What If . . .: A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know for Sure

Image of What If . . .: A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know for Sure
Release Date: 
November 12, 2013
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

“What If the author had written an actual coherent book instead of this accumulation of scraps, bric-a-brac, and castoff bits from her 1980s New Age screeds?”

In retrospect, all the warning signs were there: the extra-large print with which the book is printed to pad out the pages, the gimmicky title (What If . . .) and the extra-gimmicky subtitle (A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know for Sure), and, perhaps most telling, the celebrity author.

In this case the author is actress Shirley MacLaine, who has produced a bestseller or two in the past, but who seems here to be cleaning out a drawer—full of fortune cookie aphorisms, quotable quotes, and things jotted down on scraps of paper in the middle of the night in order to go back to sleep—typing it all up and calling it a book.

Not that there weren’t some promises made, however vaguely. That subtitle, for instance. It begins, “a lifetime of questions.” The reader, clutching to high literary hopes, assumes that she emphasizes the word “lifetime,” and that What If . . . (that ellipsis instead of a question mark, like a ’50s horror movie) is a memoir, perhaps a memoir—given Ms. MacLaine’s penchant for the mystical—of parallel or past and future lives. But no, the emphasis, question mark or no, is firmly on those “questions” that Ms. MacLaine feels the need to dish out . . .

What If . . . begins with its author in a bit of a funk.

“It’s Good Friday 2013,” she writes, “and I’m wondering what’s so ‘good’ about it.”

From there, she continues for a time with all the charm of an angry elderly neighbor yelling at some kids to “stay off my lawn” before inching her way to an explanation of the title of her book:

“Working in Hollywood, I live in a ‘what if’ world, where there are multiple blue-sky meetings before any project: ‘What if the leading man is ugly instead of handsome?’ What if he doesn’t die in the end?’ ‘What if we think he’s dead, but he’s not?’ Over the years, I’ve noticed that all these what-ifs in my ‘reel’ life have led me to adopt a similarly speculative stance in my ‘real’ life. There’s a lot to be gained from asking yourself, ‘What if . . .’

“For example, what if, on this Good Friday a couple of thousand years ago, Jesus didn’t die on the Cross, but instead got married, had children, and traveled incognito for the rest of his life? What if Mary Magdalene was the missing mistress in the Last Supper painting? What kind of impact would that have on the modern-day Church, its teachings, its sense of itself?”

Quite a leap, the reader thinks, from what-iffing casting Paul Giamatti instead of George Clooney, but the author was, admittedly, in a bit of a funk. . . .

The structure of What If . . . is simple enough.

First, the author presents an option. “What if we were as aware of our spiritual nutrition as our physical nutrition?” “What if sex is only a chemistry experiment?” Or: “What if hope is a most dangerous emotion?”

Then, the author answers the question for us. Easy, right?

Except for when the answers are like this one:

“What if hope is a diversionary tactic we indulge in so as not to have to look at whatever has created the grounds for our despair in the first place? Hope can be tricky, even dangerous.

“I don’t acknowledge despair, therefore I stay away from hope. It’s too defeatist. Hope allows us to relinquish our personal responsibility because it causes us to divert our attention from what we, on some level, are responsible for. Hope enables us to naively pursue a passive point of view with the belief that someone or something else will make things right.”

As here, in much of the book, Ms MacLaine is allowed to rant and rave over any number of topics as important as her exposing the dangers of hope. She ponders whether or not planet Earth is going through a “Big Flush,” and questions evolution (don’t get your hopes up Intelligent Designers—she writes: “What if, millions of years ago…we were visited by beings from other star systems and we were genetically engineered to become what we are now?”) and offers “140 definitions of love,” including:

“19. A neurological bath of pleasure chemicals;”

“27. A profoundly tender, passionate affection for another;”


“72. Not having to wear a condom.”

Along the way, Ms. MacLaine does manage to share some autobiographical information as well. She reminds us that she has appeared on Downton Abbey in the past and will again in the future and that she and Dame Maggie Smith are such close friends that they often sit together and drink tea and exchange viperous comments between takes.

She tells of her great love for Terry her rat terrier and struggles to make karmic truth out of her struggle to bring her beloved dog on a commuter airline with her by insisting that, because the dog makes her happy during the uncertain moments of air travel, its presence is medicinal.

And, in the book’s best bit, which begins with the question, “What If getting a major Lifetime Achievement Award turned out to be like going to your own funeral?” there’s this, about the moment before she is ushered to her seat for the live broadcast of the American Film Institute’s award ceremony:
“I was ushered to a last-minute check in a makeup tent peopled with sophisticated hair and makeup experts. I was to if I needed to go to the bathroom, I should do so NOW. Yes, good idea. The bathroom was a Porta Potti. No one could get the door open. Someone kicked it in for me. I entered; the light wasn’t working. I pulled down my flowing chiffon slacks and remembered the time my heavy sequined skirt fell into the toilet the night the Thalians gave me an award. Bette Davis drank champagne out of my shoe that night. She didn’t care much about me, really, but she sure did care about her ability to give a showstopping live performance. It was wonderful to witness, even though none of it was genuine. What did I expect, anyway? Of course, the whole evening was exquisite pretense wrapped up in pretty make-believe. I was a willing participant, as was everyone else.

“My chiffon slacks weren’t heavy enough to fall into this toilet. But I couldn’t find the zipper head to pull them up and close them. I stood in the dark in the Porta Potti, groping for my zipper while people rapped on the door asking if I was all right, and the audience out front was revving up to take part in yet another evening of Hollywood-style self-appreciation.”

See? Pretty great stuff.

Exchanging the “What Ifs” for “If Onlys” just for a second: If Only Shirley MacLaine would take the time, her beloved terrier Terry seated in her lap, to commit to her keyboard all her memories of Hollywood, old and new, gold and tinsel, fantastic and foolish, and would share them with us, oh, what a book we’ve have.

We question—questions having been established as the best means by which the “reel” can become the “real”—What If the author had written an actual coherent book instead of this accumulation of scraps, bric-a-brac, and castoff bits from her 1980s New Age screeds?

Given the choice between wrestling with the question “What If Lucifer had the starring role in the first act of Freewill Democracy? complete with a discussion of both the Illuminati and the Free Masons, or hearing a more complete, detailed accounting of what Ms. MacLaine did after dropping her sequined skirt into that toilet the night that Bette Davis drank from her shoe, I most certainly know what I would choose.

Would that Shirley MacLaine had chosen the same.