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In 1962 United Artists released Two for the Seesaw, the film version of the successful stage play by William Gibson. In the theatre, the production starred Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft, but the desired casting choices for the film version were Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. When talks fell through, however, the focus shifted to Shirley MacLaine and Robert Mitchum. MacLaine was an easy sell compared to Mitchum, who initially turned the role down. Hearing MacLaine was involved, however, intrigued the actor - and so did the promise of a share in the receipts profits; the capper, however, was the hiring of Robert Wise as director. Mitchum, having worked together with Wise in the Western Blood on the Moon (1948), declared, "I'm not the kind of guy who thinks he knows it all. I can be talked into things." Wise, fresh from his Oscar-winning success with West Side Story (1961), was eager to get his leads together to gauge whether there was any on-screen chemistry between them - the film's story of two lost souls finding romance in New York City required a palpable connection between the lovers. Wise wasn't disappointed - on the contrary, he was a little overwhelmed.
In her 1995 autobiography My Lucky Stars, MacLaine recalls her first meeting with Mitchum: "It was a case of opposites attracting when he walked into the small office on the Goldwyn lot. I stood up and looked in his face. He shook my hand. 'Don't let me take up too much space,' he said. 'I'm basically a Bulgarian wrestler. I'm not right for this part.' "You're wonderful," I said. "I've admired you for so long, I think you'll be great." Indeed, MacLaine - seventeen years his junior - had grown up watching Mitchum in such flicks as Out of the Past (1947) and was smitten. In her words, "The die was cast. I willingly fell into the role of rescuer, saving him from himself. It gave me something to do . . . unlock the great Mitchum so the world could witness what gold there was underneath." It was the beginning of a three-year love affair; even the famously aloof Mitchum would later write of Shirley: "So much talent it was embarrassing. Quick. Responsive. Open and honest. Best of all, she had a weird sense of humor. What more could anyone ask?"
Even as the budding romance flourished under his nose, Wise appeared oblivious. In the 2001 biography Robert Mitchum by Lee Server, he conceded, "Mitchum and Shirley liked each other very much, that was obvious. They kidded each other and it was pretty spicy kidding, pretty ribald. I had to have a closed set for a while; I was kind of embarrassed over what they were saying to each other. . . Maybe they were having an affair. I don't know. I couldn't tell. But I had a difficult time getting them settled down to do a scene." Mitchum's wife Dorothy, however, was a little more clued in: aware of her husband's propensity to wander into the arms of his costars, she was rattled when the relationship with MacLaine extended past the wrap party. During production, things only intensified; as MacLaine explained, "We never spent any time together away from the set. Then, during a period when I had a few days off, I went to Hawaii to think and be alone. When I returned, Robert said to me, "When I didn't see you, I felt deprived. You are too much with me." From then on things changed.
Despite Mitchum's intense relationship with MacLaine on the set, he did managed to spend some time with other cast members: Malachy McCourt, brother of Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt, had an uncredited role in the film, but a memorable experience with the actor. In Mitchum's biography, the author noted that "Mitchum invited McCourt to his dressing room one morning and brought forth products from the homeland, bottles of Guinness and Irish whiskey. 'We had a long talk as we sampled these refreshments, and I found him to be a highly intelligent man, very well read. . . I found him to be a very bright man who had become a bit lost in his stardom. A man who thought he ought to be doing something else besides standing before the camera for a living.' McCourt remembers Frank Sinatra popping by to say hello, and getting talked into staying for a stout and whiskey: Sinatra gulped with dismay, drinking at that time in the morning, but he bravely downed a very good portion of both, and then made his farewell. He was still a very thin man, Sinatra, and I'm sure it was hitting him harder than it hit Mitchum or myself. But at that hour of the morning it was a bit much even for me, to be quite honest!"
Two for the Seesaw opened to uneven reviews; while most critics were pleased with MacLaine's performance, Mitchum's notices were not so kind. One review from Newsweek declared, "Mitchum, rigid to begin with, plays the movie as if he were wearing tight shoes." Ironically, some critics bemoaned the lack of onscreen chemistry between the two. However, Two for the Seesaw picked up two Oscar nominations - one for Best Song (by Andre Previn) and one for Best Cinematography (Ted McCord). MacLaine and Mitchum continued their affair all over the world, traveling together to locales such as New Orleans, New York, London, Paris, and even West Africa. The relationship, however, would end after a couple of years, with Mitchum returning to his wife, and MacLaine to her husband, Steve Parker. In her memoirs, however, MacLaine recalled a conversation years later with Used People (1992) costar Marcello Mastroianni: "We laughed about the time he and Faye Dunaway, who believed they were being successfully discreet, ran into Robert Mitchum and me on a London street. We believed we were being successfully discreet. And so the conversation led to the dilemma of falling in love with one's costar. "One must love one's costar," said Marcello. "Otherwise how will the audience believe it?"
Producer: Walter Mirisch
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Isobel Lennart, based on a play by William Gibson
Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Film Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Jerry Ryan), Shirley MacLaine (Gittel Mosca), Edmon Ryan (Frank Taubman), Elisabeth Fraser (Sophie), Eddie Firestone (Oscar), Billy Gray (Mr. Jacoby).
by Eleanor Quin