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When Life Imitates Tart: Shirley MacLaine & Amanda Seyfried Go At It In THE LAST WORD

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

Never start a headline with a bad pun, and never write your own obit might be two unwritten rules of journalism, but in new movie THE LAST WORD, starring Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried, a lot of rules are broken so let’s skip the logline and go straight to the press conference at The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The timing is key here because this takes place Friday, Mar. 3, in the wake of MacLaine’s brother Warren Beatty’s epic wrong-picture Oscar controversy and the shock death of Bill Paxton, 61, who was Seyfried’s friend and co-star on the HBO series “Big Love.”

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Selfie from THE LAST WORD cast.

MacLaine, who plays Harriet Lauler a bitter ad exec who hires Amanda Seyfried’s character to pen a loving tribute before she dies, is seated beside Seyfried, with director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee, 10, and co-star Thomas Sadoski known for the CBS TV series “Life in Pieces.” To further up the stakes, Seyfried and Sadoski met on the set of this film, and are set to become parents shortly. Plus, Amanda has brought her dog Finn to the show, which makes this event even more like a surreal Hollywood family gathering.

Every single journalist in the room has worked up a strategy for addressing the 800 pound story lead in the room. Without being so indelicate as to outright ask about either the Oscars or Paxton without ruffling the stars or overshadowing THE LAST WORD’s release, the questions veer toward the inevitable.

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MacLaine shoots down all comers. “That’s Warren and Jimmy Kimmel’s problem. It was horrific,” she says of the Oscar misidentified Best Picture fracas. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Her firm stance here quashed any other talk of current events in Hollywood. And right there, while she sorts out the room, you see the character she plays in THE LAST WORD in sharp relief. You don’t mess with a legend, and you’re not going to slip a fast one by Shirley MacLaine, who’s a master at shutting down nonsense. The best part is she also steamrolls the “who was your mentor,” and the “Ms. MacLaine you’re a legend” crap too.

“Joan Crawford. She was the first person to give me advice (in Hollywood). I didn’t listen to a word she said.” MacLaine smiles as she says it.

When you get up the courage to ask your not-political-political question, with a Marlon Brando lead-in from one of her memoirs about how Brando actually got her into politics over a death penalty case while she was frying an egg, as the story goes, MacLaine dodges that bullet too.

“You know I was named for Shirley Temple, a Republican? Well, I have to play both sides of the aisle.” The way she turns her gaze directly into your subtext after that moot zinger is a private moment, comical, deft.

Amanda Seyfried, Mark Pellington, and the cast turn their chins in her direction. You can’t help it. This is a woman who has survived Billy Wilder in THE APARTMENT, Hitchcock in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, and is an Oscar winner, six-time Academy Award nominee, as well as a Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement honoree. Plus she has privately endured the recent deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, after playing Reynolds’ fictional mother to Fisher’s fictional daughter in POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. Meryl Streep played Carrie Fisher’s fictional account of herself as Debbie Reynolds’ daughter. The four of them were very close during the filming, now 50 percent of them are gone.ShirlMerylDbCarrieHere’s where, even in this swank Beverly Hills suite years away from the Golden Age of Hollywood that she bridges, Shirley MacLaine melds with THE LAST WORD character Harriet Lauler. As in Madison Avenue and Show Biz, both of them had to break down doors while protecting their inner selves in a world where women were either glamorized, marginalized or downright obstructed from their goals.

Later, when it’s revealed that screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink wrote the script for THE LAST WORD specifically for Shirley MacLaine, about a hard-driving ad exec (Harriet Lauler) turned surrogate mother for Amanda Seyfried’s character (Anne Sherman), this new movie becomes almost poetic and reverential.

In the opening scenes, real-life images from MacLaine’s life slip across the screen and through time in an appreciation of a woman whose career has spanned more than 70 years as an actor, performer, dancer, show pony, and hoofer. “Shirley and I had a 20-minute discussion on the psychology of pajama versus a robe,” Fink explained. “It was at that point I realized Harriet was no longer mine. She had become Shirley’s.”

“There’s no other actress who can portray a combination of bitchiness, vulnerability, humor, and empathy like Shirley.”

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Fink, who brought the project to director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), is also an ad man, a creative director who worked for Fortune 100 companies. Clearly he built the story around his experience. Harriet Lauler is a once-Teflon advertising veteran in the movie. Now a broken woman, she was kicked out of a company she founded, that still bears her initials in the logo, only to become an aging control freak in a secluded life headed for the bitter end. Instead of accepting her fate as a dethroned pitch maven, MacLaine’s character decides to stage manage her exit, beginning with hiring an exceptional obituary writer to cement her refurbished reputation after she dies.

