Out on a Limb (1987)

I must make a confession: I’m a sucker for actors playing themselves.  It does not happen often (Fantasia did it most recently), but when it’s done, it’s a guaranteed hoot (even stories as sad as Fantasia or Ann Jillian).  However, of the handful of stars who have played themselves in these colossal shows of ego, one ranks above all of the others:

Shirley MacLaine

In “Out on a Limb,” based on her 1983 bestseller, Shirley plays herself, but it’s the story that makes it such a bizarre treat.  It’s not just Shirley’s life or career, which, let’s face it, were both pretty damn good.  This is where she came out with all of the information of past lives, trances, UFOs and all that wonderful stuff.  “Out on a Limb” is impossible to categorize as a miniseries, but just try turning this one off!  Believe what you want, be skeptical or don’t believe at all.  It doesn’t matter.  Just watch it for the sake of seeing Shirley act out her own wackadoo story.

“Malibu Beach at sunset.  ‘Magic time,’ we call it in the movies.  It’s that that time of day between light and dark that always makes me wonder who I am and where I fit in,” Shirley says while walking on the beach to start the movie.  Then Shirley is suddenly on her balcony, saying, “I’m going to tell you a story that changed my life.  When I passed 40, I began to ask myself some serious questions because I felt something was missing.  Something I knew was there but couldn’t quite touch.  Questions like ‘why are we here?’ ‘do we really die…'” you get the point.  Oh, this is going to be GOOD!  Never has a miniseries started like this. 

All of this happened because of a “love affair.”  Let’s go back in time to Shirley’s opening at the London Palladium, “some years ago” (in Hollywood autobiography fashion, dates are of less concern than the truth, not that I’m saying this isn’t the truth, just a general observation).  We get the treat of watching Shirley on stage dancing and singing with her boys, still kicking it and showing us the fabulous dancer she was (and maybe still is).  She gets to live this wonderful opening nights, with the applause, critical bouquets and all that lovely stuff a star can’t resist reliving. 

It’s at this opening night, with the pearls and furs and people telling her how great she is, that she is introduced to Gerry Stamford (Charles Dance), a dashing British MP, “finally our very own JFK,” Shirley’s friend tells her (and a character given a pseudonym).  Shirley is smitten by this handsome man.  Their small talk is, I hope, purposely stilted, because if it’s not, it’s proof that stars are every bit as bad as chit-chat as the rest of us when we encounter someone we like.  Their quick meeting is interrupted by Shirley’s agent Mort Viner (Jerry Orbach). 

Back in New York after a successful European tour (of course) where she “had almost forgotten” about Gerry, she’s cooking in her kitchen with Bella Abzug (Anne Jackson).  So we are clear that this is THE Bella Abzug, Shirley’s great famous friend, instead of the other Bella Abzug, the one who lives in a house coat somewhere in Queens with that deadbeat son of hers who steals hubcaps and the husband who broke a leg on the job, she tells Bella, “take the hat off.  You’re not running for Senate in the kitchen!” 

Bella can tell something is wrong with Shirley and I would quote the line, but I had the same reaction as Bella, “can you run that by me again?”  Shirley is unfulfilled.  “I’m not talking about fame, money or success,” she says, reminding us that she has all three, but feels a lack of purpose in her life.  This rather grating conversation is interrupted by a phone call from long-forgotten Gerry Stamford, which impresses Bella, who loves his intelligence.  “Intelligence has become my new erogenous zone,” Shirley responds with a smile. 

Our Socialist PM doesn’t let us forget his passion in life is financial equality for all, though he squires fur-drenched Shirley in a limo to a chic dinner.  He does compliment Shirley on her performance in “Around the World in 80 Days,” and even she has to knock that one, where she played Hindu.  “I admire your work, and your energy, but you seem to be a happy person and I lack that,” Gerry says when Shirley asks why he asked her out.  “People such as yourself are in a position of power to help change people’s lives for the better and I find that extremely attractive” is her reason.  They both thank each other for the compliments.  Shirley is fascinated by his Socialism, but in the conversation, he drops the bomb that he’s married with teenage kids, but Shirley is fairly undaunted by this fact.  “I felt some comfortable with him, he seemed so familiar to me.  It’s as if I had known him all my life.  This mysterious attraction was part of the puzzle I would put together later,” she narrates as they go in for a big clinch. 

After spending the night together, Gerry treats Shirley rather like her Charity Hope Valentine character might have been treated, dashing off quickly, though telling her he wants to see her again when she’s next in Europe, but once again, Shirley is casual enough about it, though she does wince a few times.  Wouldn’t you know, Mort calls Shirley with a potential part, which requires her to go to London to meet with the director. 

