The Apartment (1960)

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Normally, it takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?  Ambitious insurance clerk C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) permits his bosses to use his NYC apartment to conduct extramarital affairs in hope of gaining a promotion. He pursues a relationship with the office building’s elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) unaware that she is having an affair with one of the apartment’s users, the head of personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who lies to her that he’s leaving his wife. Bud comes home after the office Christmas party to find Fran has taken an overdose following a disappointing assignation with Sheldrake … Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were fresh off the success of Some Like It Hot when they came up with this gem:  a sympathetic romantic comedy-drama that plays like sly satire – and vice versa. Reuniting one of that film’s stars (and a nasty jab at Marilyn Monroe using lookalike Joyce Jameson) with his Double Indemnity star (MacMurray, cast as a heel, for once) and adding MacLaine to the mix, they created one of the great American classics with performances of a lifetime. Bud can keep on keeping on as a slavering nebbish destined to be the ultimate slimy organisation man or become a mensch but he can’t do it alone, not now he’s in love. This is a sharp, adult, stunningly assured portrait of the battle of the sexes, cruelty, compromise and deception intact. With the glistening monochrome cinematography of Joseph LaShelle memorializing that paean to midcentury modernism, the architecture of the late Fifties office (designed by Alexandre Trauner), and an all-time great closing line (how apposite for a Wilder film), this is prime cut movie.  The best Christmas movie of all time? Probably, if you can take that holiday celebration on a knife edge of suicidal sadness and bleakly realistic optimism. Rarely has a home’s shape taken on such meaning.

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Can-Can (1960)

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If in Lesbos, a pure Lesbian can, Baby, you can can-can too. In Montmartre, Paris, 1896, nightclub owner Simone Pistache (Shirley MacLaine) is known for her performances of the can-can, a provocative (panty-free) dance recently outlawed for being immoral.  The women in the club, including Claudine (Juliet Prowse) use their feminine wiles to get the police to look the other way (eventually). Though Simone’s dancing delights patrons to no end, it also attracts the ire of the self-righteous Judge Philippe Forrestier (Louis Jourdan), who aims to punish her. The judge hatches a plot to photograph Simone in the act and ends up falling for her – much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, handsome lawyer François Durnais (Frank Sinatra)… Based on Abe Burrows’ musical comedy, this was written by Dorothy Kingsley and Charles Lederer. The music (by Cole Porter) was arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, famous for his work with Sinatra, whose duet with Judge Paul Barriére (Maurice Chevalier) of the opening and closing number I Love Paris was deleted from the release print. MacLaine gives a barnstorming performance in the lead and Sinatra is … himself. Let’s Do It, You Do Something To Me and Just One of Those Things are among the great songs. It’s beautifully staged (with Hollywood’s interior decorator to the stars Tony Duquette getting a consultant’s credit) and witty, with particularly smart lyrics. The ladies and gentlemen are costumed in great style by Irene Sharaff. It may be set in Paris but it was shot (gorgeously, by Billy Daniels) on the studio lot and was the occasion of a famous set visit by Nikita Khrushchev who denounced the scene as depraved in what he believed was a propaganda coup. It wasn’t remotely as decadent as having somewhere between 20 and 60 million of your own citizens murdered (why keep count) but hey, that’s showbiz. Directed by Walter Lang.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once. When Budd Boetticher wrote this story he thought it would be a perfect return to Hollywood after his near-decade long Mexican odyssey when the subject of his bullfighting documentary died and he nearly bought the farm himself. But his career was effectively over and this was rewritten by Albert Maltz, another (blacklisted) resident of Mexico and instead of his hoped-for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starring, it was supposed to have Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. She gave the script to Clint Eastwood on the set of Where Eagles Dare (in which he co-starred with Richard Burton) and the whole game changed when it wasn’t going to be shot in Spain. In fact it became a Mexican co-production.  Eastwood is Hogan, a mercenary en route to assist Mexican revolutionaries against the French who were then engaged in an invasion of the country, with the promise of enough gold to set up a bar in California. He rescues nun Sara (MacLaine) who has had her clothes ripped off her by a bunch of marauding cowboys and he shoots them dead. She proves to be much more resourceful than he expects and enjoys drinking, smoking and helps him stop an ammunition train in its tracks as they make their way to a French fort on behalf of the Juaristas.  It turns out that the nun’s garb is just a costume that covers up her real vocation, that of prostitute … Gorgeously shot by Gabriel Figueroa (assisted by Bruce Surtees) this is a sensational comedy western with two gripping star performances. Don Siegel didn’t like MacLaine whom he declared unfeminine because she had too many balls. It was the last time Eastwood got second billing and also the last time that he would agree to an actress of stature as his co-star until Meryl Streep acted opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County. Siegel takes a spaghetti-style story and gives it some nicely sardonic twists with some terrific scenes – when MacLaine is giving a former client the last rites; and playing for time with General LeClaire (Albert Morin) while children dump a dynamite-filled pinata at the fort, to name but two. Boetticher was appalled at the alterations to his original story and when Siegel said he woke up every day to a paycheque, Boetticher responded he woke up every day and could look at himself in the mirror. Nonetheless this is engaging, smart and funny and a really great acting masterclass. Ennio Morricone’s insistent, brutally repetitive score is a plus.

