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Twinkle, Twinkle, Big Star

Shirley MacLaine
Deana Newcomb

Suds of Endearment: MacLaine reprises her role as Aurora Greenway.

Diva Shirley MacLaine dominates the soap operatics of 'The Evening Star'

By Richard von Busack

IN A SENSE, entertainments like The Evening Star, now dying in a theater near you, are the woman's answer to the action film. The invincible heroine faces down a number of assailants, triumphing in circumstances that no living human being could possibly make the best of, to the admiration of all, even her enemies. The Evening Star gouges the tear ducts while wisely following the law of the sequel: the same thing, only more this time.

In The Evening Star's predecessor, Terms of Endearment, released almost 13 years ago last month, we had the protracted death of Debra Winger's character; this time we have three dead before the movie is over--though no sign of Winger, let alone any Jeff Daniels or John Lithgow, both of whom made the previous film sporadically enjoyable. The idly well-off Houston matriarch Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is interfering with her grandchildren's lives. Two of them are badly troubled: Granddaughter Melanie (Juliette Lewis) is in love with a worthless man; grandson Tommy (George Newbern) is in jail for some unspecified crime. Lewis, having been taken to extremes by Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, isn't ready for soap opera. Unable to let an emotion flicker or choke back a sob, she approaches her part noisily, wetly, flailing her arms, not waving but drowning.

Aurora, something of a queen bee in the original, is at this point the cynosure of all Southwestern eyes, equipped with a stable of sitcom neighbors and a wisecracking but (literally) devoted-to-the-death maid (Marion Ross, taking over for Betty R. King). When a married friend sickens, Aurora scoops her off the bed and takes her back to her place to nurse her, and all the husband can do is shake his head in admiration for Aurora's toughness. Rude young men flash Aurora; nice young men ask for her phone number. She has a fling with a young psychologist (Bill Paxton). It isn't essentially grotesque to see a grandmotherly woman in bed with a younger man, but it is repellent to witness MacLaine's queenliness: If only she'd had a doubt about the wisdom of the whole thing, or if she'd gone into it open-eyed--anything but this grisly coyness.

Pauline Kael's review in her book State of the Art was one of the rare non-raves for Terms of Endearment, and everything she said about that one goes double for the sequel. Here's one comment of Kael's: "The movie gains its only suspense from keeping Jack Nicholson in the wings for almost half the running time." Nicholson, as the retired astronaut Garret Breedlove, comes in during the last half hour of the film for all of three scenes. He was top billed on the theater marquee, and he deserved the billing. In a conversation between MacLaine and Nicholson, thinly disguised as being about a man who had walked on the moon, the real topic shows through: "What is it like to be Jack Nicholson and to look back at your life?" For a moment the artifice dissolved ... but that's Nicholson.

One still photograph of the actor holding up a funeral urn as if it were a golfing trophy made up for oh-so-many moments of MacLaine's superhuman prescience; it said so much more about the juiciness of life than any amount of MacLaine's hovering and philosophizing. MacLaine can, in shaming her bad-tempered grandson, emit a line like "I don't understand hatred as a sport" and, a few scenes later, sharpen her claws on her nemesis, Patsy (Miranda Richardson). Aurora's not meant to be a hypocrite ... but that's TV. The part of Aurora is so abominably phony because even the star can't possibly believe a line like that. Can Shirley MacLaine really mean to tell us she's so bereft that there's no one for her to loathe at the end of the day?

The Evening Star, starring Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson and Juliette Lewis.

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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