Staying at a friend’s flat, Shirley is incognito, “employing the first of my many Greta Garbo disguises.”  Shirley the star reminds in that sentence reminds us recognizable she is, but Shirley the person schleps her own luggage inside.  She makes dinner for Gerry.  After sex, she wants him to eat, but he has to leave.  He can tell Shirley is disappointed, so he says he is too, that “this is new to me too,” but invites her to a French weekend.  At a dinner in Paris, permanent goober Jerry asks about how real film love scenes are, spills a glass of wine and then spots four journalists in the restaurant, which scares him.  “Stop acting so strange.  People can be friends,” Shirley says.  “I think we should move at a slower pace,” Gerry says, and Shirley agrees, becoming quite the doormat.  She agrees to his cloak-and-dagger routine, and though clearly disappointed, she lets him have it his way.  Good sex?  The next time they see each other, that’s the first thing they do.  This is followed by one of those inevitably stupid walking-around-a-quaint-French-town montages and of course a picnic. 

“Can you find  your way back?” Gerry asks Shirley as he packs to go the next morning.  “I’ve found my way back from wilder places from the French countryside,” she remarks with just the right touch of acidity.  He gives her back a present she gave him and doesn’t even kiss her on the way out. 

Back in NYC, Bella drags Shirley to an art gallery since the owner is a potential financial contributor of hers.  They look at a piece of art, and Bella snaps, “what is it, the Washington Monument after a flood?”  Shirley is more high-minded, asking what it means.  The gallery owner introduces her to David Manning (John Heard), a composite character who admits to being fans of both notable women, and an expert on this artist.  He knows his art, but Bella is only concerned that it’s a feminist painting so Shirley will buy it. 

Shirley gives Gerry the painting because “the yin energy will guarantee you the female vote,” which even she doesn’t understand, but that’s how David kind of explained it.  Gerry is only concerned, that because she was with Bella when she bought it, Bella knows about them.  Meeting at an outdoor grocery in London, they have to pretend not to know each other when the grocer introduces them.  Dump him, Shirl! 

Unfortunately, Shirley goes the other way, rushing to London whenever she can in a series of ludicrous get-ups that she says “would be rejected by a bag lady.”  Going to see him at Parliament, she’s not pleased with his “combative” behavior.  He defends himself, saying he hates the “hypocrisy” of his colleagues, but Shirley chides him for not looking at his own bad behavior.  He says his affair with her is personal and therefore not the same.  The argument escalates and ends with Gerry leaving (let’s hope for good, he’s one of the most odious characters this side of Philip Casnoff in “North and South”). 

Her concentration shot over not hearing from Gerry, she rehearses for a new tour and is offered one of the leads in “The Turning Point.”  Luckily, she runs into David, who invites her to see his work and dinner.  “I can eat two beans on a leaf,” she jokes, but agrees.  She’s most fascinated by his photographs of Peru, and her interest is piqued by his talk of spirituality. 

During a walk on the beach, David says he is the man who gave her stones in East Africa ten years earlier.  A freak coincidence?   “There’s a purpose in everything,” he tells her.  She keeps wondering what all of his little spiritual phrases mean.  He mentions past lives at one point, and Shirley is skeptical, but he invites her to a book store to learn more.  “From that day on, I began reading everything metaphysical I could get my hands on, Shirley narrates.  She devours books and is so impressed by what she reads.  She’s so fascinated by it, there’s a montage of her reading: at rehearsal, during a dress fitting, getting out of a limo at an awards ceremony where she drops her book on the red carpet. 

Reincarnation makes it into her act, with “Where or When?” no less!  I’m not sure Rodgers and Hart were thinking quite as metaphysically as Shirley, but I suppose an argument could be made.  She puts it in during an engagement where she still sees Gerry.  She tries to explain “New Age thought” to him, but Gerry is definitely the last person who would believe.  He openly sneers at her, “it’s for people who can’t accept life as it is.” 

Perusing a book store, a book literally falls into her hands from an upper shelf and the woman who owns the store is quite the expert on mediums.  Thinking she’s met Shirley before, Shirley assumes it’s because she’s playing a theater nearby.  “Oh, yes, Shirley Jones,” the old lady says.  “No, MacLaine.”  “Oh, yes, you’re wonderful.”  Good cover!  Anyway, they get to talking metaphysics and the lady tells her, “no one really dies.  All souls are alive.  Some are in this physical dimension and some are not.”  She doesn’t even make Shirley pay for the books! 

