Generals in Film: Shirley MacLaine

Pioneering Actress is one of W-L’s Most Celebrated Alumni


Shirley MacLaine’s path from the W-L theater looked very promising, but nobody knew that it would lead to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. After graduating in 1952, MacLaine went on to have an illustrious career in the film industry, winning an Academy Award, two British Academy Film Awards, five Golden Globe Awards and a Primetime Emmy Award.

Born in Richmond as Shirley Beatty (She is the older sister of actor Warren Beatty who changed the spelling of his name when he was older), MacLaine’s interest in performing sparked when her mother enrolled her in a ballet class at three years old. When she was nine, her family moved to the Arlington neighborhood of Dominion Hills. MacLaine played baseball for an all-boys team and held the record for most home runs, earning her the nickname ‘powerhouse.’  While she originally had planned a career as a  ballerina, MacLaine’s trajectory changed due to her height, as she was unable to acquire perfect technique. 

At the school, MacLaine was an involved student, participating in the student government, being a varsity cheerleader, and acting in school plays. Accurately enough, she was labeled ‘Most Talented’ in the 1952 yearbook’s “Who’s Who” section. In the accompanying blurb she was described as “Shirley Beatty … never without words … lively and likable … loves to dance … No business like show business.” In the summer before her senior year, MacLaine traveled up to New York City to try her hand at acting on Broadway.

After having some success in the chorus of the musical “Oklahoma!” and  returning to school and graduating, MacLaine traveled back to Broadway and found roles in “Me and Juliet” and “The Pajama Game” before she was discovered by a producer for Paramount Pictures. MacLaine made her film debut in the 1955 film “The Trouble With Harry”, which earned her a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year. In the next five years she would go on to star in films such as  “Around the World in 89 Days” and “Some Came Running”, though her big break was yet to come.

In 1960, MacLaine landed the role of Fran Kubelik in the film “The Apartment”, as the elevator girl in an unhappy relationship with the company’s boss. The film tells the story of an insurance worker (Jack Lemmon) who is known around his company for letting coworkers use his apartment for their affairs. Contrary to the time period’s common use of women as plot devices who only exist to fall for the suave male lead, Kubelik, quick-witted and wry, is much closer to a real person. MacLaine played a woman in a “man’s world,” used to shrugging off unwanted advances from the company’s employees on the elevator. Even more unusual for the time, Kubelik also struggles with mental health, a topic that would be considered quite taboo even decades later. 

MacLaine’s trailblazing performance was widely praised, earning her another Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination. While the character Fran Kubelik by no means ended the ditzy female character tropes, she made room for more well-written and complex roles for female characters.

MacLaine’s success continued throughout the next few decades, working with legendary actors such as Audrey Hepburn (“The Children’s Hour”), Michael Caine (“Gambit”), and Peter Sellers (“Being There”). In 1983, MacLaine won an Academy Award for her role as the anxious and quippy widow Aurora Greenway in James L. Brooks’s family comedy-drama “Terms of Endearment”. The film also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jack Nicholson), Best Director, and Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium. 

In 1998, she received the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award from the Golden Globes, and in 2013 was named a Kennedy Center honoree. Her next film, “American Dreamer”, is currently in production. The movie follows a low-level professor (Peter Dinklage) whose dream of owning a home is out of reach until a lonely widow (MacLaine) offers him her estate. The film concluded production in April 2021 and does not yet have a publicized release date.

Through her electric performances, Shirley MacLaine helped shape how female characters could be portrayed in the film industry. Inspiring generations of actors, MacLaine’s has established herself as one of the greatest actresses of the past century, and she got her start in the same halls we walk today. Said MacLaine in 2019: “I think of life itself now as a wonderful play that I’ve written for myself, and so my purpose is to have the utmost fun playing my part.”