Shirley MacLaine is the Oscar-winning performer who has made dozens of movies in her 60-plus year career, but how many of those titles remain classics? Let’s take a look back at 20 of her greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1934, MacLaine is the older sister of Warren Beatty, proving that acting talent must run in the family. She made her screen debut with Alfred Hitchcock‘s “The Trouble with Harry” (1955) when she was just 21 years old. Her first Oscar nomination came three years later: Best Actress for “Some Came Running” (1958).
MacLaine would compete four more times at the Oscars unsuccessfully: three for Best Actress (“The Apartment” in 1960, “Irma la Douce” in 1963, and “The Turning Point” in 1977), once for Best Documentary Feature (“The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir” in 1975). She finally struck gold with James L. Brooks‘ comedic drama “Terms of Endearment” (1983), playing a controlling mother who clashes with her free-spirited daughter (Debra Winger). Their rivalry extended to the awards race, with both competing against each other in Best Actress. But MacLaine prevailed, famously saying in her acceptance speech, “I deserve this.”
In addition to her Oscar success, MacLaine won an Emmy for the variety special “Gypsy in My Soul” (1976). She took home Golden Globes for “The Trouble with Harry” (Best Newcomer – Female), “The Apartment,” “Irma la Douce,” “Terms of Endearment,” and “Madame Sousatzka” (1988), plus the Cecil B. DeMille prize in 1998 and a special award for versatility in performing in 1959. She won BAFTAs for “Ask Any Girl” (1959) and “The Apartment” and received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2013.
Tour our photo gallery of MacLaine’s 20 greatest films, including the titles mention above, plus “Being There” (1979), “Postcards from the Edge” (1990), “In Her Shoes” (2005) and more.
20. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)
Directed by Michael Anderson. Screenplay by James Poe, John Farrow, and S.J. Perelman, based on the novel by Jules Verne. Starring Cantinflas, David Niven, Robert Newton, Shirley MacLaine.
You often find “Around the World in 80 Days” listed among the all-time worst Best Picture winners, and for good reason: this lumbering adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is more famous for its massive production and dozens of celebrity cameos than for its actual quality. David Niven stars as Phileas Fogg, a Victorian Englishman who bets he can travel around the globe in just 80 days by railways, steamships, and hot air balloons. He’s joined by his valet, Passepartout (Canfinflas), and along the way they rescue a widowed princess (MacLaine) and have several other adventures. Your enjoyment of this one may stem entirely from picking out the many famous extras, including Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, and more.
19. ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955)
Directed by Frank Tashlin. Written by Frank Tashlin, Herbert Baker, Hal Kanter. Starring Dean Martin, Jerry, Lewis, Dorothy Malone, Shirley MacLaine, Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg, Eddie Mayehoff.
MacLaine made an early appearance in one of the very best collaborations between rubbery-faced comedian Jerry Lewis and Rat Packer Dean Martin. “Artists and Models” casts Martin as a struggling comic book artist who uses the bizarre dreams of his roommate (Lewis) to cook up a series of successful superhero tales. Meanwhile, the two run afoul of Russian spies and romance their neighbors (Dorothy Malone and MacLaine). As always, Martin’s smooth ladykiller charms are a perfect match for Lewis’s off-the-wall goofiness. Directed as a live action cartoon by animator Frank Tashlin, who worked frequently with Lewis.
18. GUARDING TESS (1994)
Directed Hugh Wilson. Written by Hugh Wilson and Peter Torokvei. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Nicolas Cage, Richard Griffiths, Austin Pendleton, Edward Albert, James Rebhorn.
“Guarding Tess” casts MacLaine as a former First Lady who drives the young Secret Service agent (Nicolas Cage) assigned to protect her crazy. Just when it looks like he’ll be transferred to a new detail, Tess calls the current President (voice by director Hugh Wilson) and asks he stick with her. Although he can’t stand her, he rises to the occasion after she’s kidnapped. MacLaine and Cage are endlessly charming as an oddball pair who eventually grow to like each other. The role of the feisty, micromanaging ex-political figure brought MacLaine a Golden Globe nomination as Best Comedy/Musical Actress.
17. TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA (1970)
Directed by Don Siegel. Screenplay by Albert Maltz, story by Budd Boetticher. Starring Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Manuel Fabregas, Alberto Morin.
MacLaine teamed up with Clint Eastwood for this entertaining western adventure from Don Siegel. “Two Mules for Sister Sara” finds a Civil War vet (Eastwood) rescuing a nun (MacLaine) from bandits. He agrees to help her meet up with Mexican Revolutionaries planning to attack a French fort, and along the way he becomes increasingly surprised by her impious behaviors, leading him to suspect this nun isn’t exactly who she claims to be. A romance blossoms, but not until an ultra-violent battle between the Mexican freedom fighters and the French garrison.
