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In third act of life, MacLaine is ‘Over All That’

The award-winning actress offers a collection of small observations and big-picture questions in her latest book, "I'm Over All That." In it, she shares with readers things that she is over dealing with in life, at home and in love. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Actress Shirley MacLaine, winner of an Oscar, three Emmys and 10 Golden Globes, offers a collection of small observations and big-picture questions in her latest book, “I’m Over All That.” In it, she shares with readers things that she is over dealing with in life, at home and in love. Read an excerpt:


All life, even the cruelest drama and most absurd comedy, is a form of show business, a kind of performance, and I have been lucky enough to have created the moving picture show of my own life. I have starred in it, produced it, written it, directed it — even financed and distributed it. What’s even better is that I get to rerun it now and then, to see things I might have missed back then. In this third act of my life, much has become clearer. So much is over, and I am over so much.

I have learned to ease up on worry, scheming for films or roles, planning for better surroundings, and feeling anger at all our leaders who operate politically rather than humanely. Yes, I am over all that. I’m over listening to advertisements, the latest fashions (I never was much for that), events I should attend in order to be seen, red carpet madness. I’m getting more and more free from the expectations of the external world. In fact, the one worry I can’t seem to give up and get over is a lingering fear that being a reclusive, happy, older woman may not be entirely healthy. But who says so? I’m not interested in parties, new outfits (only comfortable ones), being socially acceptable, and whether I’ll be on anyone’s so-called A-list. My goodness, what a way to live!

I’m not over going to the movies, seeing live theater, hearing symphonies, eating a good dinner (I’m learning to dine out alone), attending a worthy charity event (for half an hour), visiting a sick friend, or taking treats and toys to the animal shelter.

I am over what other people think (I got over that a long time ago), and trying to persuade them to come around to my point of view about anything.

One thing will always be a constant with me. I have a guiding sense of curiosity. I will never get over asking Why. This questioning has been with me all my life. It is my sustenance, my inspiration, my joy, and my intellectual food and color. I will never be over my search for the Big Truths. And I’m not the only one. Most people I’ve met around the world believe we are not alone in the universe but will not talk about this openly because they’re terrified of being humiliated publicly for their beliefs. Some scientists, academics, and movers and shakers I’ve met were even reluctant to discuss it privately because of how they might be perceived. (Just another reason I revere the brilliant and fearless Stephen Hawking!)

Everywhere I’ve traveled in the world I’ve found that people are looking for something to fill the loneliness inside them; they are after what I think of as “The Big Truth.” It doesn’t matter how wealthy or well situated they are; after surface talking, joking, eating, Hollywood gossip and cultural politeness, the conversation always turns to why are we here, what is the point of life, is God real, are we alone in the universe? That’s because, like me, most people have realized that money isn’t the answer to their emptiness. In fact, it sometimes contributes to it because the management of money (or the fear of not having enough) distracts them from any real examination of what is really bothering them.

So I’ve concluded that for us to get to the Bigger Truths, there is much for us to get over. I’ve had a good time exploring what I’ve finally gotten over and what I will never get over ... from the ridiculous to the Big Sublime.

I’m glad I am in the third act of my life. I have loved my ride and am now appreciating relinquishing the reins and looking back. Sometimes I feel an unbearable ecstasy of loneliness for some of my past, wishing now that I had been so much more present then. Sometimes I feel it all happened to someone else, and I long to get the “me” of it all back. How could I have done so much, been so many places, known so many people — and now it is all past, gone, memories of colorful stories like little movies attached to the celluloid of my brain tissue. Every now and then the little movies turn themselves on, wanting to be rerun. What didn’t I see then? What deeper meaning did I miss? Where are those actors and actresses and politicians from my past now? They are still with me, in all the things they taught me, the memories of the times we shared. Fascinating and talented people, mind-expanding conversations and curiosity about the future — those are things I will never get over.

On with the show!

I’m not over vanity, but I’m trying

Let’s face it, vanity is as old as the hills. Entire civilizations are known to us today only because of how long-dead people looked, dressed, paraded, and even adorned themselves for death. Our museums are full of the stuff of their vanity. But what does vanity mean really? Does it revolve around how others see us or how we see ourselves?

