Shirley MacLaine is at the top of her game in “The Last Word” as Harriet Lauler, an 81-year-old curmudgeon with exacting standards who is determined to control every facet of her life until the day she checks out. She enlists the help of obituary writer Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) to improve on her imperfect legacy. Harriet, in turn, helps Anne find the confidence to become the gifted writer she was always meant to be. The cast also includes Thomas Sadoski, Anne Heche, and newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee Dixon in a breakout performance who elevate what might have been predictable indie fare into delightful entertainment.
At the film’s recent press day, MacLaine talked about coming to terms with her own legacy, why she’s not afraid to take risks, the advice Joan Crawford gave her that will remain a secret, her surprise at meeting Alan Ladd at Romanoff’s, how aging people are underserved in our culture and what she’d like to do about it, her impressions of her talented co-star Ann’ Jewel Lee, her favorite scene, presenting the Best Foreign Language Film Award at this year’s Oscars, why she wants to do an improvisation with Marlon Brando, and the unusual role she’d like to play next.
Check out what this Hollywood legend had to tell us in the interview below:
This is a beautiful film about a woman coming to terms with her legacy. Have you thought at all about your own legacy and what you would like people to know and remember you for?
SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (laughs) You want to know what I want my obituary to say?
At this point in your life, what do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
MACLAINE: I don’t know. But I just figured out what I want my obituary to say, which is: “You think I’m dead, but I’m not.” I don’t know. What do you do about legacy? You leave it alone. You try to do your best. Right now, in terms of working, you hope you get financing and you look for great scripts. In terms of my life, I guess it’s to share whatever I’ve learned really, which is basically one thing: know yourself, look for yourself, know what to look for, cherish it, be honest, be authentic, even if it hurts your feelings. That’s not bad.
Your character took a risk in her life. What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken in your life?
MACLAINE: I would say the biggest risk I always take is going in front of a live audience. There’s nothing more risky to do. You have to really leave yourself open to your own authenticity, and you find that out pretty quick. In terms of a life or death risk, I don’t have an answer. I can’t think of it. I went to Broadway when I was 16. I didn’t consider it a risk. I thought it was probably what I should do. I think like a dancer that nothing is a risk. It’s more what I should do. Therefore, you don’t define it as a risk. I still don’t consider anything I would do a risk. Jumping out of an airplane, I wouldn’t do, so therefore, I’m not going to risk it.
Another point of view I have about risk taking is I’m naive. I’m very aware, but I’m very naïve. When you are really naïve and expecting safety and expecting the best, you don’t feel you’re taking risks. You can get smacked a little, but usually it works out pretty well. I would say that, as much as you can instill your open-minded naivety, if you’re basically open minded, then you can do damn near anything. Nothing will be a risk. It’ll be safer.
Because of the mentor/mentee nature of this story, was there somebody of another generation, that when you first came to Hollywood, really took you under their wing or gave you valuable advice that you were able to draw on for the beginning of your career?
MACLAINE: The first person who comes to mind is Joan Crawford, and I didn’t listen to a thing she said. Thank God! Really! No, you don’t want to hear this. Oh my God, what can I say since “Feud” is opening tomorrow night? Wrong. Nope. Okay, wait a minute. Another person… Oh, I was in love with Alan Ladd and I went to a party at Romanoff’s. I’m 5’7”. In heels, I’m 5’9” or 5’10”. They said, “Shirley, your favorite actor is here. Come and meet him.” I turned around. He was there and I went, “Oh hi, Mr. Ladd.” (expecting him to be taller and realizing she’s looking down at him) He was about 4’9” and all my admiration disappeared literally in the dust.
Watching this movie made me think about how we treat elderly people. I wanted to hear your perspective. What’s your take on it? Is Hollywood ageist?
MACLAINE: Aging people are underserved in this culture – big time. I want to stay healthy so I can serve that community and be a voice. Yes, I want to be Queen of AARP and I want to say what they feel. It’s awful that they seem to be made invisible. Maybe that’s one reason why I did this great movie that Jim (her agent) and Stu (screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink) brought to me. I didn’t want an older person to be invisible any longer. That’s what I want to do with it.
What did you learn from your up-and-coming co-star, Ann’Jewel Lee?
MACLAINE: I remember when Amanda (Seyfried) and I were looking through the window at her performing, when she thought we weren’t looking at her, and we were inside ostensibly doing a scene in the restaurant while she was outside. This kid is really, really talented on all levels, so let’s see what she does with that talent and how dangerous real good talent can be. She can dance. She can sing. She can be completely openhearted and totally fearless.
The music is like another character in the film. What’s your favorite musical influence?
MACLAINE: I’ve never heard of “The Kinks.” I just want you to know. You know what really moves me is the pas de deux in “The Nutcracker Suite.” I love classical music and I love the times of Dean (Martin) and Frank (Sinatra) with the lyrics and wonderful rhythms and how they blend the music into the heart. I’m old-fashioned.
You were a presenter at the Academy Awards this year. What did you think about the Best Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi’s comments made by others on his behalf?
MACLAINE: Well, he spoke for himself, so let’s have that stand like it is. I think it was important and necessary. By the way, the two people who were up there, one is the first Iranian woman in space, Anousheh Ansari, and Firouz Naderi is also part of the Space Center. If I had had a moment and had the courage, I would have asked them, “Excuse me, could you introduce me to an extraterrestrial?” I was waiting for that moment. Then, I thought, no, it’s too important.
If you could write your own life story, what would you title it?
MACLAINE: I would write “So Far, I Like this Lifetime the Best.”
How do you feel about women’s roles in movies?
MACLAINE: I was named after Shirley Temple, so I keep in mind always that I was named after a Boykin, so I have to basically consider both sides of the road.
In your scene with your daughter, played by Anne Heche, she was so eager to label your character with a mental disorder. Women of a certain age have to be labeled in a certain way. Why do you think there’s this tendency?
MACLAINE: I don’t think yet that the people in this culture know what to do with women. The women know what to do with women, but therefore, I think they still feel more secure with a label and then they can ascertain whether the woman fits it or not. Labeling is not fair. Women have not been treated or dealt with fairly. Therefore, they’re labeling. But the thing is, what are they for? This is what we’re all confused about.
What was your favorite scene and why?
MACLAINE: My favorite scene is when my character dies. I love that Mark played it on my back, so you’re not really sure whether she’s dead or what’s going to happen. I thought that was very courageous. Thank God I didn’t move.
Did Marlon Brando actually get you into politics while you were frying an egg?
MACLAINE: Oh my God! Someone asked me last night who I wanted to work with, and that’s who. I want Marlon to appear and I want to work with him. I want to see what that kind of improvisation is like.
What are you doing next?
MACLAINE: I would like to play a very unsure, thinking-she’s-stupid, thinking-she’s-unaccomplished-at-anything person with onset dementia. I would like to play that.
“The Last Word” is now in theaters.