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The comeback queen

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Posted: Sunday, October 9, 2005 7:47 am | Updated: 8:18 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Everything about the modest bungalow off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Calif., seems normal.

The furniture looks normal. The rock garden and bubbling fountain on the side of the house look normal. Even the well-traveled Thunderbird in the driveway looks normal.

And, finally, there is the woman of the house. She says she is as normal as a person could be. Then again, she’s Shirley MacLaine.

‘‘People think I’m so eccentric, but I’m so normal, you wouldn’t believe it,’’ she says later over lunch on the outside patio of her favorite local restaurant, the kind of place that attracts a galaxy of casually attired movie stars on their days off.

Dressed in white slacks and matching red blouse and shoes, MacLaine greets each of her fellow stars warmly, whether she knows them or not (they all know her), and then retreats to her own corner table, where she is fussed over by the genial owner. When she orders, she tells him to ‘‘do that thing you do for me,’’ and his waiters return with a vegetable plate that could feed the crew of a small independent film.

Although she has a reputation for feisty independence, she is eager to hear her lunch companion’s review of the vegetable plate.

‘‘It’s amazing what a regular life I lead when you consider the lives of other people in Hollywood,’’ she says, continuing her theme of normalcy.

‘‘I don’t have an assistant. I do my own cooking. I do my own washing. I have a cleaning lady come in one day a week. I drive myself everywhere. I make my own reservations. I don’t have sex parties. I’ve only done two (marijuana) joints in my life, and both times turned out to be disasters. I’ve never done a line of coke. OK, every once in a while, I like a martini, but that’s it.

‘‘I do think eccentric things,’’ she adds. ‘‘I admit that. I do think outside the box. But I don’t do eccentric things.’’

MacLaine presents a strong case. Of course, there is an opposing view. The actress, whose latest film, ‘‘In Her Shoes,’’ finds her playing an active senior living alone in a Florida retirement community who is reunited with her granddaughters (Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette), has lived what some may call an eccentric life. It is at the very least an interesting and exciting life. She loves to call it simply a ‘‘full’’ life.

DANCING TO ACTING

It began 71 years ago in Richmond, Va., as Shirley MacLean Beaty (her brother Warren Beatty added a ‘‘t’’ to the family name). She started dancing at 2, but soon grew too tall to pursue the life of a ballerina.

‘‘I didn’t really have much talent as a dancer,’’ she explains in characteristic candor. ‘‘And I certainly didn’t have a ballet body. En pointe, I was 6-foot-2. Oh, I have the kind of dancing talent that can razzle-dazzle an audience, but my serious dancing teachers always told me I should act instead.’’

She followed their advice and moved to New York City, becoming an understudy in the 1954 production of the Broadway hit ‘‘The Pajama Game.’’ In classic Hollywood fashion, she got her big break one night when the show’s star, Carol Haney, broke her ankle.

A few months later, MacLaine went on again for an injured Haney on the night that movie producer Hal Wallis was in the audience.

Wallis signed her to a fiveyear contract and introduced her to director Alfred Hitchcock, who cast the 21-year-old freckled redhead in his film ‘‘The Trouble With Harry.’’

In the ensuing five decades, MacLaine has appeared in nearly 50 films, five of which got her Oscar nominations ("Some Came Running,’’ "The Apartment,’’ "Irma La Douce,’’ "Turning Point’’ and "Terms of Endearment’’). She finally won her Oscar for "Terms of Endearment,’’ in which she played Debra Winger’s overbearing mother and Jack Nicholson’s lover.

‘‘Sure, that was a comeback film for me. But it wasn’t the first. How many comebacks have I had? Too many to count.

‘‘I think the secret to my longevity in this business is that I was always willing to age. That’s why I wasn’t afraid of ‘Terms.’ That’s why I always get these roles for women over 60, because I’m willing to take them. That’s why I’ll keep working until I’m in a wheelchair, and then I’ll be looking for wheelchair roles.

‘‘Heck, I’m still looking for my ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ ’’

MacLaine never limited herself to a movie career. She has written 10 books (her most famous, the formerlives, spiritual tome ‘‘Out on a Limb,’’ led to her eccentric reputation), won five Emmys for her television work, engaged in some major lost causes as a McGovern Democrat, wowed nightclub audiences around the world with her one-woman show and probably had a lot of fun after she was adopted as a ‘‘little sister’’ by the legendary Rat Pack.

3 MOVIES IN 2005

In 1991, she moved from California and established a permanent base in New Mexico. She divides her time between a home in Sante Fe and an 8,000-acre ranch outside Albuquerque, where she lives with 13 dogs and assorted chickens, horses, ducks and elk.

‘‘I am completely selfsufficient on the ranch,’’ she says. ‘‘I am living with nature, and it is quite the paradise.’’

As content as she is in paradise, she is never too content to refuse a good movie role. When the role takes her to Los Angeles, she stays in the Malibu bungalow.

This year, there have been three good movie roles — as Endora, the meddling witch in ‘‘Bewitched,’’ as an aging Mrs. Robinson-type in Rob Reiner’s upcoming ‘‘Rumor Has It,’’ and as spirited Ella Hirsch in the Curtis Hanson-directed ‘‘In Her Shoes,’’ which opened Friday.

In the new film, she not only provides comic relief but also serves to bring the feuding sisters together.

‘‘Why would I turn down good roles?’’ she asks, before answering her own question. ‘‘I love to work. I love making movies. I love the environment on the set. I love the efficiency of the crew. I like the whole familial feeling I get on a movie set. It’s what I have been doing since I was 19.’’

MacLaine, who has been divorced for more than 20 years, has a grown daughter and two grandchildren (7 and 9) living in Connecticut. She visits them whenever she is on the East Coast, and calls herself a ‘‘friend grandma.’’

‘‘I don’t spoil them. I treat them like young friends.’’

When she is in New Mexico, she occasionally visits with both famous and not-so-famous friends, but spends most of her time with her constant companion, a 6-year-old rat terrier named Terry. Her dog is always by her side, and she is still trying to figure out how she will be able to bring the pet along when she makes her next movie in Scotland.

‘‘I love being alone,’’ she says. ‘‘I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything being alone. I’ve been everywhere, except for Afghanistan and the South Pole, and I’ve realized all my dreams, except for the one about running my ow n orphanage with children of different colors. I’m sorry I never got to do that, but I don’t have the energy to do it now.

‘‘All in all, it’s been a spectacular life. So full. So wonderful.’’

So normal?

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