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Shirley MacLaine takes on fashion legend Coco Chanel.

It’s Tuesday morning around 10 o’clock, and Shirley MacLaine is on her knees prepping a model for a Chanel fashion show. Given the spring 2008 couture schedule, logic would have her assisting Karl Lagerfeld at Paris’ Grand Palais. But in fact, MacLaine, clad in a bouclé tweed suit and a multitude of pearls, her signature red bob replaced with a brunette version, is in Rome, channeling Mademoiselle Chanel circa her 1954 comeback collection. The city’s famed Cinecittà Studios, where Fellini and Scorcese have filmed, have been transformed into a retro Rue Cambon for Lifetime’s original miniseries entitled “Coco Chanel.”

This story first appeared in the January 24, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The two-part series, set to air in November, chronicles Chanel’s life, from her hard-knock beginnings in an orphanage to her glamorous rise, fall and eventual return as a fashion icon. And, as all good dramas go, there are the requisite romances — namely her ill-fated affair with Captain Arthur “Boy” Capel — aplenty.

Slovakian actress and relative newcomer Barbora Bobulova plays young Coco, while MacLaine stars as the elder Chanel, following her return to Paris after a 15-year exile during and after World War II.

If the subject and star seem a little out of Lifetime’s sometimes schmaltzy league, consider this: The “women’s” network’s recent miniseries repertoire includes weighty material, as in 2005’s “Human Trafficking,” and has attracted award-winning talent like Mira Sorvino, Donald Sutherland and Peter Fonda. Regardless, MacLaine took the role on the long-ago advice of a trustworthy friend, none other than Audrey Hepburn. “When we worked together she said to me, ‘You should think about doing Coco Chanel when you’re older,'” recalls MacLaine. “That was in my 20s. I said, ‘You should do Coco Chanel.’ She said, ‘No. You.’ I’ve thought about it all that time and then this came up. I couldn’t believe it.”

Given its subject, aesthetics naturally feature prominently in the production. And although the house of Chanel contends it had nothing to do with the production, the set — the showroom’s mirrored walls, spiral staircase and facade on the mock Rue Cambon — as well as the costumes, MacLaine’s in particular, bear an uncanny resemblance to the real deal. “It’s been totally scrutinized,” says director Christian Duguay of the film’s style quotient. “You see it from [Chanel’s] perspective, from the high heels to the shortening of the skirts to having the arms being able to move properly and why she puts chains at the bottom of the jackets so they hang better.”

But despite going beyond due diligence to achieve the look of the film, it seems the production’s major players are less interested in the fashion angle than in Chanel’s personal story. “We brought [the fashion] in without trying to make a fashion film. I think they’re boring,” says Duguay, whose directorial experience includes the aforementioned “Human Trafficking,” as well as the miniseries “Joan of Arc,” which featured MacLaine in a small part, and the controversial “Hitler: The Rise of Evil.” For him, the appeal is in the Shakespearean qualities of Chanel’s life. “We have rags to riches and a tremendous love story — they always work on film,” explains Duguay. “And what I think is interesting is the emergence of a woman who’s defining herself in a society where women are always there for their man. They’re always dressed to please their man, and she has a very modern perspective in a period time.”

MacLaine, too, found Chanel compelling for reasons other than clothes and camellias. Although she attended a Chanel show in her 20s and wore the fashions throughout the Fifties and Sixties — “All knockoffs, I couldn’t afford the real thing” — after researching the role, she says, she was struck by the designer’s strength, contradictions and indomitability. “What’s wonderful about her is she’s not a straightforward, easy woman to understand,” says MacLaine, adding that she might be interested in doing a feature film on the mature Chanel, should the opportunity ever arise. “The contradictions were colossal.” And particularly evident in Chanel’s many bon mots, which, according to Duguay, MacLaine delivers with natural aplomb. “She wouldn’t talk, she would pronounce,” says MacLaine, before reciting some of Chanel’s more famous quotes, such as “Fashion belongs in the street, not in the home” and “Whatever makes women free makes them creative,” as well as one of her favorites, a rather graphic statement: “My c— belongs to the world, my heart belongs to France.” MacLaine continues that it’s “like delivering a lecture — that’s what she did. So, yes, I suppose I do fit right into that.”

Indeed, a post-interview photo shoot shows MacLaine has the Chanel act — complete with obstinate attitude — down pat. “Shoot at a downward angle,” she commands the photographer. “See, that’s better. Now get another girl with a hat, and they should be talking to each other,” she says, directing the extras in the background, before striking a brooding profile pose. “It was always like this with Chanel. She never smiled in her life.”

It’s quite a performance. And considering MacLaine’s well-publicized convictions about the supernatural and reincarnation, perhaps a past-life connection provided some inspiration? “Oh yeah,” she says with a laugh. “She’s talking to me all the time. She’s saying, ‘Don’t stoop over like I used to. Stand up straight.'”