“I don’t believe in accidents anymore,” Shirley tells Gerry when they arrange to meet in Hawaii.  He will be there for a conference and she just happens to have two dates free because a booking was changed.  Though she’s annoyed that she has to sneak around “like Mata Hari,” the minute Gerry shows up, she caves all over again.  After a frolic in the water, Gerry asks, “what do you want from me?” in a plain way, sounding sweet, and Shirley just wants to be happy, but then adds that she feels they have met before.  This is the launch into her new way of thinking and Gerry starts to cry and then confesses his love for her, the first time he’s done so. 

If it weren’t for Bella, there wouldn’t be a counter to Shirley’s New Age learning.  When Shirley mentions reincarnation, Bella snaps, “oh, brother, these are the guys I see on the corner with the shaved heads and the orange sheets ringing their little bells.  Shirley, let’s get serious here.  You’re a practical person with a practical problem,” referring to Shirley’s issues with Gerry, even joking that Gerry’s wife may be part of their past lives together.  “Oy vey,” Bella sighs.

Then comes a history lesson.  Back with David in Malibu, he tells her that all of the great religious teachers were “politicians” trying to make people understand the truth, that all religions boil down to the same thing (I think).  “Why isn’t reincarnation in the Bible,” Shirley understandably asks.  David has an answer for that, about the Emperor Justinian booting it out of canonical thinking and then later on, Church fathers “didn’t want people to assume responsibility for their own karmic destiny.”  Ouch!  The first moment of catharsis comes when David tells her to stand up, stretch out her arms and say, “I am God.” 

A friend tells Shirley to go visit her teacher, a man who “is not incarnate right now,” but speaks through a “simple carpenter” (where have we heard that before?) in Stockholm.  Shirley poo-poos it, but then Gerry calls and asks her to meet him in Stockholm.  He brings her all the way there to perhaps break up with her, because “I don’t want to lose my seat in Parliament.”  Gerry makes it even worse.  “I don’t understand why you love me,” he says, creep that he is, but Shirley has a new argument ready.  She tells him, “if you just loved yourself more, you’d be free to love me, your wife, your family and your work too.”  The conversation makes so little sense that Shirley actually utters a line of dialogue that says, “okay, to recap…”  They don’t decide anything there, which means unfortunately Gerry isn’t going away, as great as that would be. 

Now it’s time for the trans-channeller.  The voice behind it all is thousands of years old and speaks a language Shirley cannot understand, but her friend is there to translate.  We know the spirit has entered the simple man’s body when his arm starts to twitch and his eyes close because the spirit wants to see for himself, not through the trans-channeller.  During a two-hour session, Shirley learns a lot and I won’t pretend I understood it all, but this is the point in the movie where the story becomes only a convenient device through which to speak of the metaphysical, which is why the miniseries format is so wrong for something like this!  The miniseries is about heightened emotion in there here and now.  It’s about love and heartache, war and fear, larger-than-life characters dealing with larger-than-life issues, but it’s not about outside-of-life issues.  The miniseries is not about anything spiritual. 

Anyway, someone asks about Atlantis.  The spirit says that “it disappeared because their technical knowledge exceeded their spiritual wisdom.”  And all along you thought it was a tsunami!  The pyramids at Giza?  “A library of stone which we would soon learn to read.”  The body is tired, so the spirit gives one last blessing and leaves. 

As exciting as her new knowledge base is, Gerry is still a major ass, brushing her off because his wife is in town.  So, she writes.  She writes about everything.  “I ate only Swedish crackers and butter” as she writes about everything she sees, feels, understands, etc.  There comes a speech that is quite interesting, but probably worked better on the page than on the screen.  At the end of a week, she tells Gerry that the answers to their relationship lie in trans-channelling.  Gerry refuses to even try to understand, calling mediums, “psycho” and “weird.”  Now, I will state here that I do not understand what Shirley MacLaine understands, nor do I really believe the little I do understand, but I’m willing to at least hear her out (a book would be better than a miniseries, which, as I’ve said, is just plain wrong).  Gerry?  He goes on the attack so furiously that it’s obvious Shirley is clawing not only at him, but at everyone who has ever refused to listen to her.  No one can possibly be as heavy-handed as Gerry, so there has to be another motive here, and I think it’s to shut up anyone who isn’t the slightest bit open-minded.  It’s in a departing tirade that he gives the book and the miniseries its title, beating us over the head with irony, telling her he is not prepared to go so far “out on a limb.” 

