Shirley MacLaine heard hours of kind words at the AFI Life Achievement Award tribute in her honor Thursday night at Sony, but the guy who stole the show was the one who trashed everyone in the room.
Veteran comic Don Rickles briefly turned MacLaine's AFI tribute into a roast, mocking MacLaine's little brother, Warren Beatty ("I know your brother very well, and I never liked him"), Jack Nicholson ("he's not here tonight — he's with the Lakers, oiling their jocks"), the event itself ("it's been what, 18 hours?") and even the guest of honor ("Shirley, I never read your books and I don't plan to").
The crowd on a Sony soundstage reacted warily at first, but they ended up in hysterics — and by the time Rickles ended his rant with a sweet, touching and eloquent tribute to MacLaine, the 84-year-old comedian had become the clear star of the show, excepting the honoree herself.
Also see slideshow: Shirley MacLaine Honored With AFI Life Achievement Award
Giving Rickles a run for his money was MacLaine's co-star in the recent indie film "Bernie," Jack Black, who appeared on video and used MacLaine's belief in reincarnation as the basis for a funny short film celebrating "The Many Life Achievement Awards of Shirley MacLaine."
Black appeared as a caveman, a medieval court jester, a fur trader and an alien from the future, among other guises, all of them celebrating the actresses' achievements in past lives.
When the microphone was turned over to Jack Nicholson an hour later (contrary to Rickles' comments, Nicholson was indeed present), the actor was succinct about how Black's film had made all other reincarnation jokes redundant.
"Jack Black turned the only good joke I had into Cecil B. DeMille," grumbled Nicholson. "Goddamn Jack Black, I'd like to bury him alive."
Still, there was no shortage of reincarnation jokes at the lengthy ceremony. The 40th AFI Life Achievement Award show was filmed for TV Land, where it will air on June 24.
The event took place on a lavishly redecorated Stage 15 at Sony – the same stage, said company chairman Howard Stringer in his opening remarks, where "The Wizard of Oz," "A Night at the Opera," "Spider-Man" and many other films were shot, the stage where "Astaire danced and Rocky boxed."
The event alternated film clips recapping MacLaine's life and career with guests singing her praises. The honor roll began with Warren Beatty, who introduced the past AFI winners in attendance: Sidney Poitier, Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Meryl Streep and "Steve" Spielberg.
The many video clips revealed, among other things, that MacLaine was named Shirley because her parents drove by a poster for a Shirley Temple movie on their way to the hospital, and that she gained 20 pounds while shooting her first movie, "The Trouble With Harry" in 1955, because director Alfred Hitchcock insisted that she eat dinner with him every night.
Julia Roberts summed up the guest of honor this way: "How can I put this? She's got balls." It was a prelude to a night in which MacLaine would be lauded time and time again for her independent streak, her forcefulness, her honesty and the breadth of her work over the course of a six-decade career that included "The Apartment," Sweet Charity," "The Turning Point," "Steel Magnolias" and "Terms of Endearment," among many others.
"Movies matter," said last year's honoree, Morgan Freeman. "For all of my adult life, Ms. MacLaine, you have been the movies."
As the night stretched on, politician Dennis Kucinich revealed that MacLaine officiated at his wedding and is his daughter's godmother, before mixing his metaphors with a vengeance: "She pushes the envelope to pierce the veil of reality itself."
Former presidential candidate George McGovern, who lost big to Richard Nixon in 1972, thanked MacLaine for her fervent support in that campaign, and for believing that he could win. "Boy was she wrong on that one," he added.
Elizabeth McGovern showed a tiny but delicious scene from an upcoming episode of "Downton Abbey" in which MacLaine's and Maggie Smith's characters square off for the first time.
Other speakers included Sally Field, John Travolta, Dakota Fanning, a nervous Katherine Heigl, a bawdy Carrie Fisher and the final presenter, Meryl Streep, who said that MacLaine was "writing the template of how to have a productive, creative middle career" by finding great roles. "I like that you didn't disappear into the dark woods in those tricky middle years, 45 to 65," she said.
When it was MacLaine's turn to finally speak, she started by thanking Rickles "for reminding all of us who we really are," and then seconded Nicholson's condemnation of the guy who had rendered all subsequent reincarnation jokes superfluous: "I agree with Jack – I want to kill Jack Black."
She paid tribute to "the women who speak the truth" and the men she made love to both on and off the screen. "I swear I remember half," she said, then paused. "No, I just remembered two more."
From there she grew serious and reflective, reminiscing about the days she and her brother Warren would go to every movie they could see. (Her mom gave her a quarter for the tickets, which cost 11 cents each – so she made a profit every time they went.) "What is it that drew us to this business?" she asked.
She paid saluted the "extraordinarily metaphysical" experiences of her father and "the profundity and the power of the passive" in her mother.
"I just want to give you all one assurance," she said at the end of her speech. "All of us overachievers should just relax and enjoy ourselves – because if we don't do it now, we'll do it next time around."
Also at the event, the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal went to "The Dark Knight," "Inception" and "Moneyball" cinematographer Wally Pfister, who graduated from the AFI Conservatory in 1991.
Getty Images photos by Kevin Winter (MacLaine, Rickles) and Christopher Polk (Streep, MacLaine and Roberts)