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Illustration: Shirley MacLaine (Kagan McLeod for The National)
Illustration: Shirley MacLaine (Kagan McLeod for The National)

Downton Abbey's Shirley MacLaine is more spice than sugar

The selection of the American actress to be the newest cast member of Downton Abbey would seem to be an odd choice, but the sister of Warren Beatty has spent her life going contrary to people's expectations.

It's one of the world's most successful television dramas. Downton Abbey's young stars have become household names, their will-they-won't-they romantic entanglements the subject of heated debates around millions of dinner tables. And yet, as a new series begins this month in the UK, the buzz doesn't surround possible plot twists in this vision of early 20th-century life at an English country estate. Instead, it's the arrival of a 78-year-old actress with a history of saying what she thinks that has got everybody talking. It's not often that the new star of such a show is approaching their ninth decade. But then, not everyone is Shirley MacLaine.

This is, after all, the American actress who received suggestive dinner-table notes from Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev at the very height of the Cold War. Who partied - and starred in films - with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin during the Rat Pack years. Who seduced directors yet wrote delightfully bonkers books about UFOs and the belief she is the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess. A woman who has been both an Oscar winner and struggled for work.

There were some who wondered whether MacLaine was right for the show, which will air on OSN early next year here. They worried that her character, Martha Levinson, had only been cast to appease American viewers, and that the scenes where she went head-to-head with Maggie Smith's uppity Dowager Countess would simply be a comic aside. But MacLaine is, quite frankly, the perfect fit for Downton Abbey. It's a show, after all, in which one of the lead characters was inoperably paralysed in the First World War, only to find a miracle cure when the plot needed livening up. Reality has never, really, been one of Downton Abbey's strong points - although if one of MacLaine's much vaunted UFOs descends on proceedings, it'll be time to give up altogether.

But for all MacLaine's regular pronouncements that "people think I'm nuts" - a notion she does little to dispel - there was one telling aside from the press preview screening of Downton last month. "She struggled at first with the rhythm of the language. It was very alien to her," said Downton producer Liz Trubridge. "She hated the thought she was letting anyone down by not getting it. She wanted to get it. She would work really hard in the evening to do so." Therein lies the secret to MacLaine's success. She may be well known for 1960s parties with the stars and New Age hippiedom. But her work rate is prodigious.

And the work itself began way back in 1954, when she left younger brother Warren Beatty at the family home in Arlington, Virginia to go to New York. After teenage years learning ballet and stagecraft, she was to understudy Carol Haney in The Pajama Game on Broadway. Usually, of course, an understudy only fills in for snap illnesses and the odd matinée. But Haney sprained her ankle, MacLaine literally stepped in and was almost immediately signed to work for Paramount Pictures.

Later, in her inimitable style, she would credit "ankle karma" for making her a star - once, she'd broken her own ankle before a performance of Cinderella, but tied her shoes tighter and played the role, calling an ambulance after the show. Before long, the poster for Alfred Hitchcock's comedy The Trouble With Harry was emblazoned with the words "introducing Shirley MacLaine". It was, she has said, a learning experience more than anything else, so it was remarkable that by only her fourth movie, in 1958, she was enjoying her first Oscar nomination, for Some Came Running.

Vincente Minnelli's film is notable, now, for being the very first time Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin acted together. It began MacLaine's connection with the Rat Pack; initially one of the "Rat Pack mascots" alongside Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson and Juliet Prowse, she was the only woman who remained a constant - perhaps because she lived life as hard as the boys. There was a cameo in the original Oceans 11. She played cards with Mob boss Sam Giancana and wrote in her 1995 memoir of nights consisting of "poker, jokes, pasta and booze that went on until 5am. Our calls were at 6am".

A recent interview in The Guardian saw her backtracking slightly, claiming that when the Rat Pack was getting high she'd leave the room. "I'd say, 'I'll see you when you get done.' That could be my dad's influence. His disciplinarian mentality." Nevertheless, she also admitted that there is indeed an archive of unpublished material not in any memoir that will remain untouched until her death.

Whatever that might reveal, MacLaine was important in the 1960s because her extracurricular activities didn't interfere with her on-screen talent. She didn't live up to the image of the young female co-star popular at that time - it's easy to see her character as sweetly naive in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, for which she claimed her second Oscar nomination. But the famous final line - "shut up and deal" - showed she was made of sterner stuff.

