Shirley MacLaine has been described by press and co-stars over the years as “rude,” “nasty,” “difficult” and “selfish.” Hell, she’s called herself impatient, caustic and much worse. None of that has stopped her from being a fiery mainstay in American screwball comedies and dramas. Her signature pixie cut came to symbolize her feisty tomboy power, and even now I get a little giddy thinking about Clint Eastwood saying that she intimidated him on the set of Two Mules for Sister Sara. Mark Pellington’s whimsical yet uneven drama The Last Word draws so deeply from MacLaine’s own history that it helps to recall how absolutely dominating she once was in Hollywood. For more than half a century, MacLaine’s unsinkable spirit has kept her working in the industry; now it’s keeping this film afloat.
In a too-easy script from Stuart Ross Fink, MacLaine’s retired businesswoman Harriet Lawler finds herself in a control freak’s quandary: How can she preside over her own obituary if she’ll be dead? Harriet — who’s already blithely suicidal — hires a local writer, Anne (Amanda Seyfried), to pen her obit, stat. But Harriet’s burned so many bridges that Anne finds the task impossible — nobody will talk to her! — and delivers her new boss an icy, succinct one-paragraph bio. Anne’s supposed to be a great writer, but if she can’t pull off massaging the obit of a pioneering ad executive, she needs a new job or a new attitude. The story’s set up to give Anne both. Wouldn’t you know that, in helping Harriet connect with the people and the passions that make a life worth commemorating, Anne realizes it’s time to take some chances?
This premise, if convenient, proves cute even as it sometimes veers into sugary after-school-special territory, like when Harriet reads Anne’s personal journal, and Anne reacts like a sullen teenager. Throughout the story, Harriet can’t help but espouse her truths on every subject that comes to her: how hedges should be trimmed, how boring the radio is today. Pellington shoots all this with handheld cameras, utilizing a shallow and central focus that blurs everything not in a small hot spot in the screen’s middle, a technique you’d normally find in a stylish drama, like László Nemes’ 2015 Auschwitz pic Son of Saul.
The effect is one of intensity, so this cinematography is at tonal odds with the story’s lighter moments, but it does lend more gravity to certain scenes, like when Harriet gives a talk to at-risk African-American preteens and tells them to brush aside their problems and take more positive risks; if treated as comedy, this could have come off as completely dismissive of those kids and their problems, but instead the film stirs sympathy for Harriet as she goes on to explain how difficult it was to be a ball-busting lady in the old days.
Harriet’s diatribes throughout the story suggest MacLaine herself, who — as reported in a much-discussed LA Times article — told women of color at Sundance that they need to stop focusing so much on why Hollywood won’t let them in and instead just force their way into the business. In both the film and in reality, MacLaine/Harriet is talking from a place of extreme privilege as a wealthy white woman who thinks lack of success is more a failure of will than one of circumstance, which is grating. On the other hand, she’s aware of all of it, and some of her advice does ring infuriatingly true. Plus, MacLaine also once did the impossible: intimidate motherfucking Clint Eastwood in 1970.
It seems Mark Pellington is asking: Can we still appreciate all the great things MacLaine gives us, even if we don’t agree with her on all of it? The film attempts to honor both MacLaine/Harriet’s obvious faults and blind spots as well as her bold second-wave feminism, and Pellington largely succeeds. Just as an obituary reminds you how important a person was in his or her lifetime, The Last Word won’t let you forget the indomitable spirit of a film legend, no matter how inappropriate she may sometimes be. I’m gonna miss her when she’s gone.