American Film Institute honours Shirley MacLain

The AFI has selected Sweet Charity star Shirley MacLaine as the recipient of its 40th Life Achievement Award.

Shirley MacLean Beaty was born April 24th 1934 in Richmond, Virginia. MacLaine was the freckled daughter of an educator and a Canadian-born actress turned teacher. She started dance class at age three to strengthen a pair of wobbly ankles and her childhood years were counted off to a dance beat — five, six, seven, eight! — MacLaine finding at the Washington School of Ballet a lifelong source of beauty, balance and belief in herself. She eagerly absorbed the lessons of her Russian-trained instructor and proved her mettle early, dancing “Cinderella” with the National Symphony. And on a broken ankle.

“Before long the teenage perfectionist was waving goodbye to her kid brother Warren, boarding the bus to New York and landing jobs in corporate musicals for sales conventions, known in the dancers’ trade as “industrials.” She pirouetted around Servel Ice Boxes for a time before joining the chorus of a “subway-circuit” “Oklahoma!,” then Broadway’s “Me and Juliet.” The choreographer who hired her shouted, “You with the red hair and the legs that start at your shoulders!” An offhand remark that crystallized her image as a standout.

“What came next is the stuff of legend. Carol Haney, star of the hit musical, “The Pajama Game,” suffered her own ankle injury, and MacLaine, by then her understudy, was plucked from the chorus line. When the change was announced to the matinee audience, “there was a loud sigh of disappointment,” Jerry Lewis recalled. “Then…Shirley came on and absolutely electrified me and everybody else in the audience. By the final curtain, we were all on our feet, yelling for her to come out again and again.” – AFI state.

When Hal Wallis, searching for a female actresss, saw her former he signed up the young star on a long term contract for the Hollywood film studios. MacLaine’s offbeat personality and gamine good looks offered a piquant counterpoint to the conformity that dominated American culture in the 1950s. In an era of sex bombs, both foreign and domestic, she was a different weapon altogether, usually playing a kook or free spirit, likely as not to be the victim of her own heart’s desire.

“MacLaine fast became a hot property, her name on the Hollywood A-list. She bought a place in Malibu, another in the Pacific Northwest and began to travel the world. Stateside, MacLaine became the mascot of Sinatra’s “clan,” later known as the Rat Pack, adding sparkle to the Strip in Las Vegas, trading wisecracks with wise guys like mobster Sam Giancana. “Let’s face it, I’d do almost anything for Shirley MacLaine,” wrote Sinatra. “Shirley is one of the liveliest, funniest, most loyal friends anyone could have…I firmly believe she is the best comedienne in this crazy business. Trying to get the quality of this kid down on paper is like trying to catch an eagle in a thimble — it can’t be done.”

“MacLaine’s film career hummed along under the studio system, shifting from the Paramount lot to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists. She appeared in 16 films during the sixties, but mainly MacLaine spent that turbulent decade in American history in a slew of capers, light comedies and romantic. Off-screen, a phone call from Marlon Brando helped launch MacLaine’s career as an activist in politics and social causes. The legendary actor invited her to join him in speaking out against the planned execution of Caryl Chessman, a California death-row inmate whose case made banning the death penalty a cause célèbre. MacLaine later became involved in the struggle for civil rights.” – AFI add.

Whe the actress moved in a black family into her home she was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. It didn’t deter her. She later publically opposed the war in Vietnam and was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when police rioted and the whole world was watching.

“MacLaine’s initial foray into television, the 1971–72 series Shirley’s World in which she played a globetrotting photojournalist, fell short of her expectations. Yet when good film roles for women her age grew increasingly rare, she embraced the opportunities television offered, creating memorable portraits in roles as diverse as Madame de Beaurevoir, Mary Kay and Coco Chanel. Earlier this year, the number one trending story on the Internet was the announcement that Shirley MacLaine would be returning to series television in the ITV period drama, Dowton Abbey” – the AFI say.

Today the American Film Institute  say that MacLaine’s unique presence continues to defy expectations even as her literate and outspoken intelligence attracts legions of new admirers in every corner of the planet which is why they’ve bestowed their Lifetime Achivement Award upon the star.

The 78-year-old Oscar-winning actress stars in the hit ITV drama Dowton Abbey as Martha Levinson, the wealthy mother of Lady Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern to air later this year.

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