The Evening Star (1996)

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Aka Three Funerals and a Wedding. Just kidding. Well, not exactly. I didn’t love Terms of Endearment and have read neither of these novels about willful selfish Houston widow Aurora Greenway but this messy ragtag followup directed by Robert Harling is not without its charms. Shirley MacLaine is back, aged grandmother and parent to her late daughter’s tearaway grownup children, irritated by longtime housekeeper gimlet-eyed Rose (Marion Ross) and pined after by General Hector (Donald Moffat). Melanie (Juliette Lewis) is living at home but itching to get out and she shacks up with bozo Bruce (Scott Wolf) which of course ends badly – but in LA, which is not so bad, as it turns out. Tommy (George Newbern) is in prison and Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) is married to a tramp and they have a bad-mannered toddler son. Rose plots to get Aurora to therapist Jerry (the late, great Bill Paxton) who has a thing for her – mostly because as she eventually finds out she’s a dead ringer for his Vegas showgirl mom, which doesn’t stop him from sleeping with Aurora’s rival Patsy (Miranda Richardson) which has a great conclusion in an inflight catfight.  The relationship with Paxton is funny and lifts the whole show with MacLaine getting some choice lines especially when she finally meets his mother! There’s a lot of life, love and thwarted passion as Aurora seeks out the great love of her life – and eventually finds it in the arms of her disastrously unaccomplished family while some of those closest to her die. There is a distinct shift of tone when Garret Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) pays a visit in the last quarter hour but the big performances make this, with MacLaine really making it work. You might be surprised to learn that it’s Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer who is wooed by Newbern. This was Ben Johnson’s last film and it’s dedicated to him – he was of course in McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show where he delivered a performance of incredible subtlety and affect:  not bad for a stuntman. There’s more than a hint of Cloris Leachman in Marion Ross’s performance here. Not a bad recommendation in a film which looks at some of life’s different stages and comes out in favour of them all, by and large. Written by McMurtry and Harling.

Wild Oats (2016)

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Shirley MacLaine is the beloved retired schoolteacher whose husband dies and her insecure unhappily married fusspot daughter Demi Moore (looking about 30 – sheesh!) brings a realtor to the funeral to assess her home for post-mortem sale. MacLaine insists upon staying there and is mistakenly sent a life insurance cheque for $5 million instead of $50,000.  Best friend Jessica Lange encourages her to make off with it and the pair of them embark on the adventure of a lifetime – fetching up in the Canary Islands where they enjoy very different romances. Divorced Billy Connolly hits on MacLaine but all is not what it seems when she wins nearly half a million euros on blackjack and a US insurance investigator turns up to ask about the unfathomably large cheque, encouraging her to bribe him and bolt while Connolly disappears. Is he a conman?! Meanwhile Lange gets involved with a younger man with a Mrs Robinson fixation. Back in the US, another company rep, the wonderfully sentimental Howard Hesseman, pairs off with Moore to bring Mom back home and face justice. It all winds up in a shootout at a winery with the island’s biggest gangster. You have to be there! For armchair tourists – this looks gorgeous and the ladies are quite the heroines. The gray dollar audience is being well catered for. This is better than assisted living! Directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by Gary Kanew and Claudia Myers.

The Turning Point (1977)

