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Lifetime Television
Barbora Bobulova, Oliver Sitruk

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Almost half a century ago, Audrey Hepburn told Shirley MacLaine she ought to play Coco Chanel.

"Audrey and I talked about many things. I tried to teach her how to cuss. It didn't work. She tried to teach me how to dress. It didn't work," MacLaine told TV critics a few weeks ago.

It was during the filming of the 1961 movie "The Children's Hour" that Hepburn and MacLaine talked "about the contradictions, the ambition, the need for love, the search for beauty, et cetera, that fashion designers had. ... And she told me that I should play Coco Chanel."

It wasn't an idea MacLaine was instantly taken with. " I said, 'Well, Coco Chanel was little and scrunched over and very short.' And she said, 'No, but the spirit of the woman is what matches your spirit.'

"Now, I found Coco to be everything between generous and rude. So I don't know what Audrey really meant.

"But she was right."

MacLaine, 78, stars as the older version of perhaps the most famous and influential designer of the 20th century in "Coco Chanel." The three-hour TV movie premieres Saturday at 6 and 9 p.m. on Lifetime.

The movie opens in 1954, when Chanel (MacLaine) attempts a comeback after a 15-year absence from the fashion world. But things don't go well and her new collection is a flop.

From there, her life is retold via a series of flashbacks — which make up about 80 percent of the three-hour movie. We see the young Gabriel "Coco" Chanel being left at an orphanage by the father she'd never see again. We see her as a young woman (Barbora Bobulova) entering the fashion industry as a dressmaker. We see her fall in love with a nobleman (Sagamore Stevenin) who has no intention of marrying her. And we see her tragic love affair with his best friend, Boy Capel (Oliver Sitruk)

Through it all, Coco is defiantly nonconformist and driven. She tends to put business before her personal life, with some unhappy results.

"Remember, she was an orphan. She was poverty-stricken. She was always afraid that it would happen to her again, and her need to stay sustained as a woman in charge and a woman of presentational flash is what was behind these ... clothes," MacLaine said.

MacLaine and Bobulova are both excellent in "Coco Chanel," a very good TV movie that the broadcast networks used to do so well before they stopped doing them at all. It's a bit of an epic, handsomely mounted with a large cast, great costumes and locations and lots of drama and romance.

And the Oscar-winning actress admits that Chanel's "contradictions, her colorful rudeness, her sense of everything was about her talent" remind her of herself.

"Well, I think we're both colorful. I think we're both rude. I think we're both spontaneous. We both can't hold what we feel to be the honest opinion in. I think we both have talent. ... Maybe that was why I loved playing her. I can be quite contradictory. Well, maybe not," she joked.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com