Shirley MacLaine Honored With 40th AFI Life Achievement Award

“Welcome to the longest night of Warren Beatty’s life,” said Sony honcho and AFI  Board of Trustees Chair Howard Stringer as he opened the evening for the 40th Annual AFI Life Achievement Award to Shirley MacLaine last night at Sony Studios. Actually  MacLaine’s baby brother Beatty seemed to be having a great time all the way through and even to  the exclusive after-party which didn’t even get going until 11 PM. And so did everyone else at this “long overdue” tribute as presenter and 2004 recipient Meryl Streep put it, which drew a starry turnout including such MacLaine co-stars as Streep, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Jennifer Aniston and many others.

It took a long time for the AFI to get around to MacLaine but it was definitely worth the wait as she told me at the after-party. There’s something rightly aligned with the planets about it happening now in 2012 she says. We’ll go with that even though this is a star who has worked with some of the earliest recipients of this award including William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, Gene Kelly, Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon and others.

MacLaine asked me, “Do you think it was too reverential?” Of course it was. That was exactly the point and how it could it not be when you are talking about a true survivor of the show business wars who has been at it for nearly 60 years. She told me her career is as hot right now as when it started and she has five projects lined up in a row all of a sudden. Monday she leaves to shoot The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty as Ben Stiller’s mother. MacLaine, now 78, confessed to me that during her acceptance speech she couldn’t read the teleprompter and had to wing it. No problem. You could have heard a pin drop in the cavernous Sony sound stage where The Wizard Of Oz was filmed as the honoree recounted her upbringing with Beatty and the influence her mother and father had on her life and career. It was heartfelt and fascinating, something to which everyone there seemed to relate.

MacLaine didn’t treat this opportunity like the 39 others have that preceded her. She is only the 7th woman to receive the prestigious honor and clearly wanted to acknowledge that by including only women at her center table including Roberts, Streep, Field and Aniston. In her acceptance she acknowledged them as the “other half of the sky – women who speak the truth and will make the world a better place”. She didn’t ignore her male co-stars though: “those I made love to on screen – and off”.

Ever the activist, the in-person tributes included warm speeches from politicians former Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern for whom she stumped. But mostly this was a tribute to a great film career for, as Stringer put it, “Shirley, the perfect girl next door who could dance the pants off everyone in Hollywood, and Shirley the actress who could make an elevator girl so appealing just by the way she pressed your button”. He called her a triple threat (singer, dancer , actress) and acknowledged the three “Jacks” in her life: Nicholson, Bernie co-star Black and the late Jack Lemmon (The Apartment, Irma La Douce) of whom she said in her closing remarks, “I talked to Lemmon last night and he’s doing just fine”. Nice to know. Actually MacLaine herself added a “fourth Jack” when she spoke, singling out her ICM Partners’ agent Jack Gilardi.

AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale told me working with MacLaine on this tribute was “a blast” and she confirmed that saying she put it all the hands of the AFI and their production team. “Each recipient is different when you ask them what they want their evening to be,” Gazzale said. “Shirley smiled and said ‘I’ve lived my life, you interpret it’.”

Before the affair turned to the honoree, the Franklin J. Schaffner award was presented to Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) who noted it was the films of the ’60s and ’70s that inspired him the most, one being MacLaine’s Being There (1979) largely because of the work of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Before the show Pfister excitedly told me he is graduating to the director’s chair and will announce next week a nearly $100 million dollar film project that Christopher Nolan and wife Emma Thomas have just agreed to executive produce.

But the night belonged to MacLaine or Shirl as so many speakers called her.

First up of the stars to honor her was Beatty, a 2008 recipient of the award making them the first brother/sister act to receive both AFI awards and Oscars. Previously the only dual family members to pull that off were Michael and Kirk Douglas. In addition to Beatty past recipients in the house were Sidney Poitier, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Streep and last year’s recipient Morgan Freeman. It’s amazing  it has taken this long for MacLaine to be honored by the AFI. Some have gotten it after 30 years. She had to wait nearly 60. I asked her about this oversight and she asked me the same question. Neither of us had an answer. Many honorees have had far shorter film careers but jumped past her. It’s about time she got it and the most important thing is at least it finally happened. Clearly Hollywood was supportive. It was a completely sold-out event for the AFI.