16. TWO FOR THE SEESAW (1962)
Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Isobel Lennart, based on the play by William Gibson. Starring Robert Mitchum, Shirley MacLaine.
Robert Wise brought William Gibson’s popular two-hander to the big screen (albeit with a couple extra additions to the cast in bit roles) to delightful results. Robert Mitchum stars as a former Nebraska lawyer trying to rebuild his life in New York after his wife asks for a divorce. He meets a struggling dancer (MacLaine) in Greenwich Village, and the two decide to rebuild their lives together. Though it struggles to escape its stage roots, “Two for the Seesaw” succeeds on the charm of its capable leads. The film is probably best known for the Oscar-nominated tune “Second Chance,” written by Andre and Dory Previn.
15. GAMBIT (1966)
Directed by Ronald Neame. Screenplay by Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent, story by Sidney Carroll. Starring Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine, Herbert Lom, Roger C. Carmel, Arnold Moss.
Ronald Neame’s “Gambit” is the kind of lightweight comedic thriller that’s nearly impossible to make today (as evidenced by the disastrous 2012 remake). Michael Caine stars as an English cat burglar who enlists the help of a beautiful Eurasian dancer (MacLaine) to pull off the perfect heist. Although the casting of MacLaine as a woman of Asian and European descent is a bit dubious, she nevertheless manages to bring her usual charm and wit to the part. Both Caine and MacLaine earned Golden Globe nominations in their Comedy/Musical categories.
14. SWEET CHARITY (1969)
Directed by Bob Fosse. Screenplay by Peter Stone, based on the Broadway stage musical by Neil Simon and the film ‘Nights of Cabiria’ written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Starring Shirley MacLaine, John McMartin, Ricardo Montalban, Chita Rivera, Sammy Davis Jr., Ben Vereen.
“Sweet Charity” bombed when it first came out, a victim of audience’s waning interest in lavish, big budget movie musicals. Yet this adaptation of the Broadway smash — itself based on Federico Fellini’s film “Nights of Cabiria” — holds up better than most of the other escapist musicals of the era thanks to flashy direction by Bob Fosse (in his filmmaking debut) and a charming performance by MacLaine as Charity, a dance hall girl hoping to turn a new leaf when she meets a nice guy (John McMartin). Signature numbers include “(Hey,) Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “The Rhythm of Life,” and the title number. MacLaine earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work as Best Comedy/Musical Actress.
13. THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story. Starring Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Mildred Natrick, Mildred Dunnock, Jerry Mathers, Royal Dano.
MacLaine made her big screen debut in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most lighthearted entertainments. “The Trouble with Harry” kicks off when Arnie Rogers (“Leave It to Beaver” star Jerry Mathers) stumbles upon a dead body. He alerts his mother (MacLaine), who recognizes the corpse as her ex-husband, Harry. The residents of their small Vermont hamlet must find out what killed Harry and what to do about him. There’s more comedy than mystery in this outing from the Master of Suspense, setting it apart from his most famous efforts. MacLaine won the Golden Globe as Best Newcomer (Female) and competed at the BAFTAs as Best Foreign Actress, kicking off a long and fruitful career.
12. MADAME SOUSATZKA (1988)
Directed by John Schlesinger. Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Bernice Rubens. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Peggy Ashcroft, Shabana Azmi, Twiggy, Leigh Lawson, Geoffrey Bayldon, Navin Chowdhry.
You might not be able to pronounce the title, but that won’t spoil your enjoyment of this engrossing character study. Directed by John Schlesinger, “Madame Sousatzka” casts MacLaine as a renowned Russian pianist who spends her days teaching in her crumbling London home, insisting that her students behave in a manner befitting her genteel upbringing. She forms a bond with a talented Bengali teenager (Navin Chowdhry), himself an immigrant in a new land. MacLaine tears into the role of the eccentric Sousatzka, clad under heavy makeup and jewelry. In an odd occurrence, she tied both Jodie Foster (“The Accused”) and Sigourney Weaver (“Gorillas in the Mist”) at the Golden Globes for Best Drama Actress; unlike Weaver and eventual Oscar winner Foster, however, her win didn’t translate into an Academy Award bid.
11. IN HER SHOES (2005)
Directed by Curtis Hanson. Screenplay by Susannah Grant, based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner. Starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, Shirley MacLaine, Ken Howard, Candice Azzara, Norman Lloyd.
