I love watching Shirley MacLaine on screen.
For more than 60 years – since she first graced Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry in the mid 1950s – she has surprised at every turn with spontaneity, depth and range. While she may be left out of conversations citing the best actresses in the business, MacLaine never becomes routine. She always offers something fresh.
Her new film, The Last Word, gives us a new reason to love her at the movies. This tender drama about an elderly woman confronting the realities of age gives the actress lots of room to do what she does so well, to challenge how people think, observe how people act and question what people resolve. As with her most famous characters, from Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment to Doris Mann in Postcards from the Edge, the fictitious Harriet Lauler showcases MacLaine’s ability to reveal a lady’s soul. Even though the script can be predictable, her fresh work makes the movie a treat. What a great opportunity to celebrate, again, the magic this lady can create.
From its opening moments, The Last Word is all MacLaine. The opening scenes, actually, simply showcase her face. The lines that communicate years of experience enable the actress to express more with a glance than many can with dialogue. We immediately savor this proud, elegant and self-obsessed woman as she travels through the patterns of her days and the rhythms of her relationships. She must, as the title suggests, always get in the last word, with her gardener, cook and anyone else she meets. So when this grand lady decides to hire – before she dies – a young writer to create the ultimate obituary, we know we’re in for a journey through Harriet’s hopes, fears and disappointments.
At moments the movie can feel familiar, with standard issue conflicts between generations, tensions with relationships, revelations among coworkers. As Harriet tries to turn around her life – to give substance to the obituary she wants to be written – she traverses a somewhat predictable path that includes a road trip that offers conversations, a broken-down car, a failed reunion and selfies. As many times as we may have seen such setups, MacLaine makes them feel fresh. As with every performance she gives, the actress makes each moment feel as if it all just happens. And it’s wonderful to see her still at work, still center-screen, at age 82.
Much like Harriet reviewing the milestones of her life, there is a sense that The Last Word gives MacLaine, as an actress and a woman, a chance to do the same. As we see photographs of the actress through the years – used as props in the character’s life – we remember all the memorable MacLaine moments from The Apartment and Terms of Endearment to the recent Bernie. At its best, The Last Word reminds us how MacLaine creates reel magic on screen when she gets to play interesting characters. I love watching her work. What a delight this actress can be.
The Last Word
Content: High. Shirley MacLaine shines as an elderly woman who wants to make sure she leaves just the right legacy.
- Entertainment: High. Few actresses can be as fresh as MacLaine, as adventurous in creating a character, as accessible in letting an audience see beneath the surface.
- Message: Medium. No matter how old we may be, we all have the capacity to change.
- Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to consider some of the fundamental issues in the film is well worth the time.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older children can have a lot to discuss about how people age and what that can mean to the people around them.
(The Last Word runs 1 hour, 48 minutes. It is Rated R for language. Reel Dad rating: 4 Popcorn Buckets.)
Shirley MacLaine: Always the last word
by Mark Schumann
Shirley MacLaine’s delightful performance in The Last Word – at age 82 – reminds us what a strong collection of women she has created over the years.
And, as the actress continues to reinvent herself, we get to savor the results.
Here are some of the best moments from MacLaine.
Some Came Running (1958)
After making her movie debut in The Trouble With Harry in 1955 and co-starring in the Best Picture Around the World in 80 Days, MacLaine wins her first Oscar nomination for this breathtaking turn as a woman who simply wants to be loved. She more than holds her own opposite Frank Sinatra in a touching tale about veterans returning to the States after World War II.
The Apartment (1960)
Two years later, MacLaine is robbed of winning her first Oscar for her indelible portrait of a woman who chooses love in the wrong places in this Billy Wilder Best Picture winner. From her first moments, MacLaine is authentic, human and special, and she and Lemmon create a real chemistry. But Elizabeth Taylor wins the Oscar for the wretched drama, Butterfield 8.
Irma La Douce (1963)
Working again with Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon, MacLaine plays another “hooker with a heart of gold” in this nonsinging adaptation of a Broadway musical. Maclaine beautifully captures the vulnerability of a woman hardened by her choices in life. She is, again, a leading contender for the Oscar but loses to an actress in an excellent film, Patricia Neal in Hud.
Sweet Charity (1969)
While Bob Fosse’s camerawork may be too busy, MacLaine is brilliant as taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine in this movie version of the Broadway musical. Yes, she can sing and dance and, yes, she can break our hearts. The actress brings more depth and energy to the role than a musical usually requires. She should be, again, an Oscar contender. But she is snubbed.
Desperate Characters (1971)
This drama – by Frank D. Gilroy, author of The Subject Was Roses – casts Shirley as a lady who finds herself weary of the disconnection people can experience living in New York City. When a cat bites her, she quickly learns how people can react to other people’s needs. MacLaine presents a new, mature presence on screen, in a movie that too many people ignore.
The Turning Point (1977)
Maclaine returns to big-screen success in this popular drama about lifelong friends who find themselves in awkward competition as they confront middle age. As the quiet one of this duet, MacLaine subdues her personality to reveal the fears people face when dreams shatter. Once again, MacLaine is an Oscar nominee, but loses to Diane Keaton for Annie Hall.
Terms of Endearment (1982)
Finally, the Academy cannot deny Shirley the Oscar for the performance of her career as a flamboyant, passionate and domineering woman who threatens to smother her daughter’s emotional core. This Best Picture winner from James L. Brooks beautifully balances the laughter and tears that real life brings. And, when she wins, MacLaine exclaims, “thank you for terminating the suspense”.
Steel Magnolias (1989)
What fun MacLaine has playing a bitter Southern woman in this magical comedy/drama directed by Herbert Ross, who also guided the actress through The Turning Point. This time MacLaine steals the film as she becomes a character actress of the first rank. Her scenes with Olympia Dukakis are the highlights of this popular ensemble piece that also stars Sally Field and Julia Roberts.
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
MacLaine should again be an Oscar nominee for her striking turn as a different matriarch in this Mike Nichols adaptation of the book by Carrie Fisher. As the outrageous show business mother of a struggling actress, MacLaine is funny, fierce and frantic in a performance of range and drive. And she delivers a killer rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s I’m Still Here.
Those of us who love MacLaine cheer her later-in-life turn as a Southern woman who befriends a most unusual visitor to a small town in Texas. The actress savors every opportunity to emote as a woman everyone in town loves to hate. Director Richard Linklater masterfully reveals how older age makes MacLaine’s gifts as an actress even more sublime.
Thank you, Shirley MacLaine, for making every movie you make something to see.