Without the help of a remarkably stylish friend, What a Way to Go! would not have found its way into that little home theatre of mine. Luckily this friend punctured a hole in one of my barriers with the phrase that typically puts me on the defense: “You’re going to love it!” Saddled with a personality that forces me to meet that phrase with an incredibly high-raised eyebrow, this time I was able to trust someone and give it a shot . . . lesson learned! Obviously the back-and-forth quoting of Shirley MacLaine’s lines from Steel Magnolias (1989) proved beneficial to my personal growth. Months later I knew that this was the same friend I had to take to see Liza Minnelli in concert. Really, who else would cry with me during Maybe This Time?
What a Way to Go! follows Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), a young woman who wants nothing more than true love and a simple life with her man. Call it what you will, Louisa has the “misfortune” of marrying men who strike it rich right before they kick the bucket, leaving her with the burden of life alone as a prospering widow. We follow her through five husbands, each with a story that revolves around fortunes won, lost, and eventually bequeathed.
After she marries each man, Louisa describes those honeymoon days with a dreamy “if our life were a movie,” paving the way for — you’ll never believe it — my favorite scenes. After snubbing a young snooty Dean Martin, the first marriage to Dick Van Dyke starts off as if it were a silent film, with a piano soundtrack, title cards, and wonderfully exaggerated facial expressions. Set in Paris, marriage number two to Paul Newman (bewitching as always) feels to Louisa like a wickedly romantic French movie. Reportedly Paul Newman learned French for this role, and he is still the only man can take “handsome” to the next level by talking with his mouth full of food. That wicked French film of Louisa’s teeters dangerously on showing us all of the beautiful of Mr. Newman . . . quel dommage! Talented and gorgeous, yes, but confound it, what a tease.
Before she moves on to Gene Kelly (with whom life was like “a gay musical number from one of those big Hollywood movie musicals”), Louisa’s third husband, played by Robert Mitchum, is already wealthy when she meets him. In one gorgeous sequence, their life together could pass for a glamorous Hollywood movie that’s “all above love and what’ll she wear next?” In addition to a cast full of beautiful men and the lovable Shirley MacLaine, the stand-out star of What a Way to Go! is the brilliant goddess of costumes, Edith Head. The record-holding recipient of eight Academy Awards holds nothing back with this one; at times her hypnotic costumes steal the scenes from their mobile mannequins. Despite having to adjust to working with a new leading man every two weeks, Miss MacLaine was thrilled to have 72 costumes designed by Edith Head, 72 hairstyles to match the gowns, and a $3.5 million gem collection that was loaned by Harry Winston of New York. All saucy hats off to Ms. Head, “what’ll she wear next” is my favorite non-Newman scene in the entire film.
You know those people whose opinions start with a monotonous “well, that was different” and sadly proceed no further? Certainly the phrase applies here but absolutely not its lack of excitement. For 1964, What a Way to Go! is risky and risqué and wonderfully different! Packed with good clean dirty fun, gorgeous men, a costume designer of unrivaled talent, and the limitless Shirley MacLaine, odds are . . . well . . . you’re going to love it!