The Books: “Dance While You Can” (Shirley MacLaine)

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Dance While You Can, by Shirley MacLaine

Dance While You Can came out in the early 90s. Now it can’t be said that MacLaine ever really had a dry period – that’s one of the amazing things about her career. She has said that she started to play “character parts” (meaning: NOT leading ladies, NOT romantic leads) early – most women hold on to their leading lady status as long as they can … then they go into a blackout period of about 10 to 15 years – and emerge, as older women, ready to play character parts. (That is, if the actress is successful in the first place). MacLaine was nothing if not practical. She always was. It’s her dance training. She was the kind of person who dreamt as a child of one thing and one thing only: to be a prima ballerina. So she studied, spent every night in dance class – as a kid! – and actually went quite far in developing herself. But in her late teens, she came to the painful realization that she just was not good enough. She would never get out of the corps, and that was not the life she wanted for herself. So she “switched” to acting. This is a decision so hard to make that many people in her position put it off and put it off until it is too late. The business is full of bitter sad people who just didn’t live the life they WANTED to live. Not MacLaine. She gutted it out, let the dream of dancing go (although not entirely, of course), and changed track. But her career is full of such moments – and it was a conscious decision, in her 30s, to start playing the “character” parts … She wasn’t afraid to play older than she was, she wasn’t afraid to play eccentrics, she would rather WORK than try to hold on to her status as a leading lady. This is a rare thing. You can see the success of it in her career.

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She was nominated for an Oscar time and time again. Shirley MacLaine has vanity, just like the rest of us – she keeps her body in shape, she cultivates herself, she always looks fabulous when you see her out in public – but on screen? She didn’t care. Like the scene at the end of Terms of Endearment in the hospital, when you can see she hasn’t dyed her hair and her dark roots are showing, and she looks like hell. This isn’t an affectation, this isn’t playing “ugly” – this is dedication to the reality of whatever character she is playing. She knew that longevity resided in character parts. Leading ladies have a shelf life. Character actors are forever.

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Dance While You Can is primarily an investigation into family relationships – MacLaine’s relationship with her parents, as well as her daughter Sachi … not always smooth sailing … but full of lessons learned. And so MacLaine, focusing on Postcards for the entirety of the book, with its entire plot having to do with family, and dealing with parental expectations, and old regrets, and all that family CRAP … makes sense. MacLaine tries to make amends in the book to her daughter Sachi – who spent much of her childhood in Japan, at an international school, and MacLaine cannot forgive herself for “abandoning” her there. She doesn’t “know” her daughter, in many ways.

In 1990, she appeared in Postcards from the Edge with Meryl Streep. She was lifelong friends with Debbie Reynolds and so the chance to ‘play her’ was really fun for MacLaine … not to mention the fact that she had never worked with Streep.

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And here (in the excerpt below) her practicality comes to the fore again. MacLaine is an odd and interesting mix of humility (a true dancer’s mindset) and confidence. When she finally won an Oscar for Terms of Endearment after a million nominations she said in her acceptance speech, “I deserve this.” She knows she’s a good actress. And the Terms set was a notoriously tempestuous one, and Debra Winger and she did not (to put it mildly) get along. But whatever happened offscreen stayed offscreen – or that particular brand of tension and fear of the other was translated into the sparks-flying too-intense mother-daughter relationship. Whatever alchemy was going on, it doesn’t matter. MacLaine had made it through and triumphed. It’s one of my favorite MacLaine performances. But my point here is that MacLaine does not have a shrinking ego, and she is not intimidated easily. She’s worked with Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, Anne Bancroft – great great people. She knows she’s good. She knows she’s fortunate, too, but she knows she’s good.

