Believe it or not, I have had a warm spot in my religion-writer heart for actress Shirley MacLaine ever since she stood up in front of the American Society of Newspaper Editors long ago and delivered a sermon on why there is more to religion news than warfare and denominational politics. Three cheers for candid people with good soundbites. Why, MacLaine asked all those editors in suits, are so many journalists uncomfortable with the proven fact that millions of people in America and around the world order their lives with the help of religious truths and experiences?
Preach it, lady:
"We are bombarded daily with the anger, terror and seeming insanity of `religion-related' global mayhem. ... We are seeing, hearing and learning of these religious conflicts through exploitative headlines, glib sound bites and tabloid-style journalism, which predictably sensationalize the craziness but rarely undertake investigation of themes which resonate with man's deeper nature,'' she said. ... "What has happened to us? Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age?' Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''
Anyway, MacLaine has been born again, again, as Hollywood's crazy grandmother of choice in a new movie called "Rumor Has It" in which she plays a woman who may, in fact, have inspired the infamous Mrs. Robison of "Graduate" fame. Thus, MacLaine is out there stutting her stuff in publicity land, which sent Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times off to visit the actress at her homes -- plural -- in the spiritually charged air of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The result punches all the movie-page profile buttons, including some standard flashbacks to MacLaine's previous media lives.
Eight years ago, at age 63, MacLaine completed the 500-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, during which time she came to believe she had been, in previous lives, a Moorish girl who cured the Emperor Constantine of impotence and an androgynous being of a time predating Atlantis. But here in New Mexico, she's more inclined to ask a photographer in tight pants what sort of underwear she has on than to read her aura. ...
Though much of what MacLaine believes comes with the socially imposed ambience of crystals and purple Gypsy scarves, she herself does not. Trousers and boots suit her better; she has three earrings in each ear, but two of them are tiny. No bangles rattle at her wrist; no tangle of turquoise and moonstone sways from her neck. So when she mentions that she sleeps most nights on a futon outside "because a roof keeps the stars from imprinting on your brain," it makes as much sense as another grandmother telling you she sleeps on the floor because of her bad back.
"Billions of stars in the universe, just this universe," she says over her shoulder as she passes by the futon, returning to the house. "Anyone who thinks we're the only ones around, they're the ones who are nuts."
The big idea in this story is that MacLaine deserves some credit for creating the template for what it means to be a modern movie star, leaping from one relationship to another and from worldview to worldview while in clear sight of the Hollywood scribes and armies of photographers.
You know all those actresses reinventing themselves week after week in the magazines in the grocery-store checkout line? Shirley blazed the trail. Go ahead. Ask her about Frank Sinatra.
However, I found myself wishing -- surprise -- that McNamara had taken the religion side of this story more seriously. Really. I do not think, for example, that it would have hurt a bit to call up a religion scholar, or two, and ask for a quote on this lady's place in the history of American pop religion.
I realize that there has always been an Eastern side of the gods beat in Hollywood. Nevertheless, MacLaine was a pivotal figure in creating a world in which born-again Christian ladies don't think twice about sitting in their suburban living rooms and watching their girlfriend Oprah light candles on national television while praying to the Universe, with a Big U.
MacLaine has gone from the back side of nowhere to almost mainstream, in certain zip codes. She could get tenure in some major mainline Protestant seminaries. Would it have hurt to have asked her for an update on what she believes and for her take on the state of religion in that great spiritual shopping mall called America?
Like it or not, the lady has had a significant impact.