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From the outset there was not exactly a family resemblance. In fact, when the issue of offspring first arose, the mother hadn't even heard of her daughter. Debra Winger? "I didn't know the name," says Shirley MacLaine. "I didn't know who she was." Frequently out of the country, MacLaine had missed An Officer and a Gentleman and Urban Cowboy. And with 21 years and few mutual friends between them, MacLaine, 49, and Winger, 28, didn't spin in the same social orbit, either. So, at the first meeting between parent and child, "we were all nervous," recalls director-screenwriter James L. Brooks. According to MacLaine, the intro was a comic clash of styles. "To see how my character would feel, I was wearing all my leftover movie-star fur coats," she recalls. Into Brooks' Manhattan apartment she traipsed. "There was Debra dressed in combat boots and a miniskirt," says Shirley. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness.' "

Although it wasn't an instant case of my mother-myself, out of that not-so-close encounter came this season's hit heartbreaker, Terms of Endearment, which chronicles 30 years in the tempestuous relationship between Aurora Greenway, a feisty, frustrated Houston widow, and Emma Horton, her fiery, defiant darling. MacLaine and Winger are the screen's most potent mother-daughter team since Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley squared off in Stella Dallas back in 1937. For MacLaine, Aurora has proven a lucky lady. The actress has swept three major year-end critics' prizes for her performance thus far, while Winger took only one; in an Oscar race destined to pit mother against daughter, Shirley is the front-runner. And in her no-nonsense way, MacLaine explains in five words why the movie is a hit: "Because everybody has a mother."

For MacLaine, mothering Debra Winger was a crash course in parental guidance. "It was one of the most intense habitations of roles that any actress would be required to make," she says. The two stayed in character even when they were out of the frame. When the cameras weren't rolling, they transferred the relationship between screen mother and daughter to Shirley and Debra. "We knew what we were doing a lot of the time, sparring back and forth, playing games," says Winger, who beat out Sissy Spacek for the role. Adds MacLaine, "It was a very gritty way of working. People at Paramount thought we were crazy." Indeed, the set became the source of Hollywood's most relished rumors. Winger wanted top billing. One reportedly slugged the other.

For Jim Brooks, a veteran of the Mary Tyler Moore show who was directing his first feature film, the production frequently resembled a $10-million family feud. Like mother, like daughter? Like hell. Among other troubles, the actresses' techniques were at odds. Says Jack Nicholson, who is also an Oscar favorite for his performance as Aurora's neighbor, a potbellied former astronaut with the world's most mischievous leer, "Shirley is a question-asking machine. She will ask questions into infinity on anything of anyone. Winger gets completely absorbed."

Brooks saw a compatibility on camera that didn't exist off. "You know the scene where they're talking on the bed," he says. "On the first take, they got their feet tangled and they just fell into it. Afterwards, they didn't do 20 minutes on how wonderful each other was. It's easy to do dear-darling-hug-hug, but they weren't like that. They were real with each other."

When Brooks got caught in the cross fire, diplomacy was the domain of Nicholson, a pal of Winger and the best friend of Shirley's brother, Warren Beatty. "He was the glue of the production," says Winger. Nicholson observes, "If things become nutsy, you almost hate to say it, but it is a barometer of the vitality of the production."

It might have been a case of angst for art's sake, but MacLaine and Winger are still not close—or even chummy. "No one can get a fix on their relationship, not even the participants," says Brooks. For the co-stars, both the affection and antagonism was relative. "It was all in line with the work," insists MacLaine. And Winger, on this issue at least, agrees: "The proof is that I think the mother and daughter look like they love each other and that is the one thing you can't really act."

On a stormy Saturday afternoon in Malibu, Shirley MacLaine is on the phone in her living room. Reluctantly, she is calling the Bruin Theater to get a photographer into one of the day's sold-out showings of Terms. "I don't like doing this," she says, with her hand over the receiver. "I stood in line at Lenin's tomb for two days like everybody else." When her call is answered, she says, "Hi, this is Shirley MacLaine, and I have a problem." "Why?" asks the woman on the other line. "You're so good in the movie."

MacLaine has returned from Egypt to find herself the mother of the moment. "I can tell the movie's a hit from the reaction I get when I go to the market or the drugstore," she says, settling on the floor. The decor is a collaboration between showbiz and Eastern spiritualism; even the Advent TV is camouflaged behind a pair of Oriental screens. But in one respect, the place resembles the kind of middle-class homestead that MacLaine railed against as a teenager: On top of the TV set in the den sits a framed photo of Shirley with her daughter.

