|Portrait of a Rat Packer; Shirley MacLaine—"The Mascot"|
|Written by Sirkka E.H. Bertling|
At the dawn of Kennedy era, the members of the Rat Pack were the primary representatives of hedonistic playboy masculinity in the United States. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop captivated Las Vegas audiences with their improvised nightclub act (known as "The Summit") and attracted moviegoers to witness their antics onscreen in Ocean's 11 (1960). Portraying a masculinity that boozed, womanized, and challenged "straight" society in snazzy tailored suits, the Rat Pack lived out a fantasy life for mid-century audiences to envy on stage, screen, and television.
The five men listed above are the most remembered Rat Packers, probably because they headlined at the Sands in 1959 during the filming of Ocean's 11, the classic heist film recently remade by director Steven Soderbergh and contemporary Hollywood suave man George Clooney. However, the Rat Pack did not consist merely of these headliners. As Richard Gehman's 1963 book, Sinatra and his Rat Pack details, there were all sorts of associated "members" who came and went. From songwriter Sammy Cahn to director Billy Wilder to hot Hollywood couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, if you were a buddy of Sinatra, you could be an affiliate of his Rat Pack.
But women were scarce in the Rat Pack. Renowned as a "boys' club" that even President Kennedy wanted to join, the Rat Pack had a specific role for women—sexual companion. One woman, however, broke through the boys' club to be regarded as an equal.
Unlike many of their female "acquaintances", Shirley MacLaine’s involvement with the Rat Pack transcended the sexual. Known as the "mascot" for the Rat Pack, MacLaine is also one of the only women associated with the group that had a lifelong relationship with them.
As she says in her autobiography, My Lucky Stars, "The Clan [an earlier and short-lived name for the Rat Pack] and Some Came Running were the beginning of a relationship between Dean and Frank Sinatra and myself that endured for four decades."1
Most in-the-know people agree that MacLaine never had a sexual relationship with any of the Rat Packers (though both Sinatra and Martin may have tried). Not only was she married to Steve Parker, but her friendships with the Rat Pack had the tone of a older brother-younger sister relationship, with Sinatra and Martin acting as protectors rather than sexual aggressors.
MacLaine notes that Sinatra was protective of all of his friends, and particularly of her. "He was a happy man when he was able to come to my rescue. 'Oh, I just wish someone would try to hurt you so I could kill them for you,' he'd say when he was trying to express his feelings of friendship."2
Perhaps the longevity of their friendship is due the lack of sexual involvement. Even in Some Came Running, where MacLaine portrays a "tart with a heart", she is not the primary love interest.
In her first collaboration with Sinatra and Martin together, MacLaine plays Ginny Moorehead, who hooks up with Sinatra's Dave Hirsh during a drinking binge to celebrate his discharge from the army. She falls in love with him right away, but he is only nice to her when he's drunk, reserving his love for an intellectual and proper teacher who refuses to give in to his advances.
The two female leads are antithetical—the teacher (played by Martha Hyer) daintily makes coffee; Ginny chomps on a hamburger in the local bar. Though Martin and Sinatra's characters berate Ginny and call her a "pig," they do have affection for her.
Like many of the Rat Pack's real-life conquests, Ginny is seen as good for only one thing. Her good nature makes up for her lack of intelligence, though, and ultimately, Dave marries her. Unfortunately, Ginny's jealous former lover takes a shot at Dave shortly after their wedding, and Ginny throws herself in front of him and dies.
MacLaine received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Some Came Running, and the role was a breakthrough for her. In general, the critics were impressed with MacLaine—they noted that hers was "a moving portrayal of the giddy and warm-hearted tart"3 and that "the surprise hit is Shirley MacLaine's touching, unforgettable portrait of the crude, pathetic little floozy who falls in love with Frank Sinatra."4
MacLaine went on to become "[one of] the hottest female propert[ies] in Hollywood," and patented portrayals of tough, spunky women.5 Offscreen, MacLaine spent lots of time with her costars, participating in "the nightlife of poker, jokes, pasta, and booze [that] went on until five A.M. Our calls were at six A.M.," she remembers.6
Her next collaboration with the Rat Pack was a cameo in Ocean's 11. In a gorgeous blue cocktail dress, MacLaine plays a tipsy woman outside a casino who almost ruins the heist. To distract her, Dean Martin plants a swoon-inducing kiss on her. In her few moments on-screen, MacLaine is as kooky and as charming a costar as any Rat Packer could wish.
She continued to cross paths with the Rat Pack, in films (1960's Can-Can and Cannonball Run II in 1984, etc.) and onstage (performing a reunion show with Frank Sinatra). She has also been involved in politics and outspoken about the lack of complex roles for women in Hollywood cinema.
Where the Rat Pack represented a dominant model of swinging, hipster masculinity, MacLaine often represented a bold, spunky femininity that, though within the bounds of acceptable and hegemonic femininity, did provide an alternative to some of the female stereotypes prevalent on-screen at the time.
She wasn't simply a sexpot or a virgin—Shirley's characters were more complex. From ballet dancer to foil for Martin & Lewis (an early Rat Pack connection) in Artists and Models (1955), to her acclaimed work in The Apartment (1960), to her Academy Award-winning performance in Terms of Endearment (1983) to her continuing career as both actress and author, MacLaine established herself as a formidable and unique on-screen presence in addition to being the "only 'regular' female member of the Rat Pack."7 She is probably the only woman who continually held her own when paired with the likes of Sinatra and Martin, and is certainly the only one who slipped into the Rat Pack and stayed.
1. Shirley MacLaine, My Lucky Stars. A Hollywood Memoir, (New York: Bantam Books, 1995 ), 61.