MacLaine continued to play complicated characters: her next Oscar nomination came with the 1963 romantic comedy Irma La Douce, but again her wide-eyed character showed steel, this time born of a life in prostitution. In 1967's Woman Times Seven, starring Michael Caine and Peter Sellers, she revelled in a film exploring adultery. Perhaps it was no surprise when Don Siegel, her director in the 1970s movie Two Mules for Sister Sara, said: "It's hard to feel any great warmth to her … She's very, very hard."

And there is an odd dichotomy at the heart of MacLaine's superstar period. There's a certain truth in her acknowledgement in a 2007 interview that she wasn't afraid of getting old, "because I was never a great beauty. I was never a sex symbol … I wasn't interested in my stature as a star. Ever. I was just interested in good parts." But at the same time, she was very interested in men. And the sheer amount of men became part of the narrative of MacLaine's life.

There is a hilariously over-the-top interview with Oprah Winfrey from 2011, in which she said "I've had an awful lot of lovers …" - dramatic pause - " … and a lot of awful lovers." Famous names have been ticked off - Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand and Danny Kaye among them. Nikita Khrushchev, thankfully, was not. MacLaine has been frank about her open relationship with husband Steve Parker, whom she finally divorced in 1982.

All of which might make one of MacLaine's most famous put-downs, directed at her brother and his womanising at the 1979 Oscars, seem rather two-faced. But it did make some kind of sense. She was, very slowly, finding some inner peace. By the late 1970s, MacLaine had written two memoirs, Don't Fall Off the Mountain and You Can Get There From Here, both of which were just as interested in human nature as they were Las Vegas high jinks. She travelled to China, Africa, India, Japan and Peru. The experiences she'd had in these places gave way to extended bouts of soul searching and an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Meanwhile, her husband had been transferring her money to his account and the roles had dried up. Not that she was cowed by such developments. In 1980 she starred in A Change of Seasons with Anthony Hopkins, who is widely reported to have said "she was the most obnoxious actress I have ever worked with". It's tempting to suggest such devilment won MacLaine the role that would in some ways crown her career.

In 1983, James Brooks was a first-time film director who believed he could adapt Larry McMurtry's novel Terms of Endearment - the story of three stormy decades in the lives of a mother and daughter - into a believable, emotional film, as long as he had the right lead playing the sassy, overbearing mother. Enter Shirley MacLaine. Asked why she was cast, Brooks said MacLaine was "the only one who ever saw it as a comedy," but this was far from a throwaway role. MacLaine imbued Aurora with fierce, hard-won humanity, and deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress. "In principle," she told The New Yorker earlier this year, "I won an Oscar for playing myself."

Accepting her award, she blurted out "I'm gonna cry, because this show has been as long as my career. I have wondered for 26 years what this would feel like." And if that sounded overly trite for such a feisty character, as she turned to go, she made one last pronouncement. "I deserve this!"

She certainly did. And while it's probably fair to say her film career never reached such heights again - roles in Steel Magnolias and Bewitched notwithstanding - MacLaine had other preoccupations. Not least her spiritual quests (she spent two weeks with the Dalai Lama in 1992), her belief that her dog Terry has taught her lessons about peace, courage and entertainment (detailed in her book Out on a Leash) and her fascination with UFOs. For a long period of time, interviewers would note the trays of psychic crystals dotted around her home.

And yet, somehow, none of this has coalesced into the conclusion that MacLaine has taken leave of her senses. There's a benign, non-confrontational and rather endearing quality to her beliefs. In any case, for the next few months, she's back to the waspish, sharp-witted character actress we've come to love. Downton Abbey, be warned.

The Biog

April 24, 1934 Born Shirley MacLean Beaty

1954 Stars in Broadway’s The Pajama Game, marries businessman Steve Parker

1955 Film debut in The Trouble With Harry

1956 Her only child, Sachi Parker, is born

1958 Co-stars in Some Came Running and earns first Oscar nomination

1960 Second Oscar nomination for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment

1963 Third Oscar nomination for Imla La Douce

1970 Writes first memoir, Don’t Fall Off the Mountain

1975 Directs documentary The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir, which is nominated for an Oscar

1977 Again nominated for an Oscar, this time for Herbert Ross’ The Turning Point

1982 Divorces Parker after financial irregularities come to light

1983 Finally wins an Oscar for Terms of Endearment

2008 Nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Coco Chanel

2012 Stars in Downton Abbey as Martha Levinson

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