Top Ten Shirley MacLaine Films
Shirley MacLaine is unusual for a star of the studio era. You’re just as likely to recognize her from a movie that came out last year, as you are from a movie made 50 years ago. In a career spanning from 1955 until today, Shirley has appeared in over 60 movies and counting. Growing from an impish ingénue into a highly respected actress, nearly every decade has witnessed at least one memorable Shirley MacLaine performance.
Acting, writing, directing: she’s done it all. A constantly unique presence who exists somewhere in between that free-spirited hippy chick we know and love, and that fun, kooky aunt we never cease to be fascinated by. The one downside to Shirley's eccentricity is that at times, her highly publicized new age beliefs have received more press than her work. But, in this Hub, we’re all about the movies!
There are so many beloved Shirley MacLaine films that it was very difficult to narrow it down to ten (and I’m sure I’ve left out somebody’s favorite). But, soon this list began to emerge. And appropriately enough for an actor of Shirley’s talent and longevity, nearly every decade is represented on this list from the ‘50’s through the 2000’s (the ‘90's only missed being included by one year). And by the looks of things, I think we’re going to continue to be entertained by the incredible Shirley MacLaine for many years to come.
FYI: I chose the order of my top ten by considering each film's importance in Shirley’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (as I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Shirley MacLaine film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Shirley MacLaine Films
- Terms of Endearment
- The Apartment
- The Children's Hour
- Some Came Running
- Irma La Douce
- Two Mules For Sister Sara
- Sweet Charity
- The Turning Point
- Steel Magnolias
- Closing the Ring
1. “Terms of Endearment” (1983)
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, this is the film that, finally, won Shirley her Academy Award for Best Actress after four previous nominations in the category (the film itself, also, won Best Picture). Shirley's tour-de-force performance as the complex and overbearing Aurora Greenway, solidified her transition from cute pixie to respected older actress. Terms of Endearment tells the story of aging Texas debutant, Aurora, and her complicated relationship with her only daughter, Emma (played by Debra Winger). When Emma, suddenly, gets married and moves hundreds of miles away, she leaves Aurora in an empty house next door to a womanizing former astronaut (played by Jack Nicholson) who somehow manages to both repel and fascinate her. A wonderful character piece, the film follows Aurora and Emma across many years and multiple storylines but the heart of the film remains the unique relationship between this mother and daughter. Over time they both come to realize how close they actually are, despite how often they may butt heads. If you’re more familiar with Shirley’s older roles, this is the iconic performance that laid the groundwork for everything that followed. And bring your tissues for this one, Terms of Endearment is notorious for making people bawl like babies.
2. "The Apartment" (1960)
Written and directed by the great Billy Wilder, this sweet dramedy pairs Shirley opposite frequent Wilder collaborator, Jack Lemmon. Lemmon plays the part of C.C. Baxter, a lowly office drone whose been pressured by his superiors into allowing them to use his apartment as ground-zero for their extra-marital affairs. He's been hoping to earn a promotion in exchange for his troubles and when he, finally, gets the private office he's been craving, he assumes he can now have his apartment all to himself. No such luck. The head of the company has caught wind of Baxter's side business and wants in on the action. The situation becomes even more complex when Baxter discovers that his boss’ mistress is Fran Kubelik, the cute elevator operator he's been pining over. Now Baxter may have to make a choice between keeping his job and keeping his integrity. Shirley is at her cute and quirky best as the breezy Miss Kubelik while, also, bringing unexpected subtlety and depth to the film's more dramatic scenes. Some of the film's dialogue was even taken from actual conversations between Shirley, Lemmon, and Wilder. Though this satiric comedy was controversial for its time, it still proved to be immensely popular with audiences, even winning the Academy Award for Best Picture (making it the very last entirely black-and-white film to receive that honor up until The Artist broke that record in 2012).