Roberts, her co-star in Steel Magnolias and Valentine’s Day, said she has  played her “friend, neighbor and mother” on screen and also had her be all of those things off screen as well. She mentioned they both made the same movie, Ocean’s 11 41 years apart (Shirley had an uncredited role as Tipsy Girl in the Rat Pack 1960 version) and told an intriguing story about MacLaine playing cards with mob boss Sam Giancana noting that “she has balls”. Dakota Fanning came on to talk about a Vanity Fair article she did where she was paired with MacLaine and professed her love for 1960’s The Apartment which she had just seen for the first time. “She could do comedy and drama in a single moment and laugh through the tears,” Fanning said. After the clip from Apartment rolled I spotted Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal (seated between Spielberg and Stringer) looking completely blown away. I told MacLaine that later and she said wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood made more pictures like that these days.

One thing that clearly came out was this is a star who still thinks of herself as a gypsy, a chorus dancer who got lucky. Indeed she was plucked right out of obscurity when producer Hal B. Wallis and Alfred Hitchcock caught her understudying for Carol Haney in Broadway’s The Pajama Game. Her first film became Hitchcock’s 1955 The Trouble With Harry. John Travolta came out and introduced a film sequence showing off her considerable dancing skills in musicals like Sweet Charity and Can Can saying, “this is a woman who does it all but is first and foremost a dancer”.

Freeman came on to say she has “delivered as many indelible female characters as any actress who ever lived. The length and breadth of your career has been extraordinary and the films have been timeless”.

But if there were two who stole the show it was comedians Jack Black and Don Rickles. Black who co-starred with her in the current indie hit, Bernie did a whole pre-taped riff on her well-known beliefs in having lived other lives, while Rickles killed with an ad-lib insult routine that had the honoree and well-heeled crowd cracking up. “I’ve never been  to an affair in an airport hangar before. As I look around I can’t believe I’m the biggest name here, ” he said to a roomful of very big names.

One unique tribute came via tape from none other than Stephen Hawking who said he fell in love with Shirley when he saw Sweet Charity as a kid and is still in awe. Following that her latest co-star Elizabeth McGovern came out to plead, “Come back to Downton Abbey Shirley. I miss my mom. She’s had so many past lives but I see no need for them. Her present life has been more than enough,” she said before introducing a preview of her two-episode stint in the British show’s third season which won’t debut in the U.S. until next January.

Field came on to laud her Steel Magnolias co-star saying “She was the center of it all. I worked with a lot of legendary actors but I didn’t get to work with a lot of legendary women. She was then and is now instantly legendary and always  so interested in the future, not the past”. Carrie Fisher, who wrote the autobiographical Postcards From The Edge in which Shirley essentially played her mother Debbie Reynolds (Streep played her daughter) noted that, “She’s a great observer despite being one of the most observed herself”.

Her Terms Of Endearment co-star Nicholson spoke, as only he can, graciously saying ‘both your body and body of work have awfully long legs” and went on to say that audiences love her because, outside of clergy, she is the only one promising  eternal life.

Finally it was Streep who introduced the center of attention with a story about a dinner she had the night before in New York where one of the guests waxed rhapsodic about MacLaine saying he loved her in “Irma La Douche“. Streep, who received this award 8 years ago seemed almost embarrassed by the fact that she got it before the woman who played her mother in Postcards From The Edge. “We fell early and we fell hard for her then  and now for the rest of our lives,” she said. “Like all of the great performers she’s really grateful to just get up on stage and give it to us. She likes difficult women like I do. She likes prickly women. Shirley, you cut the path for all of us. You have done all of your greatest work in what we call middle age. You are writing the template on how to create a lasting career.”

In MacLaine’s extraordinary off-the-cuff speech she paid particular attention to her brother Warren, “the one person I have loved the longest on this planet”. She noted they went to the movies every day and saw everything together. Tickets cost 11 cents each. She asked anyone in the crowd if they remembered a movie called The Purple Heart (1944) starring Dana Andrews. She said she was obessed with him. She also mentioned Alan Ladd as a favorite but didn’t get much of a response. “Can you believe they didn’t seem to know Alan Ladd,”  she lamented  at the after-party. Time moves on.

She wrapped up her speech by talking about a letter her mother gave her as she moved to New York when she was just 16. “Keep you feet planted on the ground and your head in the stars” it said, and she says it’s something she had done ever since. “For all of the over-achievers we should just relax and enjoy ourselves. If we don’t do it now, we’ll do it next time around”, she promised.

It was a one-of-a-kind night for a one-of-a-kind star. TV Land will broadcast the AFI Life Achievement Award to Shirley MacLaine on Sunday June 24th.

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