When I was a teenager I was embarrassed by my red hair and freckles. And I had a tiny birthmark under my left arm, which today I hardly notice. But as young people we feel embarrassed by being seen as different in any way. We are inculcated with advertising propaganda as to what is acceptable and pretty.

As I’ve grown older, of course, I’ve dealt with a new set of vanity issues. I don’t know if I would have been concerned in a different way if I hadn’t been in show business. I honestly never cared how I looked or how I dressed until I was about fifty years old. I was a “character” in life and a character in films. My roles in films weren’t dependent on beauty. I thought I was pretty enough once those freckles left my face around the age of 20. As a dancer, I exercised when I worked in a musical, and I thought that was enough. I ate anything I wanted and didn’t put on weight. Of course, weight in those days was a healthy subject, not an unhealthy one.

I remember making "The Trouble with Harry" for Alfred Hitchcock. I had just come out of the chorus of "Pajama Game" on Broadway and was thin and broke. My diet as a chorus girl was Horn & Hardart's Automat food. I could live on ten cents a meal. There were lemons and sugar at the tables and water at the fountain. I’d make lemonade. Peanut butter and raisin bread sandwiches were ten cents in the food windows. So I had my peanut butter–raisin bread sandwich and lemonade for two nickels. A good diet, too.

Working with Hitch meant eating with him. On location for "Harry," my breakfast was pancakes, fried eggs, fruit, toast and jam. My lunch was worse because the desserts were heaven, and dinner was something I had to learn how to eat with him: meat, potatoes, appetizers, seven-course meals and Grand Marnier soufflés or the like to top it off. I never realized that my weight was visibly changing on film — maybe ten pounds from one scene to another when the film was assembled! The president of Paramount called me and asked me what I thought I was doing. I said, “Eating what I couldn’t afford before.” he said, “Now you’ve got some money, you’re not going to starve. Quit or we’ll have to shoot retakes.” That hadn’t occurred to me. Hitch obviously had a food problem. But with him, carrying extra weight was his image. I was a different story.

Because I had a high metabolism and moved around a lot, I had no real problem until I was about fifty. Then vanity became an issue. Until then, I hardly sat in the makeup chair. Frank Westmore (my makeup man) literally wrestled me to the floor on several occasions because his job was on the line if I didn’t look pretty. I hated the creamy texture of the makeup, and the itch of the mascara, and, above all, the time I thought I was wasting sitting in the chair. My hairstyle was the result of a stage manager in "Me and Juliet" dunking my head in the chorus basement sink. I had long red hair that swished around on stage and drew attention away from the star, Isabel Bigley (which, truth be told, wasn’t difficult). When he let me up for air, the stage manager chopped off my ponytail and pushed me back onstage. The bowl cut has been my style ever since. I was not very imaginative, and hairstyles took too much time. Besides, my pixie cut worked well when dancing Bob Fosse’s hat routines.

Soon after coming to Hollywood, I realized that wigs were the way to go, not only when playing parts on screen but also in life, because I never had to sit with curlers under the dryer. That saved time in the makeup chair too. The hairdresser did all the work when I wasn’t there. But when my middle fifties came around, I began to notice that I was getting a lot of grandmother-part offers. I didn’t see myself that way at all. What was happening? I was, in my own mind, still young, bouncy, an invisible guerrilla traveler, a kid. Wrong. After some hard thought, I had my face lifted. Never do that in the middle of a love affair because it’s disconcerting to your partner. And forget about having sex during recovery time. That’s the best way to pop your stitches.

But I must say I loved how I looked afterward. In fact, I became quite enamored with my face and preferred to have dinner wherever there were mirrors. Which brings me to the next show business necessity in real life.

I will never get over good lighting

First of all, you need to know where to sit. If it’s daytime, you sit facing the outside light. Natural light is very nice for the skin — as long as it’s not direct sunlight. If you’re really smart, you place your partner just to the side of where the light is hitting you. You’ll know you are in the right daytime lighting position when you can’t see his face. He is completely backlit. You won’t know how he is reacting to your daytime dialogue, but you do know you look as good as possible when the sun is out.