MacLaine steals the show in Curtis Hanson’s funny and heartwarming family drama. “In Her Shoes” centers on two sisters: one a straight-laced attorney (Toni Collette), the other a wild-child party girl (Cameron Diaz). A calamitous falling out ensues when Diaz trashes her sister’s apartment, steals her money, and sleeps with her boyfriend. Left with nowhere else to go, she turns to a grandmother (MacLaine) she never knew existed and moves into her retirement home. But this is no doddering old woman: rather, she’s a tough-as-nails broad who teaches her granddaughter some valuable life lessons. The role brought MacLaine a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress, though the Academy overlooked her.
10. BERNIE (2012)
Directed by Richard Linklater. Screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on the article ‘Midnight in the Garden of East Texas’ by Hollandsworth. Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey.
Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” tells a story so strange you almost won’t believe it’s true. Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, a beloved mortician in a small town Texas who charms everyone he meets, including the most hated woman in town: wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). When Marjorie becomes too controlling, Bernie shoots her four times, continuing to live the life he has become accustomed to with her money. No one in town suspects a thing, except for an intrepid district attorney (Matthew McConaughey). Linklater tells his story with a droll wit that brings out the best in his three leads, who each excel in unexpected ways. Black earned Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations as Best Comedy Actor, while MacLaine competed at the Critics Choice in Best Comedy Actress.
9. THE TURNING POINT (1977)
Directed by Herbert Ross. Written by Arthur Laurents. Starring Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine, Tom Skerritt, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Leslie Browne.
“The Turning Point” finds MacLaine and Anne Bancroft squaring off in one of the all-time great diva showdowns. It centers on two ballerinas who reconnect after several years, one (Bancroft) a world-renowned dancer, the other (MacLaine) a housewife who gave up her promising career. When MacLaine’s daughter (Leslie Browne) wants to join a ballet company, it sets off an epic catfight. The dance sequences, as filmed by former choreographer Herbert Ross, are top notch. Bancroft and MacLaine’s rivalry extended to the Oscars, where both competed for and lost Best Actress to Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”). The film, in fact, ties “The Color Purple” as the biggest Oscar loser in history, with 11 unsuccessful bids.
8. SOME CAME RUNNING (1958)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay by John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman, based on the novel by James Jones. Starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy, Nancy Gates, Leora Dana.
With the success of “From Here to Eternity,” MGM optioned another James Jones opus as a followup for “Eternity” star Frank Sinatra. “Some Came Running” casts Ol’ Blue Eyes as a WWII veteran who returns to his Indiana hometown 16 years after his writing career has collapsed. He brings along a woman of loose virtues (MacLaine) he drunkenly met in a Chicago card game. Director Vincente Minnelli mounts this intimate character study as a colorful Cinerama epic, populating the narrative with juicy supporting players, including Arthur Kennedy as a disapproving brother, Dean Martin as a friendly gambler, and Martha Hyer as a creative writing instructor who falls in love with Sinatra’s prose and personality. The film brought MacLaine her first Oscar nomination as Best Actress and earned four additional bids (Kennedy and Hyer in supporting, costumes, and song for “To Love and Be Loved”).
7. STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989)
Directed by Herbert Ross. Screenplay by Robert Harling, based on his play. Starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Dylan McDermott, Kevin J. O’Connor, Sam Shepard.
This slick Hollywood weepy holds a special place in the hearts of many, causing its fans to laugh and cry along with its all-star female cast. “Steel Magnolias” centers on a tightly-knit group of friends who congregate around the local Louisiana beauty salon run by Truvy Jones (Dolly Parton). There’s M’Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field), a social worker who worries that she’ll lose her only daughter (Julia Roberts) in childbirth; Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis), the former town first lady whose best friend, Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux (MacLaine), is the meanest woman in town; and Annelle Dupuy-DeSota (Darryl Hannah), the newcomer who lands a job in Truvy’s salon. MacLaine earned a BAFTA nomination in Best Supporting Actress, though the Academy recognized Roberts in that category instead.
6. THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (1961)
Directed by William Wyler. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the play by Lillian Hellman. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins, Fay Bainter, Karen Balkin, Veronica Cartwright.
Seen today, this adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play might be more interesting as an example of changing attitudes towards a taboo subject matter than for it’s filmmaking. At the same time, it’s a sad comment on our times that it only feels slightly dated in certain aspects. “The Children’s Hour” centers on Martha (MacLaine) and Karen (Audrey Hepburn), two school teachers who are accused of being lesbians by a bratty student (Karen Balkin). Their lives are upended, especially when Martha reveals she does indeed have romantic feelings for Karen. As was the custom of the era, her admission leads to tragedy. Strong performances help the film overcome its more melodramatic moments. MacLaine earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Drama Actress for the role, yet was overlooked at the Academy. (Interestingly enough, this was actually director William Wyler’s second screen version of the stage show; the first was “These Three” in 1936).
5. IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on the musical by Marguerite Monnot and Alexandre Breffort. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Lou Jacobi, Bruce Yarnell, Grace Lee Whitney.
Following the critical and commercial triumph of “The Apartment,” MacLaine reunited with Jack Lemmon and director Billy Wilder for this comedic adaptation of the famous French musical by Alexandre Breffort and Marguerite Monnot. Set in the City of Lights, “Irma la Douce” centers on a sweet-natured cop (Lemmon) who falls in love with an alluring prostitute (MacLaine), hoping to claim her for himself. The film lovingly captures the romantic streets of Paris, while the stars and director prove yet again why they’re a winning combination. MacLaine in particular does wonderful things with a role that could’ve easily amounted to just another hooker with a heart of gold. She won a Golden Globe as Best Comedy/Musical Actress and earned an Oscar nomination in Best Actress, losing to Patricia Neal (“Hud”).
4. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990)
Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Carrie Fisher, based on her book. Starring Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner.
“Postcards from the Edge” has taken on a tragic significance following the untimely death of Carrie Fisher in 2016. The actress adapted her own semi-autobiographical novel about a drug-addicted actress (Meryl Streep in one of her many Oscar-nominated performances) clashing with her alcoholic mom (MacLaine), herself a vainglorious movie star. There are obvious parallels to draw between this fictional familial dynamic and Fisher’s own relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who died just a day after her daughter. Despite its weighty subject matter, Mike Nichols and company create a biting, uproariously funny Hollywood satire, filled with sharp one-liners and just the right amount of emotion. MacLaine in particular is a hoot as an old Hollywood diva who can’t help stealing the spotlight from her kid. She earned Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for the role, but was snubbed at the Academy.
3. BEING THERE (1979)
Directed by Hal Ashby. Screenplay by Robert C. Jones (uncredited) and Jerzy Kosinski, based on Kosinski’s novel. Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart.
Peter Sellers dominates “Being There,” Hal Ashby’s equal parts biting and gentle satire of celebrity, politics, and vapidity. He plays Chance, a simple gardener who has spent his life confined to a decaying mansion, learning everything he knows from television. When he’s forced out into the real world of Washington, D.C., he finds that his remote control can’t help him anymore. Things take a turn when he falls in with a dying billionaire (Supporting Actor winner Melvyn Douglas) who mistakes his elementary agricultural reflections for profound introspection. He soon finds himself the talk of the town, catching the eye of Douglas’ much younger wife (MacLaine) and being hoisted up as a prospective (and pliable) candidate for president. Sellers won the Golden Globe and competed at the Oscars as Best Actor. MacLaine earned a Globe bid, but was ignored at the Academy.
2. THE APARTMENT (1960)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Ray Walston, Edie Adams.
By the time “The Apartment” came along, MacLaine had made a name for herself as a bubbly star of lightweight comedies. Billy Wilder’s melancholy romantic drama brought a sadness to her persona, launching her career as a serious actress. “The Apartment” centers on C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who hopes to work his way up the corporate ladder by renting out his home to his employers for their extramarital affairs. He falls in love with the beautiful elevator girl Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), who’s waiting for the boss (Fred MacMurray) to leave his wife for her. The film swept the Oscars, winning five prizes including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). Lemmon and MacLaine won Golden Globes and BAFTAs, but lost at the Academy to Burt Lancaster (“Elmer Gantry”) and Elizabeth Taylor (“BUtterfield 8”).
1. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
Written and directed by James L. Brooks, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny De Vito, John Lithgow, Jeff Daniels, Lisa Hart Carroll.
You wouldn’t think a movie about a woman dying of cancer could be so funny, yet James L. Brooks’ Oscar-winning classic is full of surprises. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, the film centers on the contentious relationship between a hard-to-please mother (MacLaine) and her free-spirited daughter (Debra Winger), whose marriage to a happy-go-lucky professor (Jeff Daniels) causes further strain. Jack Nicholson and John Lithgow turn in memorable supporting performances as love interests for mother and daughter, respectively. But it’s MacLaine who dominates as Aurora, a woman whose controlling nature masks an undying love for her child. “Terms of Endearment” is that rare film that perfectly captures the messiness of life: the laughs, the tears, and ultimately, the love. Brooks won Oscars for writing, directing, and producing, while MacLaine picked up Best Actress and Nicholson snagged Best Supporting Actor. (MacLaine, who finally won after five unsuccessful bids, famously said in her acceptance speech, “I deserve this.” She did.)