Shirley wants an English-speaking medium, so Kevin Ryerson (playing himself) is sent to her. In a wacky bit, she offers him a drink and he refuses, saying it gets in the way of the channelling.  “So he isn’t into drinking spirits,” she says internally.  I think we’re meant to groan at that one.  Kevin describes the four spirits who may pop in through him, and Shirley is somewhat skeptical.  The experience in Sweden seemed to fit the bill, but this guy in the fancy suit seems all wrong to her.  “See you in a little while,” Kevin says before going into his trance.  Shirley gives the spirit a really rough time with her questions, but when he asks her why she yelled “I am God” at the ocean, she’s suddenly more of a believer, and then a man with an Irish accent comes through Kevin and asks for a blindfold.  Since he’s Irish, he wants the tea served in a beer mug and finds a hidden bar in her living room.  Regarding Gerry, the first spirit returns to tell her that she and Gerry knew each other in Atlantis 300,000 years ago, when Gerry was a do-gooder even then, which was detrimental to their relationship.  Oh, and there are extra terrestrials.  Kevin leaves, and on the way out, Shirley admits to him “I don’t understand it,” but she really wants to learn. 

When Shirley next visits David, she finds him painting and drawing UFOs, just as the spirit had mentioned.  “When are you really going to tell me what’s going on?” she asks.  “When the time comes,” David replies, which doesn’t upset Shirley.  Bella arrives to shoot holes in what Shirley has been working on, delightfully unbelieving.  When Shirley mentions ETs, Bella is about to explode.  David’s call interrupts Bella and he invites her to go to Peru with him.  “I cannot go to your fundraising garden party next week,” she tells Bella, “because I am going to Peru to look for UFOs.”  The look on Bella’s face says it all.

In Peru, David and Shirley take a crowded bus and a local man with a goat has seen people from “other worlds.”  David says everyone at these high altitudes “take it for granted” that these beings exist.  Maybe it’s the altitude itself.  The go to Machu Pichu, they ponder how it could have been built, and David says he feels that he was there when it was built.  There are other inexplicable wonders to be seen in Peru that have baffled thinkers for centuries.  In a rare moment of verbal constipation, David says merely, “it really makes you think, doesn’t it?”  Wait, this is the man with all the answers and THIS is all he can come up with? 

When the car stalls up in the Andes, David shows Shirley a mountainside where buses go over all the time and everyone has died.  “There aren’t any victims in the world.  Everything happens for a reason,” he tells Shirley, who is very upset at his “detached” way of thinking of the dead.  They aren’t dead, according to David, because no one ever dies.  Their “hotel” is a shack with all sorts of animals and no electricity or hot water.  “I must have done something in a past life to deserve this!” Shirley cracks.

David takes Shirley to a hot spring where he tells her to stare at a candle until she becomes “one with the candle.”  This “first attempt at meditation breathing” really impresses Shirley.  This is another one of those sections that works better in a book because film is too literal and the sequence just plays like Shirley MacLaine looking at a candle for a few minutes.  David says he’s been coming to this remote outpost in Peru for eight years because of something that “changed my life,” but as usual, he won’t divulge what it is.  Their evening ends with another schtick moment.  “Goodnight, David.”  “Goodnight, Chet.”  “And that’s the way it is.” 

They go to a sulphur spring bath where a local man is in a trance and David slips into one immediately.  “Was he actually there?  Is it possible that he was out of his body?” Shirley asks herself.  This reminds her of working with Peter Sellers, who discussed an out-of-body experience during a heart attack.  David answers her question, that he did leave his body, going into “God’s universe.” 

Up in the Andes, Shirley does her best to understand it all, but she’s frustrated, not getting it all the first time, not being able to be happy, not in control, a discussion of “self-doubt” versus “self-righteous.”  She starts crying about Gerry (who has almost been blissfully forgotten), and David tells her, “real friends are people who let you have your own truths, whatever it is.”  She’s upset at her part in this “psychic play,” but David says her part will be better “next time.” 

It’s finally time for David to spill some secrets, though not easily.  There was once a woman he met who knew everything about him and everything in the world, but he didn’t know why as she said she would tell him later.  He gets hysterical as he tells the story, which continues with the woman telling David to pass his knowledge onto a person who would write it all down: Shirley.  The woman was from another planet, which shocks Shirley.  “I would like to go home,” Shirley says, angry that everything David has taught her may just be craziness. 

