My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1963: Shirley MacLaine in "Irma La Douce"

I doubt that Shirley MacLaine expected her Oscar journey to take such a long time. Her nomination for Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce was her third nod in 6 years – and after her loss to Patricia Neal she probably thought ‘Well, there will be a next time soon’. But then she had to wait until 1977 for nomination number four and then another 6 years until she would finally win her first and only Oscar for her turn in Terms of Endearment. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that she had ever had a legitimate shot at the Oscar (obviously apart from 1983 when she was one of the surest winners ever in Oscar history, considering all the critical praise that helped her to sweep all the pre-Oscar awards and an overdue status that was equal to a woman being in the 20th month of her pregnancy). In 1958, she was a newcomer to the awards game and in a race that included contenders like Oscar-less Deborah Kerr (with her 5th nomination), Oscar-less Rosalind Russell (with her 4th nod), Oscar-less superstar Elizabeth Taylor (with nomination number 2) and the eventual winner, so-far Oscar-less and Oscar-hungry Susan Hayward (finally lucky with her 5th bid), it’s unlikely that she was ever a serious contender. Two years later, she starred in the Best-Picture winner The Apartment and the popularity of her movie would, under normal circumstances, surely have helped her gain a lot of votes but, of course, Elizabeth Taylor threatened to die that year and Oscar-voters couldn’t throw the Best Actress award in her direction fast enough (but even without the sentiment for Miss Taylor, there was also Deborah Kerr in the race and, let’s face it, surely would have gotten more votes than Shirley MacLaine since she was competing for the sixth time by now). In 1963, there was surely little enthusiasm for her performance that never turned her into a serious threat for the win, especially since Patricia Neal had critical acclaim and sentiment on her side. And in 1977, it’s highly doubtful that her performance in the ballet soap opera The Turning Point had any chance for the gold against Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Marsha Mason and Anne Bancroft, even if by this point Shirley MacLaine had acquired her own overdue-status. So, when all is said and done, it’s not very surprising that it took Shirley MacLaine so long to win the coveted award since there were always much more reasons to vote for another actress than for her, may it be the performance itself or strong sentimental motives. So, her loss in 1963 was certainly not a surprise – but was it also deserved?

Irma La Douce is mostly noteworthy for two facts: one that is the strange fact that is was based on a musical but turned into a non-musical movie – how many times did something like this happen? Second, it also re-united the team that had made The Apartment such a hit with audiences, critics and the Oscars three years earlier: Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine who apparently signed on for the role without having read the script since her work with Wilder and Lemmon had, after all, led to an Oscar nomination before. And with Irma La Douce, it was actually only Shirley MacLaine who received an Oscar nomination – both Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder had to sit this one out. All this might easily lead to the impression that Shirley MacLaine was some sort of inspiring muse for her director and co-star who was allowed to steal the show and turned into the shining spotlight of their collaborations. Interestingly enough, the exact opposite is true – Wilder and Lemmon, who had already worked together without MacLaine in Some like it Hot (this time with Marilyn Monroe who was also one of the first choices for Irma La Douce before her sudden death), show such a close connection in their movies, a mutual admiration-society in which Wilder constantly lets Lemmon ‘do his thing’, impress the audience with comedy and drama and basically turns the whole movie into a love declaration. In The Apartment, Jack Lemmon was the clear center of attention, both by the decision of the screenplay and Wilder’s direction – Shirley MacLaine had to fight hard to gain any chance at all to compete with her co-star but her also well-written character and the fact that her charm and screen presence during this period of her career was so unique and so irresistible in a completely off-beat manner helped her a lot and turned her performance into one of the highlights of her career. Her Fran Kubelik was able to breathe wisdom and naivety at the same time, she was an understandable object of affection without wanting to be one and she could evoke sadness and humor just as easily as Lemmon could in his role. This was also due to the nature of the movie – the bitter comedy, the almost depressing nature of this love story worked in great harmony with her own acting style that was so often dominated by her ability to appear so completely non-caring, as if her character was above all the plot-lines, allowing herself to be completely involved against her own will but not able to change it because of her own weaknesses. In Irma La Douce, her approach to her role was similar – she neither tried to emphasize the comedy in her role nor did she overplay any dramatic moments. Instead, her Irma seems to have seen it all, not trying to win her ‘customers’ with any sweet tricks but simply letting everything happen, following her profession with basically the same attitude most people seem to do – seeing it as a way to earn a living, not complaining about it but not being too enthusiastic either. With this take on her character, she was able to succeed in setting her apart from the Wilder-Lemmon-love-affair that seems almost to forget Irma but she also suffered from the fact that Irma La Douce is not The Apartment – the humor comes more obvious, the drama is shallow and the farce often too cheap. Because of this, her acting style did not completely fit her role and her movie this time – she is charming but not charming enough to explain Irma’s popularity with Nestor or her customers, she is funny but not funny enough to fit to the style of the movie and her dramatic moments do not evoke enough pity to get the audience completely on her side. Basically, everything and everyone in Irma La Douce is working against her – Billy Wilder so obviously wants to let Jack Lemmon steal the show, giving him the opportunity to be ‘funny-pathetic’, ‘funny-exaggerating’ and ‘funny-with-mustache’ that Shirley MacLaine’s Irma, despite being the person who initiates all plot-lines, seems almost redundant. And since Billy Wilder also fits the style and tone of Irma La Douce totally to Jack Lemmon’s acting style, Shirley MacLaine often risks seeming miscast, simply because her acting appears too misplayed among all the craziness around her. So, a lot could have gone wrong in this role and, truth to told, some things did go wrong – but somehow, Shirley MacLaine was also able to rise to the occasion and make her acting not appear misplaced but rather a welcome change of pace, a pleasing occasion of human honesty that overall helps Irma La Douce to become much more emotionally involving than it would have been with an actress who had gone the same comedy route as Jack Lemmon did.

