When Shirley MacLaine Blows A Fuse
“Every noteworthy event in my long life has been like spontaneous combustion,” explained twenty-one-year-old Shirley MacLaine, who has starred in three top motion pictures within a year. “Nothing was ever planned—all spur of the moment. I’m beginning to be a firm believer in time, place and circumstance. For instance, when I fell in love with Steve Parker, I was engaged to another man. I got my break in ‘Pajama Game’ when Carol Haney broke her ankle. Normally, it wouldn’t have meant much. George Abbott, the producer, was out of town and there was nobody to care whether I was good or bad—I thought. But Hal Wallis was in the audience. I got a contract. Then the second time I took over for Carol I was so bad I wanted to crawl out the stage door after the first act and run down 44th Street. But Steve was there. Being a director as well as an actor, he took me home and helped me rehearse all night. I must have been better in the next day’s matinee because Alfred Hitchcock’s New York representative sent him a telegram that brought him to New York to see me. In the meantime, Steve and I had gotten our blood tests and marriage license ‘just in case.’ When Mr. Hitchcock persuaded Mr. Wallis that I should go immediately to Vermont to star in ‘The Trouble with Harry’, I knew it was ‘now or never’ with Steve. So we were married and went to Vermont—and I was in pictures. See what I mean?
“When my agent at MCA called after I’d finished ‘Artists and Models’, he said Mike Todd wanted me for the lead in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. I hadn’t heard of the picture. When I protested that I hadn’t even read the script, I was informed that I was crazy. So? Within four hours I was at the airport ready to take off for Durango, Colorado. Steve managed to get to the airport in time to say goodbye.”
Shirley stopped describing her spur-of-the-moment good fortune and looked up as Steve ordered after-dinner coffee in the Malibu restaurant. It was obvious from the waitress’ attention that the Steve Parkers were her favorite customers. As she walked away, Shirley continued, “Other things happen to me, too, you know. I can be sitting minding my own business and . . .”
The waitress was back with the coffee. “Cream?” queried Shirley. “Right here,” answered the waitress. Suddenly cream was running rampant all over the table and all over Shirley. Steve got a little bit of it, too.
“That’s what I mean,” Shirley continued through the mopping up process. “I can be sitting minding my own business . . .”
“And a little of it always gets on me,” Steve added wryly.
Shirley spent the next five minutes reassuring the waitress and somehow subtly managed to convey the feeling that she was at fault, not the waitress. That is typical of Shirley. She is deeply sensitive about others—and about herself. She is a medley of moods, strung together tightly, with overtones of possible change constantly vibrating through her beautifully controlled body and highly expressive face.
“I am very moody,” she confessed. “I’ve been called sweet or devilish, sensitive or insensitive, full of humor or none at all. It’s according to my mood—Im all of them. I change moods in midstream. I guess I am a girl with a short fuse. I’ve got a temper, I can blow, and never know when it’s coming. Something just strikes me wrong and I’m gone. Fortunately, I can’t remember the bad things,” she grinned broadly, “just all the good things. I’m sensitive to criticism. If it’s given with the right attitude, I eat it up. If it’s given with the wrong attitude, I rebel.
“As a Hindu princess in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, my make-up and sarong took years to get into. If I was two minutes late, Mike Todd would roar at me. He’s a fabulous man and I respect him, but finally I roared back. Then one day I did a little something extra for him and he was overcome. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Shirley’s candid honesty about herself has left some of Hollywood’s hardiest experts uneasy and in a mild state of confusion. Hal Wallis feels she combines the Continental charm with American wholesomeness. Hitchcock says she is a great dramatic actress, and Cecil B. DeMille has said, “Shirley MacLaine is the sexiest actress I’ve ever met.” Yet Shirley is singularly unimpressed with herself—or Hollywood. After three top pictures, “The Trouble with Harry,” “Artists and Models,” and “Around the World in Eighty Days” (which has not yet been seen by the public), she is quietly waiting to see the reaction of the makers or breakers of stars—the audience. She takes it all with a grain of salt.
Shirley and Steve rent a small furnished house at Malibu. The ocean pounding steadily at their doorstep is far more important to them than the steady pounding of social chit-chat at Hollywood parties. “We’ve never been invited to a Hollywood party. I guess they sort of know if you don’t want to.” They have just a few friends and treasure all of them. They’re far enough out of town not to have drop-ins. Their landlord, his wife and brother are close friends. Over sixty years old, they are nevertheless real people and a lot of fun to be with.