3. “The Children’s Hour” (1961)
Based on the controversial stage play of the same name, The Children’s Hour is a dark tragedy that will leave you heartbroken by the finish. In the film, Shirley and co-star Audrey Hepburn play Martha and Karen (respectively), two old friends who run an all-girls boarding school together. The school’s business is just beginning to pick up enough for Karen to finally marry her long-time fiancé, Joe (played by James Garner). But, all of Martha and Karen’s plans are suddenly dashed when a trouble-making little girl tells her grandmother a lie she hopes will convince the old woman to pull her out of school. She succeeds, and this one lie will slowly begin to unravel every aspect of Martha and Karen’s lives. By the time the lie is, finally, exposed it is already too late to turn back. Shirley gives a brilliant and layered performance in this film as the melancholy Martha. But, it's in the film's final half-hour that Shirley really shines, as Martha, finally, let's out everything she's been holding back. An absolutely heartbreaking tragedy, The Children's Hour is groundbreaking, moving, and absolutely mesmerizing to watch. If you like dark character dramas, this is required viewing.
4. "Some Came Running" (1958)
Universally considered Shirley’s “break-out” performance, Some Came Running is a downbeat melodrama focusing on the dark side of small town 1950’s America. Based on the novel by James Jones (author of From Here To Eternity), and directed by famed movie musical director, Vincente Minnelli, the film stars Shirley opposite rat-packers, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Arguably, the first Rat Pack film, Some Came Running cemented Shirley’s status as the Pack’s unofficial mascot. Filmed on location in Madison, Indiana, this film has a touch of authenticity sometimes absent from other studio films. It centers on Dave (Sinatra), a writer and army veteran returning to his small midwestern hometown after years of avoiding it. In fact, Dave would still be avoiding it if his "drinking buddies" hadn’t put him on a bus home after he passed out in a bar. Once he arrives though, he quickly reunites with his uptight brother, Frank. But, Dave soon realizes that Frank and his family have an unnatural preoccupation with appearances over any actual sense of morality. And it seems he does not fit into their "picture-perfect" household. Shirley plays the sweetly naïve Ginny, a lower-class girl who follows Dave to his hometown after she mistakes his flirting for something more. But, Dave soon becomes too smitten by the town’s new Creative Writing instructor to notice how deeply Ginny cares for him. Shirley’s performance is both adorable and heartbreaking as Ginny remains hopelessly devoted to Dave despite how indifferently he treats her. Indeed, all of the actors give their absolute best performances in this uncharacteristically restrained Minnelli film. But, stay with this movie until the very end, and its unexpectedly fast-paced final sequence will leave you astounded.
5. “Irma La Douce” (1963)
Based on a Broadway musical but done as a straight comedy, this boundary pushing film reunited Shirley with both her director and her co-star of The Apartment, Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. But, this movie is nothing like The Apartment. It features Shirley as the titular Irma, a life-long streetwalker living and working in Paris. Known as Irma La Douce (Irma the Sweet in French), she goes about her business without complaint or any expectation of anything better than what she's always had. But, when an honest policeman named Nestor takes an interest in her, her life slowly begins to change. Nester (played by Lemmon) is new to Paris’ red light district and soon gets fired for being a little too law-abiding. But, once he's fired, Nestor’s relationship with Irma begins to turn more romantic in nature. In an effort to stay close to her, Nestor soon becomes her new mec (i.e. pimp) but, he just can’t bring himself to send any “customers” her way. As Nestor tries to fix this problem, his love for Irma continues to get him into deeper and deeper trouble. To prepare for their roles in this film, both Shirley and Lemmon took it upon themselves to visit a real Parisian brothel and study the working girls. Their research pays off as Shirley gives Irma a mix of toughness and vulnerability that feels very genuine. But it’s Jack Lemmon who really steals the show, giving a hilarious comic performance as the poor put-upon Nestor. Though the story can border on the ridiculous at times, the film, also, retains an odd grittiness due to its surprisingly sexual subject matter. But, no matter what zany plot twists the story takes, it’s Nestor and Irma’s incredible pursuit of happiness that will keep you interested in this fun-loving screwball comedy.
