there was no other way to experience except through non-verbal recognition."

She was smiling, remembering her time in Cambridge.

"Oh, God, it was hilarious! He went barreling through that restaurant in his wheelchair, and out into the cobblestone streets of Cambridge, and it was raining, and I was slipping, and he was fine. Unbelievable man. I've got his picture up on my mantlepiece. I don't have movie stars or presidents. I've got Stephen Hawking.

"I said to him, `When you close your eyes, what do you see?' And he tapped out, `You mean the universe, or beautiful women?' And then he tapped out, `I don't know which one has more curves.' "

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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