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 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