MacLaine has known both sides of Terms's generation gap. As the outspoken only daughter of Kathlyn MacLean Beaty, a Virginia housewife, Shirley rebelled early against the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. As the unconventional mother of Sachi Parker, 27, she has experienced the tension between a mother's will and a daughter's way. "If that conflict doesn't come up," she says, "you don't have a relationship."

Ironically, MacLaine is enjoying her biggest screen success in a role that she has refused to play offscreen: the ironfisted mom. For her, motherhood has been subject to constant improvisation. When Sachi was born in 1956, Shirley became a working mother before it was a working concept. "I never would have given up my work to stay home," she says. "That was never a consideration, and Sachi would have felt the frustration had I done it."

In part, MacLaine's concerns stemmed from frustration with her own mother, an amateur actress and drama teacher who deflected her ambitions after marrying Ira Beaty, a former bandleader and teacher. "With all this great talent that she had, she didn't do a lot with it," says Shirley. "I was always wishing that she'd get out more and live more. I probably didn't want Sachi to feel that about me."

At the age of 6, Sachi went to Japan to live with her father, Steve Parker, a Tokyo-based American producer, with whom MacLaine maintained an unorthodox 29-year marriage until their quiet divorce last year. Summers and vacations were spent with Shirley. If either mother or daughter suffered the loneliness of the long-distance love, neither admits it now. "She was always just a phone call away," declares Sachi, "and I never felt abandoned or deserted by her. That was just the way my parents had worked out our lives."

Says Shirley, "My philosophy was always to just let her grow up and to be there if she needed me." She made a conscious attempt not to impose her values on Sachi. "Maybe she didn't want to be a left-wing political feminist activist who thought about everything," cracks Shirley. In fact, Sachi shares her mother's sense of independence, but not her sensibility. "I want to marry eventually and have a home and children and do all those things wives do. That's important to me."

It was an unsuccessful audition of those activities that precipitated a mother-and-child reunion a few years ago. At 23 Sachi settled outside Sydney with an Australian sheep rancher named Ben. "It was terribly romantic the first year," she recalls. "But then things began to go bad. He'd come home drunk, make love for about one minute, then roll over and go to sleep." She sought the counsel of her mother, who was filming Being There in North Carolina. "Don't talk about the phone bills," says Shirley. "It was heavy duty. She knows how to get along in just about any society. But she hadn't really lived." Sachi left Sydney for the sanctuary of home and moved in with Shirley in Malibu. That change proved crucial. Says Sachi, "I finally had a chance to really get to know my mother for the first time."

It's Saturday night in Las Vegas, and Shirley MacLaine is working the room. On the stage of the Riviera Hotel, she is doing what she first did in show business: high-kicking for the crowd. For the mostly middle-aged audience, the freckle-faced lady in the red-sequined pantsuit is a familiar, friendly sight. "You couldn't get into see Terms of Endearment, so you came to see me in person," she says to the audience. "I asked Nicholson what he was doing lately. He said, 'I'm doing anything I can to seem thin.' Well, I'm doing anything I can to seem young."

Since she first attracted attention in The Pajama Game on Broadway in 1954, MacLaine has fashioned for herself several careers: dancer, dramatic actress, political activist, and lately, autobiographical author on a spiritual quest. In her recent bestseller, Out on a Limb, she submitted that Sachi was, in fact, her mother in a previous life. Now, as she approaches her 50th birthday in April, Shirley sees "a new vista opening up. I think I've just begun to do my best work." She thinks she knows why. "I've been through so much of my own self-search that I'm not as consumed with who I am as I used to be. The more I've learned about me, the more I'm interested in others.

"It would be fabulous to be recognized for this film," she says, "because of how far to the edge of caricature I went, but didn't step over it." After four Oscar nominations, she knows full well the vagaries of the system. "I was afraid I would get the Oscar for Irma La Douce because it was popular. But I didn't want to because I didn't really think it was that good. I wanted to be nominated for The Children's Hour, and wasn't. So I can look at it kind of objectively."

Between the eight o'clock dinner show and the midnight performance in Vegas, MacLaine isn't idling. In her dressing room, a TV crew is setting up to shoot an interview about ESP. A wave of well-wishers surge into the space. Among them is a bearded young man who announces to Shirley that he has been talking to her every day for two weeks. "You have?" she says, sounding surprised but meeting his gaze. "Yes," he replies, "in my meditation." Since Out on a Limb was published, she has been susceptible to such strange encounters. MacLaine has speculated that, in earlier times, she was a man on the lost continent of Atlantis and a monk in the Himalayas. Whether or not such things are true, one fact is certain: Being Shirley MacLaine is a mother of an existence. And right now the lady is having the time of her lives.