I set it up this way because MacLaine has told the story in the excerpt below before – about how, during her first scene with Meryl Streep in Postcards … she thought she was doing fine, then they went and watched the dailies – and she realized how much Meryl Streep was acting her off the screen. Her description of that moment is interesting – and there’s much to discuss. It sounds as though Meryl Streep is in her own little world, creating her character, not really interacting with MacLaine – just doing her own brilliant thing individually. Is that right? What about collaboration? HOWEVER: if you think about the relationship of mother and daughter in Postcards – and how they talk OVER each other, without ever really hearing … how each character is so wrapped up in her own ego and her own needs that all she sees in the other is an obstacle … you can see that (as always) there was a method to Streep’s madness. MacLaine and Streep work differently. MacLaine is a good actress of the old school. She doesn’t walk around in character offscreen, she doesn’t try to dredge up her own emotions … she tries to work strictly within the confines of the script and the character. To great results. Streep has said that all of her accents and stuff like that are not so much being prepared – but being overly prepared. She needs so much “permission” to play a part and feel that it is authentic that she OVER-prepares. She has laughed at how much she prepared for the one Irish-dancing scene in Dancing at Lughnasa – she trained with an Irish step-dancer for, like, 6 months. Is it necessary?? Well, it is for her. Every actress is different. Streep also does not make a big show out of being in character always … but I have to say: Streep is one of the most inarticulate actresses out there, in terms of her own process. It’s like DeNiro. These people just do not know how to talk about acting. They DO it. Streep said, when she came and talked at my school, “To me, talking about how I work is almost like talking about what I feel when I kneel in church and pray. It’s just not in the realm of language. I know why I pray – but could I describe it?” Streep is not being self-important here. She is being on the level. Her work is secret, and somewhat magical (in my opinion).

So anyway – MacLaine and Streep – together now … They have met the day before. But MacLaine felt that Streep was already in character – she kept calling her “Mommy” … and this threw MacLaine off. Would she never get to know Streep herself?

And how perfect that kind of dynamic is for the particulars of Postcards, isn’t it? Isn’t the mother so afraid of being “shown up” by the daughter? And isn’t the daughter sulkily afraid of “showing up” the mother? Streep has said in interviews that Shirley MacLaine was one of her favorite actresses growing up. She loved her diversity (singing, dancing, comedy, tragedy), and she loved her grace with her own fame. She was an idol of Streep’s. So what do you want to bet (even though Streep doesn’t talk about her own work) that Streep OVER-prepared (yet again) … in order to feel she had “permission” to even go toe to toe with one of her idols. But Streep’s process is so fluid you don’t notice all of that. You know work has been done, obviously, but you’re not sure exactly in what area.

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So MacLaine’s feeling of bafflement and also – that familiar feeling you get as an actor when you realize: “Holy shit. My scene partner is WALKING AWAY with this scene.” is so human to me, so endearing. And I love how she talks about Streep – almost like she’s a creature from another planet who needs to be studied under glass.

Good collaboration in acting is not about having a “You, first” attitude. It cannot be polite. You have to stake your claim in the scene, and if you’re lucky – your scene partner can hold her own.

The first scene shot with the two of them together is a scene beloved by Postcards fans (of which I am one): the one where MacLaine comes to pick up Streep after her first day of work and they drive home in the car. Streep guzzles down M&Ms, MacLaine babbles on about Louis B. Mayer and work and also how her daughter needs to be more grateful for what she has … and Streep makes snarky under-her-breath comments. They speak simultaneously the entire time. It’s a tour de force – on BOTH sides – but what I love about the excerpt below is how MacLaine realized – at age 55, or however old she was – that, in the face of Meryl Streep – she needed to step up her game.

And isn’t that exactly what is going on in Doris’ mind in that film? That she needs to step up her game so she won’t “lose” to her daughter?

Oh, and the relevant clip is below. The scene MacLaine describes is at the 7 minute mark. It’s one of my favorites from the film. I love to watch the scene only focusing on Streep, and then rewinding and only focusing on MacLaine. Brill.


EXCERPT FROM Dance While You Can, by Shirley MacLaine

Meryl and I took our places in the front seat of the car. I quickly ran through the dialogue in my head. I knew Mike was a stickler for having precise rhythm with the words. He had a way of being so diplomatically kind with his insistent and correct discipline. He was an artist who had been hard on himself for years and, feeling happier lately, he had seemed to come to terms with his artistry and his desire to believe he was a man of great decency. I liked him a lot. I think he was feeling the same way about himself.

The cameras rolled (there were three of them), the process screen behind us cranked up, and Mike quietly yelled “Action”.

There I was, playing a long scene with a woman I considered to be one of the great actresses in the world. I was required to play everything looking straight ahead, because I was driving the car. I couldn’t look into Meryl’s face. I couldn’t really see what she was doing. I had all of the lines. She simply reacted. I knew she was eating M&M’s as I spouted my dialogue. I heard her well-orchestrated chuckles and grunts in response to what I was saying, which seemed appropriate to her character and the scene. I knew she was wearing sunglasses to shield herself from the harsh world outside of the rehab clinic, and I could feel her seem to tolerate the colorful “mother’s” dialogue as I plowed through the threepage scene, all of which, I thought, was written to enhance the character I was playing. I was wrong.