After a night of thinking, Shirley decides, cautiously to follow-up on what David said because, “I consider you to be a friend and in your right mind.”  He says he did not believe what the woman had told him, but “she kept turning up” and eventually told him to go to the base of a hill where she revealed a UFO to him.  But there’s more!  The alien told David a lot about Shirley, that they had “met each other in previous lives,” and that she told him to deliver the stones to Shirley.  That’s when Shirley realizes he’s been leading up to asking her to write about it, but Shirley is incensed.  She is supposed to write about past lives and all of the rest?  She’s fine with her own personal search, but she draws the line at public humiliation over writing about ETs and such.  “It’s metaphysical Twilight Zone mumbo jumbo,” she rails at David.  “You’re a nut,” she says and stalks off, but David says he was told to tell her “in order to get the fruit of the tree, you have to go out on a limb,” the exact phrase Gerry had used when telling Shirley he couldn’t accept her new interests.  Shirley doesn’t get it even then and wants to “go back to my old way of thinking.” 

“That was probably the most confusing period of my whole life,” Shirley narrates.  She doesn’t know what to believe, but she sure as hell asks herself a whole lot of questions.  She takes the car to go off thinking by herself and of course it dies as night falls.  This had happened before with David, but the car started after they talked about some truths.  I guess that means she has to learn something for the car to start.  She concentrates very hard and whispers, “David, see me” over and over and he’s woken up in order to rush to her.  She wants to know how he found him, and he says the alien guided him. 

There’s more.  During the car ride back, David tells Shirley to “trust me and don’t touch the wheel.”  He goes into a trance while driving and takes his hands off the wheel.  Shirley shrieks in horror as they almost crash, but then the car actually follows the road and all seems fine.  “If they could see me now,” Shirley sings, with some new lyrics.

Back in the hot spring, Shirley has her first out of body experience, attached to her body by a thin (animated) “silver cord.”  She goes up, up, up, beyond the mountains, off to the moon.  “I felt like a spiritual astronaut,” she says.  Wondering if her cord will go to a far nebula kills the soaring and she’s back in her body.  She’s no longer afraid of dying because now she understands what it will be like, or, as David describes, what she just felt without the cord. 

David and Shirley see news of the big blackout in New York City and Shirley wants to know about Bella’s campaign for mayor, so he takes her to a psychic.  The psychic tells her Bella will not win, so Shirley asks “are there any good movie scripts coming up for me?” to laughter from David. 

Having brought Shirley where she needed to be, David tells her he’s staying in Peru.  “You’ve got your notes, your tapes.  You decide what to do,” he tells her, “but you’ve gotta do it alone.”  She’s upset, but it definitely makes sense plot-wise because now she will never have to produce this mysterious man should anyone ask about him should she have to go out on a book tour (that’s my assumption, she doesn’t say that).  “When will I see you again?” she asks David?  He gives her a whole litany of catchy phrases about love and such without actually answering her question. 

Back in NYC, Shirley tells all to Bella regarding what the psychic said, so Bella commissions a new poll “and concentrate on Ed Koch,” the bald man with the long fingers that the psychic mentioned winning the race.  They go to a function where Gerry is speaking and he won’t even hug her.  It’s definitely over.  She goes home and writes, “Malibu Beach at sunset…”

I doubt very much if watching “Out on a Limb” will convert you to Shirley MacLaine’s way of thinking.  Its few hours are not nearly enough to guide someone on a path of learning, and that’s exactly why it never should have been made!  What is the purpose of filming the book?  Truly, why?  The movie just skims the surface of the metaphysical.  It’s not a big and brash event.  Hell, there are only four characters with more than ten or so lines.  If anything deserves NOT to be a miniseries, it’s “Out on a Limb,” which, even as a book, can only make one a bit curious in the hopes of following up.  The only reason I can think of is that Shirley MacLaine got a little high on the controversy her book caused and decided to ride the crest.  I realize that’s not exactly the nicest thing to say, but if she was looking to preach her ideas, this movie does a very poor job of it, making one laugh instead of ponder.  Forever a movie star, there is no attempt by Shirley to downplay Shirley in order to improve the discussion of the metaphysical.  This almost seems like one very long episode of a gigantic 100-hour miniseries where the rest of the footage is lost and we’re stuck with just this chapter in her life. 

How does it fare as a movie itself?  Eh, adequate.  Because it’s so narrowly focused, it does tend to drag, though the last third, the part filmed in Peru is gorgeous to see.  Shirley plays herself well enough, but the best performance is by Anne Jackson as Bella.  She at least knows she’s in a movie and not a treatise, so she has a grand time playing a grand character.  So far, Shirley MacLaine has not returned to playing herself, and I hope she doesn’t, or at least if she does, she does it with a bit more flair. 

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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