Updated: Sep 3, 2019
As Turner Classic Movies is honoring Shirley MacLaine today during its annual “Summer Under the Stars” month of tributes, it seems like an opportune moment to highlight one of the most fabulous and fantastical examples of costume design in cinema history: 1964’s What a Way to Go! directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring MacLaine opposite a host of A-list actors, including Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly and Dean Martin. But it’s the colorful and often outlandish costumes by Edith Head that deserve equal billing, and are largely responsible for turning What a Way to Go! into a camp classic.
Starting with MacLaine’s debut in the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film, The Trouble With Harry, Head had dressed the actress for almost a decade by the time What a Way to Go! went into production. “Shirley and I got to be very good friends,” the designer says in Edith Head’s Hollywood, the 1983 "posthumous autobiography" co-written by Paddy Calistro (Head died in 1981). “I loved dressing her, and I sincerely believe she had respect for my work. We rarely had any disagreements about costumes — in fact, I can’t think of a single instance. She knew that she had gorgeous legs and liked to show them off. Any designer would be a fool not to take those legs into consideration with every Shirley MacLaine costume.”
While Head felt that she previously hadn’t been allowed total freedom to create costumes that best-suited MacLaine’s onscreen persona, that all changed with What a Way to Go! By 1964 MacLaine was a major star, able to secure both the co-stars and crew she desired, and as such had requested that Head design the costumes for the 20th Century Fox musical comedy, the story of a woman who seems to bring both good and bad luck to the men she marries — all five of them. With each husband, the fortunes of MacLaine’s Louisa May Foster increase, though all she really seeks is true love; and as each husband achieves greater success, she dresses in a style that not only suits their combined status, but also reflects his achievements — if not her own style.
The two most pointed examples of this idea start with Louisa's marriage to a Parisian beatnik artist played by Paul Newman, whose modernist style of painting soon becomes the latest rave thanks to a suggestion by Louisa; following his success, her wardrobe evolves into a showcase of his work. He soon meets his demise, however, courtesy of a rebellion by some out-of-control robotic paintbrushes. A subsequent marriage to a song-and-dance man played by Gene Kelly likewise translates to a wardrobe for Louisa themed not to her style but to his personality: Kelly’s character is named Pinky Benson, and as Pinky’s star rises, his surroundings — from his home and car to Louisa's head-to-toe ensemble — become cotton-candy pink.
Her marriage to a business tycoon played by Robert Mitchum, meanwhile, includes a montage of the couple arriving at various parties, with MacLaine’s ensembles becoming increasingly outlandish. One dress is meant to suggest that it’s studded with genuine diamonds, though Head points out that it’s only the jewelry gracing MacLaine’s wrists, neck and hair that are the real thing.
By all indications, Head had a blast creating MacLaine’s costumes for What a Way to Go! Her budget, one of the largest she’d ever been given, exceeded $500,000, while Harry Winston provided roughly $3.5 million in jewels. “In case anyone has forgotten, that was a damn fortune in the early 1960s,” she says in Edith Head’s Hollywood. She created more than 72 costumes for MacLaine, while hairstylist Sidney Guilaroff crafted matching wigs for each look. Moss Mabry handled the costumes for the rest of the cast, “since I was busy enough trying to dress Shirley,” Head adds.
The camp-classic status of What a Way to Go! didn’t develop until years after its release, unfortunately. As MacLaine writes in the “Film Memories” section of her official website, “Everyone on the film felt that it would be a blockbuster! Unfortunately, we were all wrong.” The film, and particularly its look, did have its fans: In The Hollywood Reporter’s 1964 review, critic James Powers calls the film "a dazzler [that] should be one of the year's most popular attractions," and also pointedly calls out Head's costumes. “Miss Head has designed a number of staggeringly sumptuous outfits and some that are done for fun, yards of fur, acres of chiffon,” he writes. “They tread that delicate line between burlesque and reality; the women in the audience know they aren't anything anybody could wear, but oh! how lovely if one could!”
Variety, however, called the film “gaudily, expensively mounted.” In Edith Head’s Hollywood, she notes that she tried calling a reviewer to discuss his comments about her costumes being “tasteless and gaudy, but when I phoned him to talk about it, he never returned my calls. He wasn’t absolutely wrong, because at times Shirley’s character was supposed to be tasteless and gaudy. Shirley was very pleased with the costumes, and so was I.” Apparently, so was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; with Mabry, Head was nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design for a color film, though the pair lost to Cecil Beaton’s work for My Fair Lady.
Unfortunately, What a Way to Go! wasn’t included on today’s “Summer Under the Stars” schedule of Shirley MacLaine films, which range from The Trouble With Harry to Some Came Running with Frank Sinatra, Gambit with Michael Caine and The Yellow Rolls-Royce; the latter, directed by Sir Anthony Asquith, likewise features some fun costumes, by Anthony Mendleson (he was nominated for a BAFTA for his work). What a Way to Go! may not have been included on the Turner Classic Movies schedule because it’s in the 20th Century Fox stable and is regularly featured on the Fox Movie Channel’s FXM Retro daytime schedule.
No matter where or how you’re able to catch it, What a Way to Go! should be on the list of must-see films of anyone who appreciates fashion in film, great costume design or simply classic examples of 20th-century camp. The sheer depth and variety of looks created by Head is beyond impressive, it’s an incredible showcase of what someone of her stature is capable of conjuring with a seemingly unlimited budget — and true to her word, Head also takes more than one moment in What a Way to Go! to showcase Shirley MacLaine’s fabulous legs.