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Veteran actress Shirley MacLaine is back - and bold as ever

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TORONTO - No, Shirley MacLaine never officially retired - never receded quietly into the background as actresses her age usually do.

It just seems that way. In "In Her Shoes," which opens Friday, MacLaine plays a widow living quietly in a Boca Raton, Fla., retirement community who becomes reacquainted with her estranged granddaughters (played by Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette).

The movie follows MacLaine's appearance in this past summer's big-screen remake of "Bewitched" as the grand dame witch Endora. And in "Rumor Has It," a quasi-sequel to "The Graduate" due out in Christmas, MacLaine plays a woman rumored to have been the inspiration for the fictional - and infamous - Mrs. Robinson.

The three movies mark the end of a dry spell for MacLaine, who hadn't appeared on movie screens since the release of the Ricki Lake vehicle "Mrs. Winterbourne" and the ill-conceived "Terms of Endearment" sequel "The Evening Star," both in 1996. But that doesn't mean MacLaine has not kept busy. Aside from a slew of TV movies, she has also made her film directorial debut (1990's "Bruno," about a boy genius, available on DVD), kept writing books (including "Out on a Leash," about her rat terrier dog Terry) and accepted her share of lifetime achievement prizes (including a Cecil B. DeMille award in 1998).

So when she blows into a Four Seasons hotel suite in Toronto for an all-too-brief interview, decked out in a leopard-print blouse and black slacks with her beloved Terry keeping pace at her side, MacLaine, 71, gives off the aura of a movie star in full, mid-career bloom. Known for her strong personality and outspoken nature (``I deserve this!'' she famously exclaimed when she won her Best Actress Oscar in 1983), MacLaine immediately takes command of the conversation, grilling her interviewer about the films being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "In Her Shoes" made its world premiere.

As usual, she's not at a loss for opinion. About the Charlize Theron sexual-harassment drama "North Country": She's really good at being abused, isn't she? Hmm.'' About the cowboys-in-love story "Brokeback Mountain":Why did Ang Lee do it? What are they going to do with two gay cowboys? Do you think the public will care? How old are you, anyway?''

It's not until the conversation winds back to "In Her Shoes" (``Where does our movie fit in in terms of what you've liked best, least or whatever?'') that MacLaine finally settles down to reveal why she's suddenly back on movie screens in such a big way.

One never knows why these things happen,'' she begins.After 9-11, I was very affected by all kinds of questions. Who are we now as human beings? Who are these terrorists? Are we victims? Did we contribute to this? Is it about class? Religion? Are we fighting over God?''

To find answers, MacLaine says she went into a very profound surrender'' at her ranch outside Santa Fe, N.M. For months, she did or planned absolutely nothing.I didn't even know what I was going to do every morning when I got up. Not having any plans is quite an experience - for an overachiever, anyway.''

MacLaine, who has written about her deep spiritual beliefs in several books (including the best-selling "Out on a Limb"), said she was simply awaiting some kind of answer.

`Basically, I said to the universe,I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Guide me. I don't know about aging, death, victimization, why they hate this country. What is going on? So guide me.' And suddenly the phone started to ring.''

One of those callers was Curtis Hanson, who directed "In Her Shoes" and thought of MacLaine for the part of the grandmother.

When you're dealing with someone like Shirley, it's a little insulting to ask her to come in for a meeting,'' Hanson says.But I wanted to meet her first and talk to her about the character, because there was a very big `if' on it for me. Shirley is such a powerful presence, personality and talent, and she has used that power effectively over a long and rich career. But I wanted to know she would be able to put a damper on all of that and go to a very quiet place to play this character who is literally hiding from life, who has put a lid on everything because of her guilt, her fear and her unresolved issues. If Shirley could go to that kind of a place, and then blossom as her character's life broadens, I thought it would be very exciting.''

MacLaine's performance in "In Her Shoes," which will likely earn her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination next year, elevates the movie from chick-flick territory into something deeper and more involving: a story about the endurance - and importance - of family ties, even ones that have not been cultivated for decades.

It's a theme that MacLaine believes links all three of her new movies.

I seem to be doing pictures about families because the family is a mini-civilization through which we get prepared for the big world out there,'' she says.We all come from families; we are a product of what we did or didn't learn in our family. And we're not being honest with ourselves about family nowadays.

`That's what appealed to me about all three of these movies. WithRumor Has It,' to do the attitudes that created The Graduate' really interested me, because I play Mrs. Robinson 30 years later. Even to do the old television showBewitched' was important to me. I think director Nora Ephron made a big mistake in that she didn't use Endora and Michael Caine's character more. Half of it ended up on the cutting-room floor. I think that was a mistake. But marketing said `Go with the love story!' ''

It's the influence of the marketing department on the creative process that MacLaine - who made her acting debut for Alfred Hitchcock in 1955's "The Trouble With Harry" - points to as the biggest and most ruinous difference about the way Hollywood makes movies today.

They run everything now,'' she says.Where are the visionaries? It's all about money since the agents took over. It would be impossible to get The English Patient' made today. It was hard enough just a few years ago, but they stuck with it. Today, forget it. I love to talk about the penguin story. Who the hell would put up $8 million for a bunch of penguins marching across the ice to lay their eggs, for God's sake? And yetMarch of the Penguins' is one of the most brilliant pictures.

`It's such a struggle to get vision realized within the studio system now. But they have no problem realizingLethal Weapon 20.' This business of violence ... we have to really look at why there is such an appreciation of that thrill. What is that all about? That's the one thing I'm worried about with `In Her Shoes.' We are telling a story here as truthfully as we can. Is the public up to looking at the truth about emotional reality? Or would they rather have escapism? I don't know.''


(c) 2005, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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