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Nobody wants to write obits, especially not for a living or the living.

Amanda Seyfried plays the beleaguered essayist with a day job writing obits who is flung into orbit around Lauler’s ego as she re-brands herself for the afterlife. “I adore Amanda,” MacLaine said. “And Harriet in her way adores Anne, but her biggest problem has always been with people who don’t live up to their potential.”

When you realize this is a first movie for Fink, you begin to understand the complexity of molding the material to MacLaine. And that’s what makes this movie the proverbial love letter to MacLaine, now 82, while also carving out a poignant narrative about the inevitable displacement of productive people as they age. “Older people are invisible,” MacLaine will say at the press conference, “that’s what I wanted to use this movie for, to make older people less invisible.”

What makes the movie raw and strange is the interplay between Seyfried, MacLaine and her on-screen daughter played by a disapproving neurologist Anne Heche in one tiny scene, coupled with long sequences where Seyfried and MacLaine go through their personal pitched battles in the presence of new comer Ann’Jewel Lee, a 10-year-old who takes no prisoners.

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Heche slays as a bad daughter.

At the press conference, after the glittering sheen of star power wanes and Ann’Jewel Lee waits to leave, she wants you to know about “the cursing,” the f-word her character uses. “I don’t say that in real life,” she notes. “But it was just a movie. My mother said it was okay because it’s just a movie.” Just a decade in years and she’s got the wisdom to know the difference between what’s on the screen to make a point, and who she is as a young actor. Mark Pellington adds that she ad libbed a crucial scene with MacLaine, where MacLaine asks “what do you want to be” open-ended. Lee says “ya gotta be something.”THE LAST WORD Poster_rgbIn a surreal LA moment, after leaving the press conference and meeting MacLaine, who is so frighteningly gracious and disarmingly elegant in real life, Ari Shapiro’s NPR interview with the screen star for THE LAST WORD comes on the car radio. She’s parrying back and forth, doing her Harriet Lauler impression, “I know you’re looking for a headline, Babe,” she quips. And of course, Shirley MacLaine gets the actual last word.

Make the time to see her go toe-to-toe with Amanda Seyfried in this movie, because it’s really a moment for women, young and old, and the families we build when husbands, partners, boyfriends, children, and even a high-power career aren’t enough.

THE LAST WORD from Bleeker Street and Myriad Pictures, is directed by Mark Pellington, and stars Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfriend, Anne Heche, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, and Tom Everett Scott. See their website for venues and showtimes for the release run, which opened Mar. 3, in a nationwide roll-out.

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25 Clues Meryl Streep Is Not Overrated: Out of the “Sandra Dee Box” & Into A Twitter War

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

So, here’s the story, as they say in the movies… Sunday night Jan. 8, at the Golden Globes hosted by Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), award-winning actor/legend Meryl Streep stepped in it by “calling out” the new US President-Elect with a pointed speech on bullying as an undesirable trait. Long story, short, the soon-to-be-installed President Donald J. Trump, ignited a Twitter firefight in which he dubbed Streep as among the most “overrated” actors in Hollywood.

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Well, in this tiny press window before the 89th Oscar ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 26, let’s get one thing straight: there are many overrated actors in Hollywood, but New Jersey-native Streep is not one of them. Without naming names, those actors know who they are – but do we really know who Meryl Streep is?

Just look at the interwebs traffic spikes since the Trump Twitter war started, then scroll below for the real deal on America’s (Elder) Sweetheart.

25 reasons Streep isn’t just hype… some obscure & just plain fun ones

1. Was inspired mostly by Mary, her mother, “who lit up a room” and was of Irish extraction. Also wished “my mother and father were alive to hear” the news of her Kennedy Center honor.

2. Streep’s Aunt Jane apparently didn’t think Meryl was an attractive child, also too bossy. It took years, but Meryl finally won her over. Family first focused Streep strikes again.

3. Wanted to be an opera singer, thought better of it, but fell in love with Ethel Merman, Carol Channing and Georgia Brown, iconic crooners on Broadway.

4. Claims she never wanted to be inside the “Sandra Dee Box,” meaning Streep always looked at widening acting for women in strong lead roles.

5. Even though she was Homecoming Queen – and a cheerleader – Meryl still wanted to be the female Spencer Tracy acting-wise.

