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Rat Pack in MacLaine’s past, ‘Abbey’ in her future

Shirley MacLaine plays widow being courted by funeral director half her age (Jack Black) “Bernie” opening Friday.

Shirley MacLaine plays a widow being courted by a funeral director half her age (Jack Black) in “Bernie,” opening Friday.

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Updated: June 14, 2012 8:12AM

In her new film “Bernie,” Shirley MacLaine plays a widow so mean that when she’s murdered, no one wants to lock up her killer.

The Oscar winner took the role for one simple reason.

“I love to play evil bitches,” she says with a delicious laugh. “I don’t know what it is about bitchery, but I just love it. I think evil is funny in some cases. This reminded me of my character in ‘Steel Magnolias,’ and I also loved her.”

Why does she love bitchery?

“I’m rehearsing for my old age,” MacLaine quips.

At 78, the Oscar winner still loves to act.

“I’m filling up my year and just having a wonderful time with creativity,” says Mac­Laine, who also appears on the next season of “Downton Abbey.” She’ll play Martha Levinson, mother of Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern).

It will pit her squarely against Maggie Smith in all her aristocratic snootiness. “It’s not the gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s kicked up a few more notches,” she says.

MacLaine’s an “Abbey” fan. “I’ve been asking myself why is this show so obsessively addictive,” she says. “Even I can’t figure it out.

“I don’t think it’s about the upper caste vs. the lower caste. I think there is something more sophisticated going on, and it’s hidden. Of course, a lot of it is good writing and a good environment for the show. The series is full of truth and authentic touches.”

“Bernie,” opening Friday, was written and directed by Richard Linklater. One perk for MacLaine was working with Jack Black, playing against type as her 39-year-old companion and eventual killer.

“Isn’t Jack fabulous?” she poses. “I think he gives an award-winning performance. I think he can do anything.”

MacLaine made her film debut in Hitchcock’s “The Trouble With Harry” in 1955 before starring in “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon. She was famous as the one female allowed to hang out with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

“Oh, the Rat Pack. I’ll never forget all the fun we had,” she says. “They used to drag me up on the stage, but there wasn’t any dragging. I loved it. We’d make jokes, and the crowd ate it up.

“They taught me so many things about comedy and live entertaining. I took my own show to Vegas and I loved playing there, except when I heard the tinkling of the ice in the glasses. That’s when you know you’re losing the audience.”

Why was she allowed into the inner circle?

“I’d clean up their crackers and their jelly beans,” she says. “They also told me how they trusted me because I never divulged any of their secrets. I was like one of the boys.

“Maybe the reason I got to hang out with the Rat Pack was I wasn’t sexually attractive to them. Honestly, I can’t tell you why they allowed me around them, but I can tell you that whatever the reason, those guys protected me.”

And they appreciated how MacLaine didn’t take any guff — from anyone.

“I told some mob bosses off in front of them. I told a major mob boss to f--- himself in front of the guys, and the entire Rat Pack fell down laughing.”

As for turning 78 last month, she just sighs and says she feels about 50.

“I can’t do the full Jane Fonda workout, which is crazy, anyways,” she says.

“I do love the fact that people are always opening doors for me and asking me if I need anything. That has nothing to do with age. I’m just an elitist and I like a lot of attention.”

Big Picture News Inc.

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