Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Martin Schneider writes:

When 92Y has a good event, it's a doozy.

On Monday night Shirley MacLaine consented to be interviewed by WNYC's own Leonard Lopate (an unexpected surprise—I hadn't read the event preview carefully enough). I say "consented," but the truth is, MacLaine's casino-style show (she mentioned Atlantic City) apparently is mostly an evening of stories and audience Q&A too, and the woman is so ridiculously appealing and entertaining, she could certainly make a living doing just that and not being an incredibly good actress—which she still is, at 76. Also, she appears to cherish being the center of attention and twitting foils like Leonard Lopate for fun.

I could give an account of the event but it was mainly just MacLaine being very charming and telling stories that occasionally involved conversations with people like Nehru (!).

A few highlights: Early during the filming of The Trouble with Harry, her first movie, Alfred Hitchcock walked up to her and the advice he gave her was "genuine chopper." (Cockney slang for "real axe" = "relax.")

MacLaine is friends with William Peter Blatty, who wrote The Exorcist in order to "prove" to MacLaine that evil exists in the world. MacLaine was offered the Ellen Burstyn role but her agent convinced her that the script was no good.

Stephen Hawking once told MacLaine that he believes that he is the reincarnation of Sir Isaac Newton. I suspect Hawking was pulling her leg, but who knows?

MacLaine called the recently departed Elizabeth Taylor "my closest friend" and said that her nickname for MacLaine was "Squirrelly." (I particularly like this.)

In the second half MacLaine spoke at length about her belief in past lives and also UFOs. She also has a lot of silly ideas about 2012 as the end of a 26,000-year cycle or something—I guess we'll find out next year. I think all of this is poppycock, of course. Alexander Pope said it best: "A little learning is a dangerous thing." Because what MacLaine is is a highly intelligent woman in the highly intuitive field known as acting, and that means she's a great actress and not a great analytical thinker. As if that mattered at all.

MacLaine told a story about the filming of Madame Sousatzka that clarified the situation for me a little bit. She said that she made a deal with the movie's director, "brilliant, cynical" John Schlesinger, that she would play the role by channeling the experiences and emotions of a real woman of the same historical time and place. Obviously she emerged with a very proficient performance, in her mind proving the validity of her belief in past lives.

The key here is that all the business with the past lives is an elaborate, apparently unconscious metaphor for the role of the muse in MacLaine's life and work. She may believe that this other woman was responsible for that performance, but to me it sounds an awful lot like a tool she used in order to gain the inspiration to give the performance.

In any case, none of this marred the evening a whit. It's Shirley MacLaine talking about past lives! It's practically required. And I've never seen a 92Y audience quite so delighted. I was with them all the way.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree