The Kennedy Center

Shirley MacLaine


(Actress; born April 24, 1934, in Richmond, Virginia)

"Some performers are absolutely indelible. We fall early and we fall hard for them and we follow them for the rest of their lives. That's our Shirl." That is one besotted fan's explanation for Shirley MacLaine's dazzling reign as one of cinema's most cherished stars. That particular fan just happens to be Meryl Streep, a 2011 Kennedy Center Honoree and MacLaine's Postcards from the Edge co-star, but millions of moviegoers around the world undoubtedly voice equally enthusiastic terms of endearment whenever they think about Shirley MacLaine. She is today one of Hollywood's legendary leading actresses, and she has been for nearly 60 years, ever since her film debut in 1955's The Trouble with Harry, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Her range throughout has been remarkable, tackling and triumphing in everything from delicious comedies and delightful capers to searing dramas and soaring musicals. Hitchcock led the parade of master directors who wanted to work with her. Inspired by MacLaine's vivacious spirit and compassionate understanding of her characters--their dreams and desires, their strengths and flaws--these directors created some of their best and most popular work with and for her: Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running, Billy Wilder's The Apartment and Irma la Douce, William Wyler's The Children's Hour, Robert Wise's Two for the Seesaw, Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity, Don Siegel's Two Mules for Sister Sara, Herbert Ross' The Turning Point and Steel Magnolias, Hal Ashby's Being There, James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment, John Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka, Mike Nichols' Postcards from the Edge and Richard Linklater's Bernie, to name but a few.

She's earned four Best Actress Oscar nominations--for 1958's Some Came Running, 1960's The Apartment, 1963's Irma la Douce and 1977's The Turning Point--and won for 1983's Terms of Endearment. Her four Best Actress Golden Globe wins have been equally divided between comedy and drama. She's been honored with the Golden Globe's Cecil B. DeMille Award and the AFI Life Achievement Award.

Addressing Shirley MacLaine at her AFI tribute, Morgan Freeman told her: "You have been the movies. The length and breadth of your career is extraordinary. Your performances are brilliant. Your films, like you, are memorable and timeless."

And that's just her film career. MacLaine's been a Broadway musical understudy and breakout star--all in the same production of The Pajama Game. She's won an Emmy Award for her TV Variety Special, "Gypsy in My Soul." She's a prolific author of 13 best-selling memoirs that explore journeys both physical and spiritual, family life, career, aging, and reincarnation. She's a documentary filmmaker, a film producer and a political activist. She was at one time the "mascot" of the Rat Pack and is the sister of Warren Beatty.

She began 2013 with a highly anticipated role on the beloved Downton Abbey and will bring the year to a close with the release of her latest film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig.

She was born in 1934, in Richmond, Virginia, where her parents, both teachers, named her after the most popular and adorable movie star of the era, Shirley Temple. Like her namesake, from the moment she could stand, Shirley preferred to dance. Ballet classes started at age 3, which led to school recitals, which paved the way to high school musicals. At age 20, she landed not her first but what would turn out to be her star-making role on Broadway--as Carol Haney's understudy in The Pajama Game. As Shirley herself recounted to the Los Angeles Times in 2012, one night she got to the theater to find four of the most brilliant men working on Broadway--Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Hal Prince and George Abbott--"lined up at the stage door saying, ‘Haney is out. You're on.'" Jerry Lewis witnessed her performance as Gladys Hotchkiss. "Shirley came on and absolutely electrified me and everybody else in the audience," he recalled. "By the final curtain, we were all on our feet, yelling for her to come out again and again." Her once-a-year day turned into weeks and weeks of standing ovations. Months later, Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis saw the show, offered her a contract, and off to Hollywood she went. The Trouble with Harry premiered on October 3, 1955. That day, a star was re-born.

Her early career was a giddy whirlwind. She traveled Around the World in 80 Days in '56, danced the Can-Can in 1960, rode The Yellow Rolls-Royce in '64, risked a Gambit in '66, played Woman Times Seven in '67, and brought the '60s to a close with a dose of Sweet Charity.

Then at an age when many an actress's career begins to falter, MacLaine's became even richer, with performances that were deeper, more expansive, subtle and moving. About 1971's Desperate Characters, Roger Ebert said "Shirley MacLaine achieves one of the great performances of the year. She proves that we were right, when we saw her in films like The Apartment, to know that she really had it all, could go all the way with a serious role." Bette Davis proclaimed that in 1983's Terms of Endearment "Miss Shirley MacLaine gave an outstanding performance," and then added, "But then, she's always good." And Meryl Streep paid tribute to Shirley MacLaine's iconoclastic brilliance saying: "I like that you didn't disappear into those tricky middle years, from 45 to 65. In fact, you're the one who cut the path for all of us because you have done some of your greatest work… in what we call ‘middle age.' And you're writing the template for how to have a challenging, creative later career. That gives hope to everybody, not just actors."

Looking back at her tremendously fruitful and fulfilling life, Shirley MacLaine thanks her Mother for advice she has never forgotten: "Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, and your head in the stars." For all of us who heed that advice, one of those stars will forever be named Shirley MacLaine.
Shirley MacLaine