6. Thumbed her way out of her small Jersey town, hitchhiking with a total stranger at age 21.

7. The legendary Joe Papp, of New York theater world fame, pegged Yale graduate Streep as  a “pure actor.” Going on the record with the quote “There are only a few people I would call pure actors. Meryl is one.”

8. Her first TV screen appearances included a part in breakthrough mini-series Holocaust in 1978, which by its overseas air date in 1979, was said to have “captured the imagination of Germans” in translation. Meryl’s later role in Sophia’s Choice, also translated into German, came with a built-in audience.

9. When TIME magazine published a cheeky article entitled “What Makes Meryl Magic” on Sept. 7, 1981, she confounded the hype by actually pulling off the magic trick of being one of the most nominated actors in Hollywood History.

10. Although “Meryl Streep: A Critical Biography” was published by Eugene E. Pfaff and Mark Emerson in 1987, she managed to build a remarkable career for the next three decades that defied all expectations.Streep17

11. When Newsweek Editor Jack Kroll died in 2000, he was still being credited as one of the first to recognize Meryl Streep’s considerable talents with a full-blown cover story photo and headline of the newcomer that read: “A Star for the ’80’s.” Little did he know this trend would continue today.

12. Has had her share of career disappointments. Meryl even got jealous of Jessica Lange when she landed the part in Sweet Dreams, Patsy Cline’s biopic, but never held it against Lange.

13. Calls the thinspiration sexy ingenue craze in Hollywood the “Victoria Secret Syndrome.”

14. Survived the nadir of her career when she played the Australian woman heard around the world with the phrase “dingo got my baby” in A Cry in the Dark (1988). Incidentally, the “Dingo Baby” cold case was revisited 24 years later because of this film.

15. Nicked the part of Italian lover to Clint Eastwood’s character in Bridges of Madison County from Sophia Loren by accident, but balances that out by the fact her husband was dumb-struck as a young man by Sophia Loren emerging from the sea in 1957’s campy flick Boy on A Dolphin. They’re great friends now.

16. Has stayed substance abuse free, and according to one magazine writer, Meryl Streep orders drinks for friends as “two waters, please.”

17. Wanted her daughter Mamie to study nuclear physics rather than acting, but later admitted she was kidding about the nuclear physics part – though initially seriously against acting.

18. Told Esquire magazine’s writer in 1984 that the problem with baby strollers in Manhattan is that they are at the level of car exhaust pipes, cementing her status as a truly caring mother.

19. Meryl Streep claims she does not have a favorite director. Implying many things about her diplomacy skills.

20. Has encouraged Martin Scorsese to feature a balanced, strong female lead character but doubts he will do it during her lifetime.

21. Admitted she was a below average cook while playing Julia Child in Julie & Julia.

22. Inspired a young Brittany Murphy with her performance in “Crayon versus Crayon” – before Murphy could pronounce the title. Sadly Murphy didn’t live to see her mentor continue to flourish.

23. Though inexplicably disliked by Katharine Hepburn, who may actually have sensed a threat to her own legacy in Hollywood, Streep didn’t let it phase her.

24. In 2003, when the reasons for Katharine Hepburn’s dislike of Streep were made public in the Scott Berg book “Kate Remembered,” the deceased Grand Dame labeled Meryl too technical as an actor and too cerebral — two traits Hepburn was famous for in the industry. Uh, Hepburn was also revealed to be a huge fan of John Travolta and enchanted with Michael Jackson. Streep: 1, Hepburn: 0.

25. Mary Louise “Meryl” Streep championed Patricia Arquette at the 2015 Oscar ceremony when Arquette demanded “equal pay for equal work” about women’s compensation in the industry. Not just talk, Streep has always championed the word “actor” for women instead of the throwback term “actress,” and in 2015 began funding a Women over 40 Screenwriting Program through New York Women in Film & Television to give unsung mature women a chance to shine in writing.

BONUS Points: As of Jan. 9, 2017, Meryl Streep, 67 years wise, refuses to respond to a Trump Twitter war slamming her speech denouncing bullying at the 2017 Golden Globes, held Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017.

So there’s 25 clues for Streep fans, as well as Mr. President-elect. While there is no Oscar for The Peaceful Transfer of Power in a Democracy, let’s all act accordingly. With Meryl Streep as a shining example of grace under pressure.

[Editor’s Note: Sources for this list include GOOD HOUSEKEEPING, TIME, Newsweek, book references as indicated, and archival interviews. Visualization from GRAPHIQ. The views expressed here are not designed to start a Twitter war with the incoming US President, God Bless America.]

SCREENMANCER is a gathering place for people who make movies, and are patriotic supporters of Meryl Streep.

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