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MacLaine, Diaz, Collette

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TORONTO -- You can tell a lot from not only the way a woman enters a room, but also when she enters a room.

The stars of In Her Shoes -- Hollywood power hottie Cameron Diaz, Aussie actor's actor Toni Collette and national landmark Shirley MacLaine -- unintentionally stagger their arrivals for an exclusive group chat about their high-class hankie soaker full of sisterly spats and familial healing that opens today. So there is plenty of opportunity to pass judgment.

You can draw your own conclusion about why Diaz, one of the industry's top box-office attractions, is the lone straggler. But despite occupying distinctly different rungs on the showbiz ladder, the three have grown into sole mates by sharing Shoes.

Early bird MacLaine, a leggy vision in a robin's-egg-blue suit, bursts into a near-empty hotel banquet room. It is soon filled with her genial entourage that includes pampered rat terrier Terry.

Minutes later, a punctual Collette, as slim and foxy in person as her onscreen legal drone Rose is dumpy and drab, quietly slips in.

A delighted MacLaine, 71, sizes up her movie granddaughter's filmy blouse, fluffy locks and perfectly done makeup, and exclaims with pride, "You are so beautiful now. You could do a big glamorous part!"

"Oh, my God, Shirley," replies Collette, 32, taken aback by her enthusiasm.

"They have to stop thinking of you as 'This great actress, she doesn't care how she looks,'" advises the red-haired legend who made her film debut 50 years ago in The Trouble With Harry. "Do it where you really have some glamour."

"That would be nice for a change," agrees the frump from 1994's Muriel's Wedding.

No Diaz in sight and the clock is ticking. On with the shoe, then. Or, rather, with the ice-breaking shoe question: What sort of foot apparel do these two ladies prefer?

Collette obediently doffs one of her silk-and-sparkle, celery-hued high heels for closer inspection. The label reads Oscar de la Renta. "If that shoe represents my personality," she says, "I think I'm nervous."

Meanwhile, the elder actress deigns to lift one of her dancer's gams to show off her suede pump. "I wear what's comfortable," MacLaine says, "but not today." What kind are they? "Black," she says, stating the obvious. "I don't do that designer stuff."

In Her Shoes dotes on that designer stuff. The one extravagance that Collette's sensible Rose allows herself is her collection of fancy footwear from such notables as Jimmy Choo. Shoe size is about the only trait her lawyer shares with Diaz's Maggie, a slinky minx who raids her sister's closet as shamelessly as she trades on her sex appeal.

"Cameron and I actually do wear the same size," says Collette, who is a 9. "It made it very easy for the wardrobe department."

As if on cue, Diaz, 33, rushes in, hiply attired in jeans that probably cost the amount of the average weekly paycheck. Tall, tan and breathless, she settles into her seat while she yanks the strapless bra under a clingy top.

Joining in the topic at hand (or, rather, foot), Diaz says, yes, she is a shoe freak: "I have a ridiculous amount." But like Collette's character, she rarely wears most of them. "You have one pair for every season. All those other shoes just sit up there staring at you."

She giggles greedily. "There's just something really gratifying about having all of them," she sighs.

MacLaine, indulging her grandmotherly instincts, suggests that Diaz should wear a wider variety to change the pressure points on her feet each day. "Not going to happen," declares the younger actress.

Something about Hanson

All three agree on at least one subject: Curtis Hanson. They exhibit a fond disregard for their esteemed director of 8 Mile and L.A. Confidential. In fact, "Who?" is the joint reply when the name Curtis is brought up.

You know, the man who told you what to do on camera.

"No, he didn't," Collette says. "He never told us anything," Diaz says.

MacLaine suddenly does an imitation of Hanson, inspired by an anecdote she heard. "He's at a pizza place," she recounts. "A guy comes by and says, 'What would you like?' He looks up. 'Um, um, um. ...'"

She holds a quizzical pose for several long beats before breaking the silence: "Pizza!"

