Soon after filming began on Two for the Seesaw, it became clear that MacLaine and Mitchum were most compatible, were getting along splendidly. In public, on the set, they were a pair of cutups, entertaining each other and the crew to the point of exasperation for director Wise. “They got to ribbing and telling jokes and making us all laugh, so that the biggest problem we had was getting the two of them to settle down and get into the scene and rehearse.” In truth, there was something beyond compatibility going on. MacLaine’s girlhood crush had been reignited and was now combined with some deeper, more mature response to the enigmatic man she deemed in so many ways her exact opposite: a drifter through life, a dedicated underachiever. As they played their roles of Gittel and Jerry falling for each other, it was becoming a case of reality mimicking the movies.
Mitchum began driving her home from the studio. He would talk, tell stories, recite poetry. MacLaine listened, spellbound, reveling in the sensitivity she found lurking beneath the ‘Neanderthal” surface. Mitchum pulled out all the stops. He quoted Shakespeare, peeled pomegranates for her with one hand, told her he was a caged lion….”a poet with an ax.”
“I found him to be a complex mystery,” she would write, “multifaceted, ironically witty, shy to the point of detachment….I felt I’d be missing the adventure of a lifetime if I just did my job and walked away from what I intuitively knew was a deep and stormy fragility.” Mitchum delighted in her lithe twenty-eight-year-old dancer’s body and face he told her was “treacherously beautiful…like some enchanted goblin’s” She was bright, funny, spirited. Her days as the Sinatra Rat Pack’s mascot had made her a sturdy drinking buddy and as unshockable as a Brooklyn stevedore, but she could be earnest and sensitive and had a burgeoning, ambitious intellectual curiosity.
Mitchum, to MacLaine, was a mysterious and fascinating creature, with his hidden depths and contradictions, variously cynical, poetic, coarse, romantic. She loved his stories and his rich, recondite, and often surreal verbiage, though many a time she didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He was hard to understand in many ways. Once, in a farmhouse they rented outside Paris, he watched her taking a bath and tears began welling in his eyes; he told her he was crying because she looked so beautiful. The same man, she knew, was quite capable of outbursts of rage and violence. On one occasion he went after a driver who had cut him off on the road, ramming into him again and again for miles, grinning, eyes afire. MacLaine looked at him beside her and could only chillingly see the killer he had brought to life in The Night of the Hunter. The two of them were together when President Kennedy was shot, and they sat side by side in front of the television, day and night, watching the news unfold. It didn’t matter what you did in life, Mitchum whispered after hours of silence, staring at Kennedy’s coffin, there were always bastards out there waiting to grind you down. They dated for three years.
—Excerpts from Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care