To Hellman and Back: Screen Legend Shirley MacLaine Talks to Gay Indie Icon Craig Chester about Her Work in Lillian Hellman's the Children's Hour, New to DVD. (Video)

Article excerpt

The first time I met Shirley MacLaine, she was Mary Kay Ash. While visiting my friend Parker Posey in Winnipeg, Canada, for the shoot of the CBS movie Hell on Heels: The Battle of Mary Kay, I had been forewarned. "Shirley is so cool," Parker reported to me a day before I arrived. "You are going to love her." Over the next three weeks, while I fended off Winnipeg's infamous mosquito population, Parker's prediction came true. I fell in love with Shirley MacLaine, and yes, she was very, very cool. I watched Shirley work on a role that would eventually garner her a Golden Globe nomination, and when she was off-camera, we talked. And talked. And talked.

Thought-provoking, fiercely intelligent, and hysterically funny, Shirley MacLaine is also a storyteller. Being that we are both actors who have written somewhat controversial memoirs, we have a lot of stories up our sleeves. Upon hearing the nature of my book, Why the Long Face? which deals with being out in Hollywood, she replied, "You're going out on a limb too, Craig!" We have both, in our ways, come out of our respective closets--hers spiritual, mine sexual--and we related to how our lives have sometimes seemed more interesting and weird than some of the roles we've played.

But in MGM's new DVD release of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1961), we're reminded of MacLaine the actor at her best--the perfect union of provocative person with provocative role. I recently phoned Shirley to discuss her classic film's "reincarnation" on DVD.

I just watched The Children's Hour and thought you were amazing!

Well, it's not about me, Craig; it's about what Lillian was trying to say.

I found it to be both dated and somehow oddly relevant at the same time.

There was a lot to be done in that movie that wasn't done. There were whole scenes where my character, Martha, was lovingly ironing Karen's clothes, brushing her hair, baking for her, and so forth, and then, at the last minute, Willie Wyler got scared and cut the arc of my character out because he was afraid of the controversy. It still stands up, but the critics at the time knew what he had done, and they called it a "cultural antique." I'm sorry that he didn't go all the way. He was more or less saying that Martha didn't know what she was really feeling, but she did She knew she was in love with Karen; [she was] not a confused person. A knowing person. It was about this taboo love. But everything is ultimately about love. All love is about spirituality.

Were you apprehensive about playing a lesbian in the early '60s?

Oh, not at all! I only got apprehensive once he cut it down!

But even though much of Martha's overt lesbianism is cut down, I think a lot of gay men and women can still relate to her feelings of outrage at both the outside world and at herself for what she is. …


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