Once the laughter subsides, Collette allows that while Hanson might be indecisive, he knows how to get what he wants. "He talks about certain details and he just gets you to this comfortable place. When I come to work, I usually have set ideas. He would have better ideas. Every single day."

MacLaine isn't totally convinced. "I think he really doesn't know. What's he doing with a women's picture, anyway?"

What Hanson is doing is guaranteeing In Her Shoes isn't just a woman's picture -- or, as the unenlightened say, a chick flick. True, the maker of male-centric entertainment like Wonder Boys isn't exactly well-versed in the opposite sex. But, as he notes in a separate interview, his movies contain common themes: "Self-awareness and self-esteem. Those aren't female issues, those are human issues."

He also has a firm grip on each of his star's considerable strengths:

*On Diaz, whose wanton party girl Maggie is hampered by a confidence-crushing learning disability: "Who better than Cameron would understand in our society the way how good looks can be exploited? What was exciting was having her show the flip side of that, the fear and the way that it can be limiting."

*On MacLaine, whose calm exterior as widow Ella camouflages her pain over her estranged granddaughters: "I was fearful of casting Shirley because of her power as an actress and how that would mesh with a character who is literally shut down. But the fact is, Shirley is an actor and a working actor. She was excited by the challenge."

*On Collette, whose admirable lack of vanity gets a workout as dowdy Rose: "We saw everybody you can think of. But Toni was always the one in my mind. I knew she could disappear into this part, make it fresh and, at the same time, make Rose endearing even while she's filled with self-loathing."

A 27-pound acting stretch

Was it hard for the naturally exuberant MacLaine to be so contained? "It was kind of a vacation, actually," she says, smiling.

A girl can't live by Charlie's Angels alone, and Diaz was so eager to tackle a rare dramatic lead, she cut her usual fee that can run as high as $20 million a film. "Have I gone through what my character has gone through? Yes," she says of the often-underestimated Maggie. "But I don't have a chip on my shoulder or a learning disability. She didn't have the tools to find her way out."

In Collette's case, her part was an all-too-literal stretch. She packed on 27 pounds to play Rose. Having gained and lost 40 for Muriel's Wedding, the now-svelte actress says, "I'm not doing it again."

Would Diaz or MacLaine ever consider bulking up for a movie? "I'm too chicken," Diaz admits.

MacLaine says she has done it already. "Unintentionally," she confesses. "If the catering is good, I don't give a crap. I'll eat. I don't care. Thank God, I wasn't the beautiful type so it didn't matter."

Apparently not, since she is one of the few actresses in her age range who remains in demand. This year, MacLaine has been in Bewitched, In Her Shoes and appears as a scandalous granny who was the basis for The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson in the comedy Rumor Has It, opening Christmas Day.

Alas, she has no survival tips to offer. "I can't define longevity. I don't know what it means."

The conversation shifts to favorites among the 50-some entries in the MacLaine cinematic canon.

"Terms of Endearment," says Diaz of the 1983 weeper that finally won the actress an Oscar for her meddlesome matriarch. "When I was a kid, it did it for me."

MacLaine harrumphs. "When she was a kid -- don't you love it?"

"I've recently seen Some Came Running," says Collette of the 1958 melodrama that earned MacLaine her first Oscar try as a heartbroken tart. "Looking at the guys in the movie, they were very much of their time. But you could take Shirley's performance and put it in a movie today. It's real. It's timeless."

If Diaz and Collette are worried about their own longevity or being upstaged by the next generation of actresses, they sure don't show it.

"I don't know if I want to do this forever," says Collette, who is proving her point by releasing an album of alternative rock songs and going on tour next year along with her husband, drummer Dave Galafassi.

"I'm not even that ambitious," she continues. "It's not just about getting a job. It's more about the life experience of it and the people you meet. The time you share."

And after sharing quality time with the Shoes crew, she isn't about to fret over any teen sensation pulling an All About Eve. Or, as she puts it, "I'm not going to kneecap Lindsay Lohan or anything."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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