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Although like most female humans Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was part of my upbringing I would not say that I’ve ever been a real balletomane and this film must work better for those who are. Because even though it’s ostensibly about the relationship between an ageing prima ballerina and her former rival, now a housewife and mother to an upcoming star, there’s an awful lot of performance. A lot. Arthur Laurents’ screenplay was based more or less on the friendship between dancers Isabel Mirrow Brown and Nora Kaye (who was a co-producer with Laurents and director Herbert Ross, who was married to Kaye. The three had a complex personal/sexual relationship.) Leslie Browne – Brown’s real-life daughter by fellow dancer Kelly Kingman Brown – plays Emilia, the teenage dancer who’s talent-spotted by The Company when they come to town in Oklahoma City, reuniting Emma (Anne Bancroft as the fictionalised incarnation of Nora Kaye) with DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine, as the fictionalised Isabel Mirrow). DeeDee’s memories of her life as a successful dancer and giving it all up when becoming pregnant by fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt), now her husband and partner in a dance school, start churning. When she accompanies Emilia, Emma’s god daughter, to NYC, to spend the summer and realise her dream, she strays from her marriage, is shocked by her ambitious daughter’s affair with the male lead Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov) and eventually has it all out with lifelong rival Emma over whether she lost the lead in Anna Karenina years ago due to her pregnancy:  and she wonders, Was she ever really any good? It’s a question that has haunted her for nearly two decades. The fact that their confrontation ends in a catfight was a point of contention among critics. However as funny as that scene is – and it winds up being highly comic – it is an emotionally and dramatically logical conclusion to a relationship between women constrained by fiercely deprived physical experiences and discipline:  there have been major psychological consequences to choosing these lives. Finally they can break free and tell people who they really are (up to a pointe…) And as Emilia’s star rises, Emma’s falls, and DeeDee comes to terms with the reality of her own decisions. Baryshnikov’s real-life lover Gelsey Kirkland had been offered the role of Emilia but she was being treated for drug addiction at the time, which is how Browne ended up playing a version of herself. There is a narrative thread about male dancers and homosexuality in the film and why DeeDee might have married Wayne but Yuri is like a cockerel in a hen house. A terrific work about women, marriage and career and there’s great stuff about the business of running a company and all the bitchiness one expects from a backstage movie. But there’s so much ballet!!! It shares the record for the most nominations for an Academy Award without a win. Bancroft and MacLaine are really marvellous and hit all the notes, but I wonder how this would have been if the producer’s first choice – for whichever of the lead roles she wanted – had been accepted by Princess Grace of Monaco. Wow.

Sweet Charity (1969)

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Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) was an enormously popular Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film in which his real-life wife Giulietta Masina played a naive Roman hooker with a heart of gold who keeps falling for the wrong men. Neil Simon took the material and adapted it into a Broadway show which became Bob Fosse’s directing debut, a smashing musical romp through NYC from the perspective of the exuberant kooky taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine, played by Shirley MacLaine in an extraordinary performance. The songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields are unforgettable and staged in graphic, distinctive style – Hey, Big Spender, Rhythm of Life (Sammy Davis Jr!) and MacLaine’s signature song, If They Could See Me Now, to name but a few. Songs to die for! And most homes had this soundtrack album in the Seventies. If you can get past some unfortunate shot choices in the opening sequence by Robert Surtees – dissolves and zooms, very Sixties! – you can earn some balm for your troubled soul.  Screenplay by one of my very favourite people, Peter Stone, with costumes by Edith Head and a great supporting cast in Chita Rivera and Stubby Kaye and John McMartin but Shirley’s the whole show!

Steel Magnolias (1989)

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Robert Harling wrote a one-set play about the death of his sister but when he adapted it for the screen under the direction of Herbert Ross it was opened out, as they say, and from the beauty parlour to the hearth and the hospital we get involved in the lives of a cross-generational community of women. Shelby (Julia Roberts) is the diabetic daughter of M’Lynn (Sally Field) who’s been warned not to have children. Her collapse at the beauty shop run by Truvy (Dolly Parton) and assisted by new addition Annelle (Daryl Hannah) triggers the revelation to family frenemies Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine) and Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) and we catch up a couple of years after Shelby’s marriage when M’Lynn is donating her kidney to Shelby to avert kidney failure following childbirth … This sounds mawkish but it’s fast, sharp-witted and filled with so many funny lines it’s breathtaking. Parton, MacLaine and Dukakis get the lion’s share with the latter pair serving as (wicked) fairy godmothers but it turns on Sally Field’s fabulous performance as a mother going from despair to grief and back again in the most life-affirming way possible. Roberts is very good in what could be a thankless and difficult role, Field is paired here opposite Tom Skerrit and they would be reunited years later for the wonderful TV show Brothers and Sisters (please bring it back) and MacLaine was working once again with Ross  (The Turning Point – now that’s something I really want to see again too!) but really Field is the whole show. Dialogue to die for (and they do…)

Gambit (1966)

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Michael Caine’s a Cockney burglar who spots the uncanny likeness between Eurasian showgirl Shirley MacLaine and the late lamented young wife of the world’s wealthiest man, Herbert Lom and sees the potential for robbing a priceless work of art. There’s roleplaying, misunderstandings and the fact that MacLaine has ideas of her own. This is a lot of fun but the story twists are telegraphed too quickly if you’re looking hard enough although it’s well constructed:  we see everything played out in the first 20 minutes then Caine reveals that’s how it should go.  Then it all happens – for real. Which is when it gets complicated. The principal cast play it  beautifully, however, timing the comedy with expert precision and the heist when it happens is pretty good. Adapted from Sidney Carroll’s novel by Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent and directed by Ronald Neame. The gleaming cinematography is by Clifford Stine and Maurice Jarre did the score.