6. "Two Mules for Sister Sara" (1970)
This gritty western stars Shirley opposite the king of the modern Western, Clint Eastwood. Eastwood plays Hogan, a drifter traveling through Mexico who happens upon a nun named Sister Sara about to be raped and murdered by bandits. He saves her from her attackers and soon discovers that the French army is also, pursuing her due to her support for the Mexican Revolution. So, the responsibility falls on Hogan to keep Sister Sara safe until she can rendezvous with the Mexican army. It turns out Hogan has his own reasons for supporting the revolution (all of them financial) and was already on his way to do some reconnaissance on the French military base for their cause. Helping the sister might, actually, be to his benefit (or so he hopes) considering that her convent was located next to that very same base. To Hogan’s surprise, Sister Sara eventually becomes a valuable ally to him but, there may be more to this pretty little nun than meets the eye. Eastwood gives a solid performance as the tough-as-nails Hogan, but it’s Shirley who dominates the film as the vulnerable and feisty Sister Sara. The film contains its fair share of violence (obviously, taking some of its cues from The Wild Bunch which came out the year before) and adrenaline junkies will get their fair share of action as Hogan never goes very far without a stick of dynamite in his hand. Yet, it's the quieter character driven scenes that really make this film worth seeing. Fans of Eastwood’s Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns will, likely, enjoy this one.
7. "Sweet Charity" (1969)
Notable for being one of the few films to really take advantage of Shirley’s former career as a Broadway dancer, Sweet Charity, also, marks legendary choreographer, Bob Fosse’s directorial debut. Written by Neil Simon and based on the successful Broadway musical of the same name (which in turn is based on the Fellini film, Nights of Cabiria) it tells the story of Charity Hope Valentine, an eternally optimistic dancer-for-hire living and working in New York City. The film follows Charity as she struggles to find a better life for herself through love, work, or anything else she might find along the way. Shirley is absolutely adorable as the titular Charity, brightening up the film with her wonderful joie de vivre. The musical numbers in this film are incredible and those unaware of Shirley’s dance background will be pleasantly surprised by her skill. Granted, the film does carry some of the hallmarks of a first time film director, particularly those from a stage background (i.e. overly long dance sequences, overuse of simple film effects, overtly experimental techniques etc.). However, the film’s pitch perfect musical score and Shirley’s infectious performance make any of Fosse's rookie mistakes instantly forgivable. If you love musicals, this is a must see film. (Also, keep an eye out for Broadway veteran, Chita Rivera, as Charity's friend, Nickie, in a rare film appearance.)
8. “The Turning Point” (1977)
One of the first films in which Shirley played a specifically middle-aged character, The Turning Point offers a fascinating look into the world of professional ballet seen from the perspectives of those who “made it”, those who didn’t, and those who still have hopes that they will. Shirley stars as DeeDee, a former ballerina who gave up the stage for marriage and children. Her former classmate, Emma (played by Anne Bancroft), chose ballet over everything else and has since become a respected prima ballerina. When DeeDee’s daughter, Emilia, begins to show promise in ballet, Emma takes her under her wing, dredging up past regret in DeeDee for what might have been. Meanwhile, Emma's career may be coming to an end; a terrifying prospect for a woman whose entire life has been built around the ballet. Over the course of the film, both women must come to terms with the consequences of their respective choice and it’s not going to be easy for either of them. Without a doubt, fans of ballet will adore this film. Not only does it feature a number of beautiful dance sequences, it, also, features the film debut of ballet legend, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Those who have never seen Baryshnikov perform will get a chance in this film to see why he is considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time. His dance sequences are nothing short of amazing and more than worth the price of admission (or rental as the case may be). Fans of the film Steel Magnolias may, also, recognize Tom Skerritt as DeeDee's loving husband, Wayne. (Skerritt would appear as Shirley's nemesis, Drum, in Steel Magnolias 12 years after this film was made).
