Shirley MacLaine: An Enduring Character On All Fronts

2013 Kennedy Center Honoree
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Photo Credit Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

Photo Credit Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

Call her a quintuple threat. Not only is Shirley MacLaine an accomplished dancer, singer and actor, but she is also an acclaimed author and activist as well.

One of this multi-talented star’s earliest conquests took place on the boards of Broadway when Shirley joined the chorus of “The Pajama Game” while understudying for the lead. About to pack it in to play the ingenue in “Can-Can,” MacLaine stood in for injured Tony winner Carol Haney and ended up catching the keen eye of Hollywood head honcho Hal B. Wallis.

PHOTOS: 2013 Kennedy Center Honors

Soon, Shirley was off to the Left Coast to make movies for Paramount Pictures, starting with “The Trouble With Harry” directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1955. MacLaine’s five-year contract with this prominent studio also meant garnering roles in everything from “Around the World in Eighty Days” to “The Apartment,” the latter for which she won an Academy Award nomination.

This was her second Oscar nod after also gaining Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s recognition as a best actress nominee for her part in “Some Came Running.” The role of a prostitute in “Irma la Douce” earned this prolific thespian another Academy Awards nomination in 1963 and so did her turn as an aging dancer in 1977’s “The Turning Point.”

Six years later, the tearjerker “Terms of Endearment” finally brought Shirley MacLaine that allusive golden statue for her part playing Aurora Greenway, a role ranked among Premier magazine’s one hundred greatest movie characters of all time.

The eternal redhead with the twinkle in her bright green eyes and the only female member of the original Rat Pack also grabbed a Golden Globe as the lead in 1988’s “Madame Sousatzka.” In 2012, the accomplished artist received the American Film Institute’s life achievement award.

Best-selling books authored by Shirley MacLaine include “Out on a Limb,” “Dancing in the Light” and “The Camino.” In total, this opinionated scribe has penned nine bestsellers with themes that cover her spiritual awakening and women’s rights, among other very personal causes.

The 79-year-old who enjoyed being one of five to be bestowed a Kennedy Center Honors citation in 2013 is currently acting in the acclaimed British drama, “Downton Abbey.” Introduced in the third season of the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning television miniseries, Shirley plays American Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (played by Elizabeth McGovern), as the ideal foil opposite Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Dame Maggie Smith.

Shirley MacLaine does not consider herself “a great beauty” but she does believe she has “great legs because [she] was a dancer.” She regrets turning down the lead role in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” that gave Ellen Burstyn her Oscar and that had her questioning the reputation of the director (she asked herself, “Who is this Martin Scorsese person?”), but she does think that “an actor has many lives and many people within…,” including herself. She admits that not a single person has ever considered her “dull” and she hates walking a red carpet.

Always honest to the core, Shirley MacLaine said upon receiving her one and only Oscar in 1983, “I am going to cry because this show has been as long as my career. I have wondered for 26 years what this would feel like. Thank you for terminating the suspense.”

“The 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors” will air on CBS Sunday December 29th at 9 PM PT.

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Los Angeles freelance travel writer Jane Lasky, contributes to publications such as Travel + Leisure, Vogue and Esquire. Her weekly sojourning column ran in 40 newspapers for 20 years. Jane is anything but an accidental tourist. Check out her articles on Examiner.com.

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