Shirley MacLaine
Shirley MacLaine

The annual American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards give folks in Hollywood a way to come together and remember why they got into the business. And Shirley MacLaine was long overdue for the award that had already gone four years ago to her younger brother Warren Beatty, whom she has known and loved the longest, she said. She thanked their parents back in Richmond, Virginia for nurturing her interest in both dramatics and metaphysics. "Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground and your head in the stars," her mother told her.  MacLaine, 78,  thanked the women in her life and exhorted Hollywood: "What we can do with our culture is to change society for the better."

It's rare that a woman in show business has a long and storied career that rivals the top male stars. (Only seven AFI Awards gave gone to women in 39 years, the last one went to Meryl Streep in 2004.) It's harder to do, because when your beauty fades, you better have a lot more to offer. That MacLaine had in spades. Discovered on Broadway by Alfred Hitchcock in 1955 ("The Trouble with Harry"), the singer-dancer-actress could play accessible girl-next-door and mysterious femme fatale, comedy and drama--see Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" and Hal Ashby's "Being There." The line "why do people have to love people, anyway?" was hers.

While MacLaine married early on, had one daughter (Sachi Parker) and moved on to bachelorette status, she was the rare woman who could hold her own as an equal with the Rat Pack's Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin ("Some Came Running"). MacLaine used her clout to push choreographer Bob Fosse forward to direct "Sweet Charity," telling Lew Wasserman, "he's going to be something."

"She's got balls," said her "Steel Magnolias" co-star Julia Roberts.

"Postcards from the Edge" co-star Meryl Streep cited MacLaine as a role model for how to navigate the late-career path. Sally Field recalled that of the six actresses on "Steel Magnolias," MacLaine was the legend: "There weren't a lot of legendary women."

And having gotten to know MacLaine, whom I met on the sets of "Terms of Endearment" (for which she won her only Oscar out of six nominations), "Madame Sousatzka," and "Evening Star," Streep understood her well--her dancer's discipline and punctuality, and lack of understanding of others with a less demanding work ethic. "Terms of Endearment" director James L. Brooks and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak marveled during shooting that no matter how much they tried to age MacLaine, her instinct for how to present her cheekbones to the camera always won out.

"Everything turns up," observed Streep. "Eyes, smile, nose, feet, turn up and out."

"Both your body and your body of work have very long legs," said her "Terms of Endearment" co-star Jack Nicholson, wearing his trademark shades. "Just keep going girl--the most unneccessary piece of advice in history."