“Our friends don’t have to be smart, sophisticated, or intellectuals,” Shirley said slowly, “they just have to be real. The best things in life are pretty simple, and simplicity is pretty close to truth. I guess that’s what we look for in friends.”
They have invested in a hundred-foot frontage of beach next to their rented house, and they plan to build on it. A lovely glass-enclosed home that will have the ocean practically in the living room. But they are also planning to build two rental units over the garage, for income purposes. Both Steve and Shirley are aware of the possibility of fleeting fame. Although young, they also know the meaning of money. They have both lived without it while working toward success. For an enchanting and fickle chanteuse, Shirley is remarkably level-headed. She has never had the urge to go overboard in the clothes department. Her dearest possessions are two cowhide jackets replete with fringe. Although she adores them, they are restricted to the beach. She wouldn’t have the nerve to wear them to the studio. People might think she was trying to be different. It’s true that a policeman shooed her away from a premiere because she was so simply dressed he didn’t believe she was a star. She refuses to gussy up. “I feel like a bull in a china shop.” At the beach, Steve has trouble getting her out of blue jeans or pants and into a skirt when they go out for dinner. They have two cars—one a tiny MG, the other a red Plymouth convertible. Shirley learned to drive with the convertible.
“While we were stopped at a light, a woman crashed into us going fifty-five miles an hour. Steve ended up in the hospital and I had a new necklace—a neck-brace. We were in the Plymouth at the time, so I had to drive the MG to Paramount. I’d never driven a car with a gear shift before. I stalled the engine fourteen times on the way to the studio. Steve,” she said with a sudden change of thought, “drives much too fast. He got a ticket the other night on the highway for doing sixty. He was lucky the policeman caught him when he was slowing down.”
Although Shirley doesn’t approve of fast driving, she has driven herself at high speed since she was three. When her parents sent her to ballet school, she loved it. Dancing became an integral part of her life. It was what she wanted and her parents accepted it.
“For me, ballet was a basis for everything. It is the oldest art form in the world. And as a kid, my awareness of the physical led me to do everything. I played football and pitched and was a heavy hitter in softball. They called me ‘Powerhouse’,” Shirley remembered with a grin. “I used to lose more boyfriends because I won from them. I remember one boyfriend who was quite happy with me, until track season. I made the horrible mistake of jumping higher than he did and he wouldn’t go on the hayride with me after that. I was five-feet seven when I was twelve and then I shrunk. It’s true—I’m now five-feet six. I guess my feet got bigger.
“But actually I didn’t date an awful lot anyway. When I did, it was one at a time (I’m the marrying kind). I didn’t mind sacrificing dates, parties and social life, because dancing was really more important to me. I was president of my high school sorority, The Sub-Debs, but,” she sighed with mock wistfulness, “they kicked me out of office because I never showed up for meetings. When I lived in Arlington, Virginia, I did have one rather peculiar passion. I loved geometry. In my spare time I worked problems. I also loved to study the stars, and thought I might be an astronomer. I liked being a leader, but I didn’t like to be loaded down with responsibility. When I felt the burden coming on I managed to wiggle out.”
All this time Shirley was dedicated to dancing. When she studied with Lisa Gardner and her assistant, Mary Day, in Washington, D.C., Shirley took two lessons a day, spent an hour and a half in traveling each way, then rehearsed all night. She was an avid pupil. Any dance—Spanish, folk, modern—Shirley was finding new expressions for her great belief that body was the basic art.
“It was when I danced with the Washington National Symphony, in things like ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’ that it began to dawn on me that ballet was limited. I suddenly wanted to expand, to express in words and music. So when I was fourteen, I started spending every summer in New York, studying and going to school. I used to stay at a girls’ club. I’d study all day and half the night and go back to the club to sleep, then get up and do it all over again. I didn’t even think of dating. I was bitten by the musical bug, and I was learning to get the same kind of expression I’d found in dancing through lines and music.”
When the revival of “Oklahoma!” hit Broadway, Shirley, at sixteen, was in the chorus. At the end of that summer the entire company was invited to the Berlin Arts Festival. Shirley refused. She went home and finished high school. She never regretted that decision. Behind her provocative freckled face and bright blue eyes lies determination and strength. When she makes a decision, it has been wisely thought out and carefully followed. After she graduated from high school, the road to fulfillment was strewn with television commercials, peanut butter sandwiches, modeling, no sandwiches and study. Every dime she earned went to study. If she was careless with her bodily comfort, it was because study meant more to her. Finally she landed in the chorus of “Me and Juliet” as a dancer.
