Among the drama, the suffering, the dying and the tears that formed the Best Actress line-up of 1937, one performance stood out as the proof that, sometimes, the Academy does like to laugh. Irene Dunne’s witty and charming performance as socialite Lucy Warriner in the classic screwball-comedy The Awful Truth further established her as one of the great screen comedians even though she was just as well cast in musicals or dramas. Overall, her five Oscar-nominated performances impressively show her talents and her repertoire which included epics like Cimarron, comedies like Theodora goes Wild or drama like I remember Mama and while one can debate if the ever actually deserved to win a competitive award, it’s certainly a shame that the Academy never rewarded her with an Honorary Oscar.
The Awful Truth is a movie that seems to be universally loved today by everyone who has seen it even though it sometimes feels overshadowed by other comedies of the time, like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. It’s no coincidence that all of these three movies starred Cary Grant in the leading role as he was undoubtedly the most gifted comedy actor that ever graced the screen while various actresses of the time established themselves as gifted comedians – like Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne. To be honest, I have never been a true fan of The Awful Truth – while I admire its wit, its players and its playfulness, I never consider it truly funny or captivating. Leo McCarey’s win for Best Director is also rather a mystery to me but I won’t deny that there is still much to enjoy in the whole production.
Most of all it’s the leading stars who delightfully carry the story and provide the charm, the sparkling personalities and the ability to appear easygoing while never forgetting about the emotional core of their characters. Cary Grant had the ability to develop wonderful chemistry with every leading lady he had – and Irene Dunne is no exception. Both sparkle as a married couple that is waiting for the divorce to become final while the awful truth is much too obvious – that they still love each other and will never find new partners that could complete them in the way they had. Both are from the upper end of society where life is a big party that consists of cocktails and dancing – and the usual risky confusions and sexual misunderstandings. So, when one day Jerry comes home unexpectedly and finds out that his wife is not at home only to see her walking in the door a few moments later with her singing coach with whom she spend the night because the car broke down, it all leads to divorce very soon – also because Jerry didn’t quite spend his holiday the way he had told his wife. Both seem to feel a stubborn anger – but maybe divorce is only another way for them to amuse themselves and very soon they begin dating new partners to provoke some jealousy.
Right after their divorce, The Awful Truth begins with the typical fight of the sexes. Since Lucy is a woman and this is the 30s, she doesn’t flirt or finds herself a little adventure but instead immediately gets engaged to a simpleton from Oklahoma. It’s clear that this isn’t a match made in heaven since the rather clumsy Dan, who travels to New York with his mother, is no man for a woman like Lucy – and Lucy surely knows this, too, but at the beginning it’s her spite and her anger that makes her get engaged to him. Dan is a rebound for her to get back at Jerry and make him jealous but this plan doesn’t work out since he is having too much fun to see her with this man who so obviously isn't even close to being in the same league as her. While Irene Dunne uses the opportunities the script offers her very wisely, her performance in these scenes often feels a bit pushed into the background. Not because of limited screen time but rather because she often is overshadowed by Cary Grant and the hilarious Ralph Bellamy. When Lucy and Dan meet Jerry and his new girl-friend, a naïve chanteuse, she makes some sarcastic remarks in his direction that Irene Dunne delivers with great comic effect but Cary Grant gets the last laugh when he paints Lucy a picture of her future life in Oklahoma City – and since Irene Dunne has established her character as a fun-loving and sophisticated New-York-girl, her painful reaction shots are comedic gold, just as her embarrassed face when Dan forces her on the dance floor and moves rather…unconventional. Irene Dunne wonderfully and hilariously shows the anger and embarrassment in Lucy as she realizes that she has lost this round. The most fun in her performance comes at moments like these when she is caught in awkward situations – the scene when Dan is reading his ‘poetry’ to her is another example and it’s very amusing to see her sophisticated character deal with him. Irene Dunne certainly makes good use of these scenes but, as mentioned before, is often in danger of being overshadowed by her co-stars. But luckily she is always able to prevent this from becoming damaging to her performance since she is able to fill even the most banal moments with a refreshing idea, with an alive outburst of emotions or a dry joke – all with entertaining results.
Cary Grant and Irene Dunne both show how alike Jerry and Lucy are and how wonderful they fit together. It seems that there is nobody else to hold up to their speed. So it’s no surprise when Lucy finally admits to her aunt and to herself that she is still in love with him. Here, Irene Dunne is also allowed to play some more serious moments and she effectively puts them into the context of her own character and the nature of the story. When she learns about Jerry’s engagement to another woman, Lucy tries to hide her true feelings and Irene Dunne is able to say a lot with no words. Her expressive eyes and face, which suddenly loses its glow in these moments, tell the story.
In her most famous scene, Irene Dunne pretends to be Jerry’s sister in front of his fiancée and her family to embarrass him and end their engagement. Her loud and inapt behavior, her dance routine and pretended drunkenness are certainly very funny but also feel a little bit too over-the-top sometimes and Irene Dunne unfortunately also goes a little too far in the later scenes in the car and with the police officers and ends up being rather annoying in these moments. But at the end, she triumphs again with the sudden display of cool eroticism when Lucy and Jerry sleep next door to each other and wait until their divorce becomes final at midnight. Suddenly, Irene Dunne makes everybody notice what should have been noticed the whole time – her sexiness and sensual side. The way she looks at Jerry at the end, lying in bed, makes clear that there is something else that Jerry and Lucy seemed to have done pretty well together…in a moment that feels suddenly very private but also very fascinating she thrillingly shows that ladies like her are still no saints.
Irene Dunne's Lucy has the style and the grace of Jerry’s fiancé, but not her snobby character, and she has the humor of his first girlfriend, but not her naivety or vulgarity. Her Lucy is a wonderful mix of various styles who doesn’t take herself too seriously but also knows what’s best for her (and Jerry). That way Irene Dunne memorably played a woman from the high society while destroying so many of these images at the same time – and having fun at it. It's a performance that is constantly very amusing and could be best described with 'elegant comedy'. For this, she gets