LOS ANGELES-After almost a quarter-century of writing about reincarnation, Shirley MacLaine has been given a role that allows her to be immortal. In the film Bewitched, which opens Friday (June 24), MacLaine plays Iris Smythson, a fading movie star hired to play the Endora character for the TV remake of the 1960s sitcom series Bewitched. She begins to notice that Isabel Bigalow, the actor hired to play Samantha (Nicole Kidman), has a nose that is constantly twitching. When she wiggles it, strange things happen, which could mean that Isabel is a witch. Because Iris appears to be able to see through the charade, it could be that she, too, is a witch.
MacLaine's own identity has been obscured in recent years. Since writing 1983's Out on a Limb, in which she conjectured about past lives, she has become almost as well known for her new-age philosophies as for her film roles. In the interview room of an L.A. hotel, she says that she gave up worrying what people thought about her a long time ago.
"When you've been around as long as I have and you look at the cycles and the arcs of public opinion and public perception, you can't think about those things. It's stupid to do that anyway. Each individual changes what the public perception is just by being himself. So to me, the important thing is just to be who you are but to make sure you know a little bit more about things than you did last year."
MacLaine knows a lot about the film business. She got her big break 50 years ago in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry and won the first of five Oscar acting nominations for Some Came Running three years later. She says that if modern films are less interesting than those she worked on earlier in her career, it is because there is too much emphasis on marketing and not enough on creativity.
"I do get frustrated with what is happening in Hollywood," she says. "Why aren't we getting more films like Million Dollar Baby and Crash that investigate human nature as events occur? I think the answer is that perhaps too many people in this business are just too involved with capitalism. Marketing is running everything. The fact is that people will say, 'The good news is this picture is wonderful and it's gonna work. The bad news is this picture is awful but it will make money anyway.' To me, that's really bad news. And that's what seems to be happening.
"At the same time I am encouraged by some of the writing. I think Paul Haggis is good. Look at what he did on Million Dollar Baby and Crash. I think Bobby Harling [The First Wives Club] is really good with comedy. I've discovered a new writer that I will be working with. His name is Paul Castro, and I think he's going to write some brilliant scripts. But I also get discouraged. For instance, [director] Richard Attenborough and I have been trying to put together a picture for three years that everybody agrees is a new English Patient. The studio marketing people say, 'Fine, but who is the audience?' We probably will get the money but it will come out of England."
For MacLaine, the best news about Bewitched came during the casting process when she was told that Michael Caine would be playing Isabel's warlock father. She says that she can remember the first time she saw him, in the British film The Ipcress File. It led to her asking Ronald Neame, the director of Gambit, to cast Caine opposite her. The movie, which was shot a few months before the release of Caine's breakthrough film Alfie, marked Caine's debut in an American studio film.
"We needed a leading man, "she says. "I'd seen him in The Ipcress File and I just thought it was so funny, the way he cut up his salad. I just loved it. And then we did another picture for [Vittorio] De Sica, called Woman Times Seven. We were in the snow and I wore a grey coat. That's all I remember. I love Michael. Michael is something else. [I'm] like a female Michael Caine and he's like a male Shirley. You know, we just keep on working and we're cooperative and we talk to all you [media] people and we're kind of cute and funny. And every now and then we do something really, really good."