Shirley MacLaine adds spirit to Downton Abbey

McGovern and MacLaine. Rahoul Ghose/PBS

As one might have expected, Shirley MacLaine stole the show at the Downton Abbey press conference Saturday night at TCA. If anything, the 78-year-old Oscar-winner didn’t speak enough–and skipped the post conference social–but when she did talk she was blog gold.

MacLaine will appear this coming season (beginning Jan. 6 on PBS) in a two episode stint as the mother of Elizabeth McGovern’s character. A clip from the upcoming season was shown and MacLaine’s prickly confrontation with Maggie Smith was the big crowd pleaser in the room.
Asked what it was like to go “toe-to-toe” with Maggie Smith, she replied, “Well, we were lovers in another life.” She explained that the two had met backstage 40 years earlier at the Academy Awards by a catering table:

And I was up for something, and there was this big chocolate cake on the catering table.  And whatever I was up for, I lost, and somebody else won.  And Maggie said, “You know what you did, dear?  You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said, ‘Fuck it.  I don’t care if I’m thin ever again.'”

MacLaine candidly said no when asked if she had seen the series before being asked to join the cast. Her Malibu hairdresser, however, was a big fan, so MacLaine decided to catch up with the series after being contacted by PBS executive producer Rebecca Eaton. She ran through the stack of screeners she was sent and was hooked. “I ran three months of it and I was just as addicted as everybody else, making me wonder about my attention deficit syndrome.”
Michelle Dockery reminded me of a young
Teri Austin from Knots Landing
When she told her hairdresser she was going to be playing Martha Levinson, the ladies at the parlour knew all about the character. Their reaction? “Oh, she’s Jewish and she’s from Long Island and she has a lot of money and she’s looking for a tight, old man.”
Later, when McGovern was asked what qualities she shared with her character and blurted, “none–I’m a raving lunatic,” MacLaine was quick to add, “she’s right.”
It was unusual to hear “ooo’s” and “aaaws” during a PBS press session but Abbey clearly is the public network’s Mad MenThe series recently picked up 16 Emmy nominations, one less than the AMC series.
On hand were executive producers Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame and stars Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle but, alas, no Maggie Smith. The dinner session was packed, with hotel  staff scrambling to set up extra tables to accommodate everyone in the room.
The ballroom seemed about evenly split between critics who had seen the series and were hooked and reporters who thought it was called Downtown Abbey.
Bonneville had something to get off his chest
Bonneville (who plays Robert Crawley) didn’t disappoint, standing up at the end of the session and undoing his vest and shirt to reveal a T-shirt underneath with “FREE BATES” written across his chest.
Bates is played by Brendan Coyle. The character limps on the series, and Coyle says he got a letter from a fan with a disability. The man wrote to say he’s been teased all his life for his own limp, and thanked Coyle because he’s finally being taunted with “a cool nickname–Mr. Bates.”
Downton Abbey is often compared to Upstairs Downstairs, an earlier British period drama which ran in the ’70s. That series also showed the underclasses mixing it up with the Lords and Ladies.
Star and co-creator of that series, Jean March, was at a press tour session many years ago and told a memorable story about being honoured by having a rose named after her. She was chuffed until she read the seed instructions on the back of the packet: “Doesn’t do well in beds. Better up against a wall.”

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