Shirley MacLaine gets no respect. It may seem odd to say this about a woman who has been nominated for five Best Actress Oscars and has won one (for 1983's Terms of Endearment). And yes, the comedy Guarding Tess led the box office the week it opened, proving that MacLaine's name can still jump-start a movie if the closest competition is Paul Hogan in Lightning Jack. But when was the last time you read something about this actress that did more than make fun of her penchant for New Age wiftiness? Her past lives make for a tasty target, it's true, but the fact is that MacLaine is still in there punching nearly 40 years after her first film. How many of her peers can say the same?
The secret of MacLaine's screen longevity aside from sheer doggedness is that she has managed by luck or by plan to take advantage of stereotypes that Hollywood assigns to women based on their age. Artistes like Meryl Streep may grouse about the limited options available to actresses over 40, but MacLaine has already been there and done that, moving from sirens to moms to grandes dames with unpretentious ambition.
She made her film debut in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry, a cutesy black comedy about a bothersome corpse in a placid New England village. MacLaine plays the dead man's wife (and mother to Jerry ''The Beaver'' Mathers). It's a standard 1950s ingenue role right down to the starched frocks, yet MacLaine invests it with serious kink. For all her sweetness, you know exactly what she means when she says, as John Forsythe kisses her, ''Lightly, Sam. I have a very short fuse.''
Honest sexuality became a MacLaine hallmark, and she began to specialize in portraying a new kind of tootsie one whose eccentricity was balanced by guts. Billy Wilder's The Apartment catches her at the moment when the persona was still fresh. As Fran Kubelik, an elevator girl caught between a sleazy married executive (Fred MacMurray) and a winsome young corporate climber (Jack Lemmon), MacLaine has her share of wacko moments (Fran cuts her hair short because, she says, ''it was making me nervous''). Yet the role is ultimately serious, and her portrayal of a badly bruised romantic breaks through Lemmon's brittle good cheer.
As the 1960s rolled on, MacLaine flogged her brainy-hoyden bit into self-parody with shrill comedies like What a Way to Go! and brassy, overblown musicals like Sweet Charity. By the mid-'70s, her career was, quite literally, at The Turning Point. Despite its soap opera contrivances, this Herbert Ross ballet drama brought MacLaine back to naturalism; as a dancer who has given up the stage for suburban motherhood, she gives a realistic, low-key performance. More important, it allowed the actress to play a feisty middle-aged mother, paving the way for Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias, Postcards From the Edge, and Madame Sousatzka (okay, she's a surrogate mom in that last one, but what the hey).
By now, the actress' best-selling memoirs had caused her offscreen life (or lives) to overshadow the movies. No fool, she, MacLaine exploited this notoriety by playing herself in the two-part TV movie Out on a Limb. It's New Age Shirley in all her dizzy glory, from coffee klatches with Bella Abzug (Anne Jackson) to an affair with an unnamed British politician (Charles Dance) to meditation, psychics, channeling. What's missing is the tart irony one usually finds in a Shirley MacLaine movie. But then, this isn't a Shirley MacLaine movie. It's her life.
Guarding Tess is the latest wrinkle, you should pardon the pun. It has been likened to Driving Miss Daisy, which is being kind. With MacLaine as a bitchy presidential widow and Nicolas Cage as her slow-burning Secret Service agent, Tess treads a pleasant but broad comic path. The funniest scenes come when Tess deploys her agents to check the price on a can of peas at the local supermarket; the worst come with an ill-advised turn to melodrama at the climax.
MacLaine has footsied around with old age before (Madame Sousatzka, Used People), but here she goes gray without playing every scene to the Academy voters. In so doing, she hits some notes of quietly astounding complexity. The scene in which Tess turns down a crass attempt by her son (Edward Albert) to use her name for profit is remarkable: Anger, pride, regret, and simple meanness all cross the woman's face within seconds of each other. With Guarding Tess, MacLaine lowers her own guard for the first time in ages. And by playing old, she may have reincarnated her career yet again. Guarding Tess: B-; The Trouble With Harry: B; The Apartment: A-; The Turning Point: B+; Out on a Limb: C+