As I look back on this 1977 piece I did for The New York Times, I can't help thinking that Shirley MacLaine made a big mistake by not throwing her hat into the 2004 presidential ring. --Guy Flatley


What would it be like to play Bella Abzug in a movie?

"My God!" gasps the actress and part-time politician Shirley MacLaine. "That would mean my phone would ring every day at 4 in the morning. Of course, I wouldn’t have to go to the studio at 5 A.M. to have my hair done; I could just put on a hat. But I don’t think this is the right time for a movie about Bella, because there’s no third act yet. When that’s written, Bella will probably drive up in a tank to take possession of the White House. Having first been elected, of course."

These days, Miss MacLaine is pouring more energy into art than politics. After a lengthy absence from the screen, she is starring with Anne Bancroft and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Herbert Ross’s "The Turning Point." Her role is that of a ballerina who abandons her career when she becomes pregnant.

"I can’t say that I identify with my character," Miss MacLaine said. "At the age of 12, I knew that settling down with a family was not for me. ‘The Turning Point’ is not a woman’s movie; it’s a movie about the choices in life. I know a lot of men, too, who gave up their dreams to be an artist or a scientist or the guy who invented paper clips and ended up carrying a lunch pail back and forth to the factory."

Miss MacLaine feels there is a paucity of challenging roles for women and that the shortage is linked to Hollywood’s traditional fear of political issues. "Perhaps we who hold feminist attitudes have intimidated the writers," she said. "They are afraid their male chauvinism will show. It’s a very small community out there and a subject like women’s liberation is just too political for the Hollywoodians. And so women have fallen into the same vacuum as the Vietnam War, the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and corruption in high places. Except for ‘All the President’s Men,’ we’ve been ignoring social problems, and credit for getting that film made must go to Robert Redford, a man with extremely good values. And he’s charming and pretty enough to force things through.

"Films are tied up with the moral tone set by a government, and when you have a government as corrupt as our last one, the artist must assume the responsibility for telling the truth. Films can help eliminate the double vision the American public has of our country, our values, our future; they can contribute a clarified vision, a moral perception of our social problems."

One of the contributions Miss MacLaine plans to make is a screenplay of her autobiography, "Don’t Fall Off the Mountain." "It’s not a hostile book; it’s about a woman searching for her identity. I’m not one to go around screaming at men; that was never my problem. My overwhelming priority has always been that I’ve got a right to be heard."

Where will she ever find anyone capable of playing Shirley MacLaine?

"I think Robert Redford could play me just fine."