Irma is certainly not a character that allows a very deep characterization – she exists to allow Nestor to try to ‘save her’ and could easily have appeared as either incredibly stupid or incredibly shallow but it’s mostly Shirley MacLaine’s no-nonsense approach to the part that prevented her from doing so. So overall, Shirley MacLaine’s performance both harms and benefits Irma – on the one hand, she seems too out-of-place, on the other hand this ‘out-of-placeness’ also helped her to become the best aspect of the movie, just because she never exaggerated her work but almost stayed calmly on the ground. The aforementioned characterization of Irma as a woman who has seen it all helps her to build a nice contrast to Jack Lemmon’s Nestor who has seen nothing yet and it also makes her display of a woman who feels protective of a man both lovely and seriously – but it sometimes also works against her, especially during her first scenes in which she tells various sad stories to her customers to make them give her a little more money than they usually would have. But Shirley MacLaine tells these stories with so little emotional involvement that the punch lines never work as well as they could have. It seems, that MacLaine’s acting style mostly works opposite Jack Lemmon when he plays the naïve and helpless Nestor because her own kind of wisdom and strength builds the foundation of their relationship – on her own or opposite Jack Lemmon’s Lord X, she comes off rather lacking. It would have been more fulfilling to see Shirley MacLaine handling the work of Irma with a little more variation – instead, she is just an extension of the normal Irma. Shirley MacLaine obviously wanted to show Irma as a simple woman who only knows her own world but she could certainly have gotten more out her material, as thin as it may be. She did not need to overdo her comedy but it sometimes seems that her flat line deliveries are less subtle and actually more lazy. Opposite Lord X, Shirley MacLaine did avoid to let Irma appear as either dumb or completely naïve and she makes the interactions between these two characters completely believable – a task that was completely put upon her shoulders since Jack Lemmon is only there for the laughs instead of any credibility, so she deserves a huge amount of applause just for that. But she again could have used a little more irony in her acting, a little more spark that could have turned these scenes into much more satisfying moments.

It’s certainly a strange case of a performance saving a movie in a lot of moments but also letting it down in various others. Shirley MacLaine is certainly very entertaining and often goes through her scenes with just the right tempo, never trying to highlight any of her moments – but these scenes are always opposite Jack Lemmon as Nestor. Unfortunately, she could not transfer her on-screen chemistry to her work opposite Jack Lemmon as Lord X. Still, it is surely nice to see how she avoided sweetening Irma up in any way or letting her appear wiser than she truly is – instead, Shirley MacLaine found most of her most noteworthy contributions to this role in its commonness. And while she does not manage to sell the dramatic moment when she breaks up with Nestor (her delivery is much too forced and attention-seeking), she still is able to find some quiet moments in which she shows that, underneath it all, Irma is a woman who, a little bit like Fran Kubelik, has to learn that a man can truly love her and just her, without any conditions or compromises. Maybe Shirley MacLaine should have read the script before accepting the part to find out if this was really the kind of role that fit her but even despite some flaws that can be found in this performance, Shirley MacLaine still crafted an entertaining, sometimes touching, sometimes amusing but never stupid character. It could have been more but there is no reason to dislike it for what it is. For all of this, she receives



dinasztie said...

I agree with your thoughts. Great review! :)

Anonymous said...

Ugh, I hate her. Hams it up for the majority of the film then turns onto sentiment.

Fritz said...

@dinasztie: Thanks a lot! :-) I know I am very slow at the moment...I would like to promise to be faster in the future but I cannot...

@Sage: I know you strongly dislike her. Number 391 of 399 in your ranking is not good...