At night, choose a restaurant with candlelit tables. Even ask for another candle. Claim you can’t see the menu. Never sit where there is an overhead light. It makes you look like Grandma Moses. And never sit where you can feel a cross-light splash across your face. A two-year-old looks haggard in that condition. If you are a person who is stopped on the street for a “reality” interview, ask them what filter they have in the camera. Black full pro mist is the best, but everything else will look slightly blurred, which is what you want for your face. Otherwise, just keep walking.

I have no solution for the paparazzi who jump out at you in highly inappropriate environments. Except perhaps murder. But then, even paparazzi can be reincarnated.

When you are doing a TV interview, remember to tell the camera people you want the camera high and the key light low. They will hate you for knowing what you’re doing, but insist, even if you turn into a diva. It’s easier for me nowadays because I’m so old they think I must be an expert. In fact, Marlene Dietrich taught me how to light myself when we made "80 Days." She was the master of lighting, as well as the master of costume fittings. I used to sit and watch her being fitted in everything from leather tuxedos to full-length sequined gowns. Her fittings lasted for six hours. She was literally the last one left standing. She would ponder deeply over exactly how close the sequins should be sewn together. She loved to design the sequins so the audience could just see through them, revealing the shape of her legs. She taught me a new use for 2½-millimeter pearls. (They were to be put in the center of my bra so you would think they were my nipples.) She also showed me how to string a small, nearly invisible chain under my chin which was then attached to pincurls on either side of my face. This was the Dietrich face-lift. Of course I had a headache by lunch, but it was worth it. She ate only every other day, and not much even then. That’s how she kept her figure. Not something I could ever do.

She was having a love affair with Mike Todd on "80 Days" until I introduced him to Elizabeth Taylor. Marlene was good about it. She remembered that Mike had tossed out Evelyn Keyes for her anyway.

I loved to overhear the negotiations for diamonds and rubies between Mike and Elizabeth just to get her to go out to dinner. Elizabeth was no fool and Mike was no cheapskate. I sometimes wondered what a roll in the hay would cost. Elizabeth used to come to my one-room apartment in Malibu and tell me that Mike seduced her as a snake would seduce a mongoose. Every man I ever introduced her to fell in love with her. She saw to that. One of them purposely nearly ran his car off a Malibu cliff out of longing for her.

I had a darling boxer dog at the time, and whenever we came back to my place and the dog had pooped on the floor, she would clean it up, protesting that she wanted a simpler life. She was and is a very down-to-earth person — a woman I adore completely, a loyal and funny friend.

I learned a great lesson in lighting from her one night. Mike had recently died in that tragic plane crash, and Elizabeth had taken up with Eddie Fisher. The town and it seemed the entire country was upset with her for stealing Eddie from Debbie [Reynolds] and for doing it so soon after Mike’s death. There was a party at her agent’s house. She asked me to come and sit with her at a small table, which happened to be situated next to a candle-lit patio. She was drinking champagne from a sparkling crystal glass. Very subtly, she positioned herself in between me and the outside candles (they always work). She began to quietly talk about her love for Mike and why Eddie meant so much to her because of his relationship with Mike. Her eyes welled up with violet tears as she held her sparkling crystal glass close to her face. When the tears were about to fall, she subtly moved her champagne glass just under her eyes. I’ll never forget it. her tears splashed like diamonds into the champagne as she talked about missing Mike so much. I’d never seen anything more beautiful or moving, and the entire party seemed to pause in wonder for a moment. It all worked because her words were true and because she used her extensive experience in front of the camera to accentuate her emotions. She is a great lady and the personification that All life Is Show Business.

I have come to the point in my life that I would rather just play a great character than worry so much how I look while I’m doing it. I’m not completely over my vanity, but the part that I am over is a relief.

From "I'm Over All That: And Other Confessions" by Shirley MacLaine. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books.