9. "Steel Magnolias" (1989)
Steel Magnolias features Shirley in a smaller role than some of the others on this list, but it’s certainly a memorable one. (And fans of the film would never forgive me if I didn’t include it). Based on a popular stage play, the film was adapted for the screen by the original playwright, Robert Harling, who does a wonderful job of opening up his play for the screen. It teams Shirley with an incredible cast of actresses, including Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, and the irreplaceable Dolly Parton. It follows the complicated (and not so complicated) lives of six Southern women who all frequent the same local beauty parlor. Each actress is given her own chance to shine over the course of the film, but the story really focuses on the problems of M’Lynn (Fields) and her diabetic daughter, Shelby (Roberts). Shelby is in very fragile health but refuses to accept it, continuing to live her life as she sees fit. However, Shelby’s recklessness puts her life in very real danger, which only M’Lynn seems to recognize. Throughout the film, M’Lynn continually tries to rein in her daughter, but is ultimately helpless to control her. Although the film clearly belongs to Sally Field for her heartbreaking performance as M’Lynn, Shirley provides some much needed levity as the hilarious Ouiser, the town’s caustic old grump. Ouiser dominates every scene in which she appears and her bitter observations result in some of the film’s most memorable lines. Across the board, the performances in this film are really top-notch and it’s easy to see why many people have a great affection for this charming comedy-drama.
10. "Closing the Ring" (2007)
Directed by Richard Attenborough, Closing The Ring is the most recent film on this list. Set in the 1990’s, it stars Shirley opposite the great Christopher Plummer as two people who may have already missed their chance on love. In a quietly solemn performance, Shirley plays the broken-hearted Ethel Ann, who has just lost her husband after a long illness. However, it seems that Ethel Ann never really loved her husband at all. Instead, she is haunted by the memory of a man that she knew when she was in her twenties. Plummer plays Ethel Ann’s longtime confidante, Jack, who seems to be the only one that really understands what's bothering her. Although the film’s storyline is relatively convoluted, it is oddly engaging to watch it slowly unfold, aided by beautiful flashback sequences and an enigmatic secondary story that will eventually turn out to be crucial to Ethel Ann’s eventual happiness. The film constantly bounces back and forth in time and space (jumping from the 1940’s to the ‘90’s and from Brannigan, Michigan to Belfast, Ireland), so be sure to pay close attention. The film is full of wonderful performances (Shirley’s included) but, it's the younger actors that are the most surprising. Each of them probably gives the performance of their career in this film. Mischa Barton, in particular, as the younger Ethel Ann gives a very moving performance that will surprise many that only know her for her TV work. The young cast, also, includes Gregory Smith (best known for the TV series Everwood) and a very young Stephen Amell (who currently stars in the popular TV series Arrow). An absolutely beautiful, yet hauntingly sad, love story, Closing The Ring will likely attract fans of The Notebook and other period romances.
Honorable Mention: "The Trouble With Harry" (1955)
For my honorable mention this time around, I could not resist including the film that started it all. The Trouble With Harry was Shirley’s film debut and she couldn’t have picked a better starting off point. This kooky black comedy set the standard for Shirley's quirky and unusual film personae. Directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, The Trouble With Harry is based on an English novel of the same name and indeed, it feels very much like an English comedy. Although this is one of Hitchcock’s lighter comedy pieces, the film nevertheless still retains his trademark dark edge. The plot centers around a dead body mysteriously appearing in a small New England town and the various residents’ struggle to deal with it. Shirley plays the feisty Jennifer Rogers, wife of the titular Harry who seems utterly unconcerned that her husband has recently been found dead in a field. In fact, no one seems particularly concerned about that. However, nobody is entirely sure how Harry died and no one who runs across the body really wants to be blamed for his death. So, Harry is buried, dug up, and re-buried multiple times as various people try to figure out what to do with him. An unabashedly silly film, The Trouble with Harry is a notable curiosity in the career of Alfred Hitchcock and it's simply great fun to watch Shirley in her very first film role.
And if you would like to learn more about the one-of-a-kind Shirley MacLaine, I highly recommend her memoir, My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir, as well as her more recently published book, What If . . . A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know For Sure.
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© 2011 Lindsay Blenkarn