Shirley MacLaine has been a movie star for sixty years. She’s appeared in dozens of films, won all the major awards in the business, and received a Kennedy Center Honor. At age 81, she’s still active, with one movie recently released, another in production, and a third identified on her IMDB page as “announced.”
Of course, she’s not just known as an actress. She’s also been very outspoken about her New Age beliefs, including her conviction that she’s lived several previous lives. She’s written several bestselling books about these matters. According to her, she’s been “a medieval warrior, an orphan raised by elephants, a Japanese geisha and a model for post-impressionist painter Toulouse-Lautrec.” When she dated Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, she “realized” that they’d hooked up over a thousand years ago, when he was Charlemagne and she was a peasant girl. She’s also said that her pet dog was “a reincarnation of the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis.”
There are apparently people who view themselves as having learned spiritual lessons from her; there are many more who think of her as a very talented woman who also happens to be something of a harmless kook.
But in fact MacLaine’s non-acting activities haven’t all been harmless. Case in point: her 1975 documentary The Other Half of the Sky, about a trip she and a group of other women made to China in 1973.
As of 1973, it will be remembered, Mao’s so-called Cultural Revolution had been going on since 1966. It involved the often random and utterly unwarranted harassment, persecution, forcible displacement, torture, imprisonment, and murder of millions of people. During these years, the population of China lived in terror – fearful of losing their homes, their jobs, their families, their lives. During this period, few Westerners were welcome into what was then called (as North Korea is now) a “hermit kingdom.”
Enter Shirley MacLaine, her film crew (including director Claudia Weill), and her entourage, composed of “regular American women” such as a Texas housewife, a Navajo woman, a California psychologist, and a Puerto Rican sociologist. Invited to China by Mao Zedong’s government, the group traveled from city to city – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou – where they filmed the sights and talked to people. The result: a movie, written and produced by MacLaine, that the New York Times described as a “generally eye-catching spectrum of happy people in such places as homes, farms, day-care centers, city communes, schools, hospitals, the Great Wall, the ballet and Peking’s May Day celebration.”
But The Other Side of the Sky wasn’t just a travelogue. MacLaine wanted to make a point: namely, that women in China had attained a degree of liberation that their American counterparts had yet to match, and from which they could learn. As the Times put it, MacLaine’s documentary depicted the women of China (and the men, too) as “uniformly contented.” The film provided not a single glimpse of “crime, poverty, deprivation or unhappiness among China’s 800 million people.” There was hardly a hint of recognition on MacLaine’s part that the land she was visiting was not a free country, and that the people to whom she posed questions were not free to answer them honestly. Although some of the Chinese people interviewed by MacLaine did “gently point out that artistic, musical and literary creativity must conform to Maoist principles,” MacLaine herself showed no inclination to probe or ponder this fact.