When I went to the “dailies” the next day, Meryl had, in my opinion, acted me off the screen. She seemed able to find comic nuances that I never dreamed were there, perfectly legitimate to her character and to the scene, without disturbing the balance. The woman was brilliant; and for the first time in my life, I felt that I was possibly outclassed.

This would be a new experience for me. She made me feel competitive, which I was uncomfortable with. I liked being friends with my fellow actors. I had always acted with people before. This felt like an exercise in simply staying in the race. Then i realized she wasn’t even acting really; she was living the part of the daughter, who was suffering from comparison with the mother.

So as the days and our work progressed, we developed a relationship based on mutual respect and admiration. Because she was living her part, I can’t say that I got to know her. For me it was an experience of hands-on observation of the seminal process of actually becoming a character; something I never wanted to do myself.

My working relationships with Anne Bancroft, Audrey Hepburn, Debra Winger, Shirley Booth, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Julia Roberts, Teri Garr, and many other fine actresses carried with them a certain personal intimacy, something of ourselves, apart from what we were playing.

With Meryl, I never had the pleasure of actually knowing her. But she happened to come along at a time in my life when I could recognize such a phenomenon as that of not being able to meet and know a part of myself. I couldn’t seem to “get in there” far enough to know her as my daughter as well as she seemed to be able to know me as her mother. Central to my role, of course, was precisely the kind of self-centered unawareness of others that would naturally shut out any intimate understanding of another person. So perhaps I was more on the mark than I seemed to myself, but it was Meryl’s vision and definable secrets in our screen relationship that belonged exclusively to her and that allowed her to forgive, and accept, and admire, and ultimately, to love that mother. She was able to mine the gold of our on-screen relationship as a one-person expedition, reaping the profits to her satisfaction and needing no one else to accomplish it. She was a magnificent one-woman band, playing and orchestrating her emotional instrument, oblivious to the fact that some of the rest of us felt as though we were acting alone. Perhaps that is the destiny of a real genius. Or put another way, perhaps that is the true meaning of channeling. When one channels divine talent, one is connected only to the source of it, and the physical presence of those who are also in attendance is irrelevant. A channeler puts aside the conscious mind and surrenders to another identity. That’s the phenomenon I saw in Meryl.

Meryl could do what she does whether anyone else existed or not. Her thrill in acting seemed to come from abdicating her own identity completely and becoming someone else. It was an identity decision I had never been able to make, nor did I want to. But, as I worked with her, the mystery of why and how she did it filled my days with confused wonder. Was the basis of her ability founded on complete knowledge of surrendering herself or complete detachment from who she was? Or was she a consummate technician who had researched her character thoroughly?

Since I had become such an ardent student of consciousness and inner reality, she served as an archetypical example for me. To me, acting itself had become a metaphor for life. We could each choose how we would approach our own truth, much in the same way we approached our roles. We were both blessed and cursed with the canvas of freedom we had at our disposal. We could make our illusion any reality we chose. And the million choices open to us with each character were open to us in our own lives as well. We could play with each other or we could play alone. We could believe our inner fantasies and make them work for us in the “real” world, or we could believe only in the objective world and, as a result, feel the inner isolation of emptiness. Of course, one was not mutually exclusive of the other. The trick was how to balance the two.

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5 Responses to The Books: “Dance While You Can” (Shirley MacLaine)

  1. Kate says:

    Love both the clip and the passage. I adore both those women.

  2. red says:

    Kate – me too.

    “You could have had Lana Turner for a mother. Joan Crawford.”

    “Lana? Joan? These are the options?”

  3. red says:

    “Dear, you are not middle-aged. I am middle-aged.”
    “How many 120 year old people do you know?”

  4. Ian says:

    She’s great in that movie, but I didn’t know she was a great writer, too! Thanks for sharing! I’m going to have to pick one of her books up now.

  5. red says:

    Ian – definitely! Her book My Lucky Stars (which I will excerpt from tomorrow) is my favorite … really really rich with anecdotes and character studies of people like Peter Sellers, Jack Nicholson, Dean Martin – lovely stuff.

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