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Tunes of Endearment

November 19, 1995|BART MILLS | Bart Mills is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

Shirley MacLaine directs Shirley MacLaine, no matter who is listed as director of a MacLaine project. She whirls through the Los Angeles set of "The West Side Waltz" as if she owned it, pulling along the ostensible director, Ernest Thompson, in her wake, along with a bevy of technicians who also take their cues from her.

She's in character (isn't she always?) preparing to play a scene as Margaret Mary Elderdice, a crotchety ex-concert pianist suffering from arthritis and resisting the end of the line in her overdecorated Manhattan apartment. "I don't want to play this character old!" were the 61-year-old actress's first words to writer-director Thompson (who also wrote "On Golden Pond").

"The West Side Waltz," which airs on CBS Thanksgiving Day, is a three-generation piece about aging and renewal. Liza Minnelli plays a violinist who wants to take care of MacLaine, and Jennifer Grey plays MacLaine's live-in companion. "The characters start out talking past each other," MacLaine says, "and grow toward really communicating. It's a classy piece of writing."

Dressed brassy in red and blue jacket and red skirt, the Eternal Redhead was ready to roll at 9 a.m. one morning a few days after finishing "The West Side Waltz." The indefatigable actress-entertainer-traveler-guru has now published her eighth book, 'My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir.'

The book portrays her fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as self-centered and shallow. "They were my teachers, my mirrors. It's the difficult people you learn from. I've never met a man, except perhaps Jim Garner, who was as witty as Dean. He's never been happier than he is today--doing nothing, which is what he always wanted to do.

"I was 22 when I met these guys. I tried once to tell Dean I loved him, drove over to his house to tell him, but I couldn't do it. The whole experience with Sinatra, it was mesmerizing. When he goes, it will be the end of an era that won't come again.'

The MacLaine era, which encompasses 40-odd films including "Irma la Douce," "The Apartment" and "The Turning Point," is far from over. The Oscar winner for "Terms of Endearment" recently has completed a romantic comedy called "Mrs. Winterbourne" with Ricki Lake. Next is "Evening Star," her sequel to "Terms of Endearment."

Feeling no need to puff herself, MacLaine says, "I was never Julia Roberts or Barbra Streisand. I wasn't Natalie Wood or Elizabeth Taylor. I was discovered at 20 and did five or six parts before I really hit. I snuck up on you. I didn't hit as a sex symbol, more of a girl next door. I came in after glamour and before grunge. So the cosmetic issue of whether I'd last when I got older never arose. That's why my sun keeps coming up.

"I never had the patience for glamour. Ten minutes in makeup is as much as I can stand. Hair--wash and dry, that's it. I've got better things to do with my time." As she says in her book, MacLaine was always attracted to "unruly, unseemly, rebellious behavior." She explains why: "My mother was from Canada, which speaks for itself. Dad was from a small town in Virginia and repressed his emotions in drinking. Together they gave us a don't-rock-the-boat upbringing.

"They built up a wall, saying, 'Don't jump this, you'll be hurt.' It was just low enough so if I jumped I could see what was on the other side. Then they'd raise it, so I'd jump higher. In effect, they were teaching me to jump the wall, and I soon did."

And her brother Warren Beatty followed right after her. Throughout their careers as superstars, MacLaine and Beatty have seemed to be on divergent tracks, never antagonistic yet rarely publicly close. "There's a lot I don't know about him--and vice versa," MacLaine says. "We're very different people with different perspectives on life.

"It's funny, Warren was always a conservative Eastern gentleman. That's where he was headed all along and now he's there, now that he's found this wonderful wife [Annette Bening]. Those two children mean everything to him. Whenever I get a chance, I'm over there with them. I adore Warren's children, and they act as a bridge between us."

Would MacLaine ever work with Beatty? "It would depend," she says cagily. "He's a great director. But I'd have to think twice about having to do 68 takes of every scene."

Besides, she doesn't have to beg for work. She continues to attract top co-stars. Of Minnelli, she says, "I've known Liza since I made 'Some Came Running' for her father [director Vincente Minnelli, in 1958, when Liza was 12]. I'd go over to Vincente's house and Liza would be there, dressing up and putting on shows."

Of Jack Nicholson: "We'll get him to agree to be in 'Evening Star' if we pay him and if the Lakers aren't playing basketball that day. I love working with Jack. He makes everybody around him better."

MacLaine was seen recently hand-holding with Australian politician Andrew Peacock but plays down the relationship. There is no one man in her life right now, she says, "Not right now. I have about five steady relationships--more like seven. People I can go and talk about things with.

"I need to be alone a lot. That doesn't mean I feel lonely. I feel lonely sometimes when I'm with people." MacClaine's idea of heaven is "to feel completely peaceful inside. As I look outside, I'd feel nothing but love. That would be heaven."

"The West Side Waltz" airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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