“l was engaged to a graduate engineer then,” Shirley said quietly. “We were planning on marriage, and yet something worried me. He treated my work as a hobby and though we never spoke of it, I knew he’d expect me to give it up. When I was with him I couldn’t discuss my work and a part of me felt lost. Then, I went across the street from the stage door of the Majestic with a girlfriend one night and she introduced me to Steve Parker. He was an actor-director who knew theatre and he stimulated me professionally. He took me home. After that he coached me and helped in every way. Finally he shocked me into reality. Steve had the same loves, same interests. He loved me and understood what I had to do. We lived in the same world. It was so jerky,” Shirley said with an embarrassed, pleased smile. “He kept after me and finally broke down the door and I knew I loved him.”
Steve, on the other hand, has an entirely different point of view. Yet with the same conclusion. “I fell madly in love with her when she looked up from the table and I saw those eyes. But when we got up from the table I gulped. I’m just five-feet nine and I felt she was towering over me. I realized she was wearing very high heels and a great big hair-do, but she seemed taller than me. I took her home and called every day after that. I gave my services as a coach, counselor, director, and what have you just to stay there. My professional interest was definitely second to my emotional involvement. When I went to see the show, I knew she was an extremely talented girl. When she got her break in ‘Pajama Game,’ the stage manager called me and I watched her from the wings in a T-shirt and blue jeans. Then we went to her place and worked the rest of the night. It was pretty hard,” Steve grinned, “to work night after night, with my emotions coming out at the seams. But I finally wore her down.”
“We fought like cat and dog the first two weeks we were married,” Shirley said complacently. “I don’t understand all this talk about adjustments. After we both blew our tops I guess we both adjusted—but I don’t know who did what. I don’t really care. Steve works with me on my scripts now and acts as my personal manager. He’s also planning to start a real theatre out here. We both cook, and when he gets in the kitchen, I can’t. We both love animals. We have Caesar, the boxer pup, and Bolo, the cat, a house and an ocean—and plans.”
Shirley’s plans are a little unorthodox but completely in keeping with her keen perception and steady, instinctive wisdom. Her candid searching eyes are old for her years. At this point in her life, she is planning to do many of the things that she had to forego while concentrating solely on getting a firm foothold in the theatre.
“I’d hate to live in New York,” Shirley said soberly, “but I love New England. I’d like three or four children while I’m young enough to enjoy them. Yet I’ve been lucky, and I don’t want to throw the timing off by not being able to work when I should. But I want the kids and fifteen assorted animals and a house that’s not too big, in a town that has four seasons. I want to run a little general store and restaurant (I’ve always wanted to work in a store), and Steve can be mayor of the town. I really feel that’s what I’d like and Steve goes along with me.
“After my five-year contract with Mr. Wallis ends, I don’t want to be bound to anyone. There’s so much to learn, I want to be able to do it when I want to. I want. to be free in the way I live, the way I work, and the way I learn. I’ve missed so much by being dedicated. Although I didn’t have any fierce burning desire, I was at it all the time. Studying all day long and half the night. I’ve missed good books and travel and all the fine things that others take for granted. If we go to Europe, I want to take the time to live there—know the people, and not just sight-see like a tourist. I want to travel a lot and I want to read a lot. I want to catch up.
“It may sound odd from a twenty-one-year-old,” Shirley concluded, “but I’ve given my whole life to study—seventeen i years of work. I think it’s enough to have a couple of years of reaping what you’ve sown.”
At this time, Shirley means what she says. But she is in the unique period of waiting on the threshold of stardom. With three excellent pictures within a year, she has still to feel the full impact of public acceptance. Producers, critics and directors have nothing but raves for the provocative minx with her own built-in do-it-yourself kit. Perhaps her careful appraisal is a subconscious crossing of the fingers ‘just in case. It is difficult to believe that a talented girl with seventeen years of work and study would settle for only two years of success.
As Shirley said, “Every noteworthy event in my life has been like spontaneous combustion.” And the next explosion may very well be when this girl with the very short fuse gets a bright green light from the public.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MAY 1956