With that irresistible icebreaker the warm, witty, wonderful Oscar-winning star of Terms of Endearment and so much more sent nearly 1,000 very appreciative souls into hearty laughter and sustained applause Thursday just after she walked onstage at Schermerhorn Symphony Center for “An Intimate Evening With Shirley MacLaine.”
Yes, she’s had a similar opening line elsewhere, but that shouldn’t bother anyone – those words were unsurprisingly delivered with impeccable timing, a joyful expression and complete believability by the woman who is 81 years young in this life. Then came something just for those in the Music City: “Should I tell you much I love Nashville? And it is fantastic being in a little blue space in a red state!”
“I have to tell you that…I got introduced to Tennessee through Jack Daniel’s. Is it true that the place where they make it is in a dry part of the state? (While visitors can purchase commemorative bottles at the distillery’s White Rabbit Bottle Shop Moore County remains dry). You see, that is just like Frank (Sinatra, who was a Tennessee Squire and enthusiastic ambassador for Lynchburg’s world-famous product): He does anything he wants but no one else can.”
MacLaine, who noted she’d had lunch earlier with Reba McEntire at Husk Nashville, mentioned two other Nashville friends, Dolly Parton (who’s playing the Ryman Auditorium today and Saturday) and Nicole Kidman (MacLaine said she’s in London at the moment), before exclaiming, “You know, all my favorite women are here!”
The evening opened with an enthralling film narrated by MacLaine that contained family photographs (that of course included another Academy Award winner) and clips from some of her 65 films so far, starting with moments from 1955’s The Trouble With Harry through 2014’s Elsa and Fred. In the film she talked about her personal and professional relationships with directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder (who directed Jack Lemmon and her to cut several seconds from a scene in 1960’s The Apartment to make it funnier) as well as such colleagues and friends as Sinatra and Dean Martin (who from out-of-shot threw jelly beans into a particularly emotional moment her character was having with Audrey Hepburn‘s character during the filming of the William Wyler-directed 1961 drama The Children’s Hour). She also noted in her narration that her work in the 1969 movie version of the musical Sweet Charity helmed by Bob Fosse occurred during the period in 1968 that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Stagework and musical numbers from TV specials were sprinkled throughout the film. Her worldwide travels were also featured, including a 1973 trip to China that two years later was the subject of The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir documentary for which MacLaine was nominated for an Oscar. And encounters with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (who exhibited a keen interest in US culture) and the Dalai Lama (who MacLaine reveals was quite a flirt) were parts of very illuminating and entertaining audio-visual scrapbook as well.
Then it was time for a conversation and questions with acclaimed author and Parnassus Books co-founder and co-owner Ann Patchett (along with members of the audience) which ended up running more than an hour and a quarter. Patchett was well-versed on the evening’s headliner (including her admiration for the fact that MacLaine has 14 books to her credit), and like everyone else in Laura Turner Hall a big fan: She opened by saying, “I love this film, I love you. Is it too early for me to say that?” To which the dancer/singer/actor/author quickly replied to appreciative laughter, “Oh no, it’s never too early to say that.”
Ah, a live show! As the conversation began MacLaine stopped because she felt she was “getting too much echo” from the hall’s sound system. When Patchett stated, “And for us, we can just pretend like it’s perfectly fine,” after MacLaine asked the audience about the sound they were hearing, MacLaine laughed very loudly and then delivered a perfectly deadpanned “No” to the delight of the crowd.
MacLaine started dancing when she was three and said she’s always felt like a dancer even when she wasn’t doing it. That perspective has even shaped her attitude toward habits, something she avoids forming: “…I think there’s a difference between habits and discipline. In dancing I developed discipline and I still have it. …I think I love being spontaneous. That’s why I love doing these shows because you never know what’s going to happen. I like live, um, life.”
After quipping that “I’m never going to the dentist again” when the subject of Cecil the Lion was brought up, she responded with her very philosophical take on the recent tragedy that has outraged many people around the world after an audience member shouted that the accused killer didn’t care: “I don’t think he didn’t care. I think that Cecil and (Walter James Palmer) have an invisible kind of contract. I think Cecil agreed to be lured away from the preserve…and I think the dentist agreed to be the new hated man for killing this magnificent animal as a lesson to all of us that we have to be more balanced and respectful of nature.”
She went on to speak of her great love of animals – particularly her terrier Terry – and when asked by Patchett if she had ever loved another human being as much as another animal, she said no and got a very positive response from the audience when she added that for that to be possible “They have to improve.” She later added it’s on her “bucket list” to perhaps eventually retire to a game preserve to spend her days at one with animals and their habitats.
Several audience-submitted questions dealt of course with MacLaine’s recent appearances on the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey television series. That led not only to her marveling at the expertise of those that create the hair, makeup and costumes for that show, but to a humorous anecdote she said Dame Maggie Smith told her about their first meeting: At an Oscar ceremony where both lost, Smith told her, “…We were standing (backstage) when we heard the news next to the catering table that they’d laid out for all us very good actresses and there was a huge chocolate cake. You heard we’d lost and then you turned to me and you picked up a huge fork and you said, ‘F*&k it, I’m never going to be thin again!”
Microphones allowed some audience members to ask questions directly, and that led among other moments to a poignant interaction with a woman grieving over the loss of her adult son some 11 weeks ago; the autopsy results are pending and MacLaine advised patience overall but that the mother should not be meek when it came to “banging on the door” of the physician performing that autopsy so she could get answers regarding his death.
Through moments serious and funny, thoughtful and playful, the event was a warm and meaningful exchange worth far more than the price of a ticket with a celebrated person who understands as well as anyone that we are all works-in-progress and not finished portraits. An intimate evening indeed, another terrific programming choice for the Schermerhorn and absolutely, positively, beautifully Shirley MacLaine.
Meeting Ms. MacLaine: After the lovely event came a meet-and-greet with MacLaine. Nashville Arts Critic was there and here are some pictures from that gathering –