Shirley MacLaine both saves and harms her movie as she often feels out of place but her no-nonsense approach to this part is also a welcome change of pace and helped to craft an entertaining, sometimes touching, sometimes amusing but never stupid character.
Natalie Wood gives a performance that never goes beyond the surface but still works surprisingly well because her charm, her ability to handle comedy and drama and her clear display of Angie’s journey are still so intriguing, entertaining, poignant, funny and provoking.
In this very emotional performance, Leslie Caron gives a quiet and subtle piece of work that may be limited by the way her character was written but is also much more memorable than any exaggerated overacting would have been.
Patricia Neal’s performance is a beautiful example of a dedicated realism on the screen but also of an actress taking an underwritten and thin part and filling it with life thanks to her own acting, her own personality and her ability to use her material to craft the idea of a whole world beyond the written word.
Rachel Roberts lingers like a ghost over every moment of her movie and she mixed moments of pure intensity with shocking and heartbreaking images and that way gave an incredibly effective turn that leaves a lasting and hunting impression.
Considering that Natalie Wood was only 25 years old when she received her nomination for the romantic comedy/drama Love with the Proper Stranger, many Academy voters probably thought that she would have enough time in the future to finally take the gold home. After all, this was not only her first but already her third nomination. At the age of 17, she was nodded as Best Supporting Actress for her performance opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and then in 1961 for her devastating role as a young women suffering a nervous breakdown from sexual confusion in Splendor in the Grass. So, her nomination in 1963 was surely not seen as a situation of ‘now or never’ nor was her loss to Patricia Neal regarded as an oversight in any way. After all, who would have thought that, at the age of 25, Natalie Wood was already past her prime and would never be nominated again? Of course, she continued to be one Hollywood’s most popular actresses and starred in various more hits – but the time of true critical acclaim was over. Well, this can be seen in two ways – as the typical under-appreciation of a young and popular actresses who was never fully able to be taken seriously or as a much more than fair share of recognition for an actress whose talent very often rather divided the critics than united it. Well, the truth can probably be found somewhere in the middle. Sure, Natalie Wood was not the greatest actress that ever graced the screen – she often struggled to find true credibility in her roles, failed to leave a certain awkwardness in her line delivery behind or simply suffered from being put into roles that neither fit her talent or personality nor made it able for her to stretch herself as an actress. But on the other hand, one cannot help but admire the fact that she was one of the few child stars who made the transition to adult parts, that she could captivate the audience for so long – and that she sometimes was willing and determined to either take a risk that paid off, overcame the obstacles that laid in her way or simply had the right instincts and charm for a role that made it very enjoyable despite not being truly outstanding. Her work in Splendor in the Grass was the risk that paid off – a difficult and challenging part that Natalie Wood brought to life with shocking and exhausting realism and surely stands as the highpoint of her career. Her Maria in West Side Story was her overcoming of large obstacles – probably not everybody agrees here but I see her performance in this as truly heartbreaking and unforgettable. She may be straightened by her accent and her wooden screen partner but she still fills West Side Story with her own kind of energy and life that may not come from any dancing or singing but the liveliness of a young, emotional woman caught between feelings and responsibility and overwhelmed by her own passion – and her final on-screen moments are simply devastating and considering that this performance came in the same year as her other career-best performance in Splendor in the Grass, it's rather surprising that she failed to take home the Oscar that year. And Love with the Proper Stranger? This is the last case – a performance that was maybe not on the same level of her previous excellence nor a true powerhouse in itself and the writing also did not do her any favors by constantly dropping every bit of dramatic possibility for the sake of some quick laughs but Natalie Wood’s charm, personality and way of filling her part with a style that is light enough for the style of her movie while also catching some more serious undertones occasionally nevertheless were able to captivate the viewer and, even though not in a completely satisfying manner, made her work both entertaining and provoking.
It’s famously noted that 1963 saw not only one but two actresses nominated for performances in which they played unmarried women who had to deal with sudden pregnancy (‘Girls with technical difficulties’, as Gregory Peck put it at the awards show). But Leslie Caron and The L-Shaped Room took a much different approach to this subject than Natalie Wood and Love with the Proper Stranger. The L-Shaped Room is not a dark movie in any way but still presents a more realistic picture of a young woman caught in an unknown situation, dealing with its consequences and trying to find a new way of life for herself. The L-Shaped Room is not overly dramatic but it also does not take it matter or its leading lady too lightly. And Leslie Caron also focused more strongly on the inner struggle of the character she played. Natalie Wood was in a different situation that mostly demanded of her to play Angie Rossini from the outside since it was never truly interested in her personal fight but in the question ‘How do we get these two together in the end?’ Of course, there are moments when Natalie Wood found a deeper layer in this woman and showed that she did not play her with the demanded combination of smiles and tears but also with a true understanding of her personal situation – of only Love with the Proper Stranger had been more interested in those moments, then Natalie Wood could certainly have risen to a higher level in her part. But considering that her movie never saw the need to give the controversial topic of abortion and Angie’s own inner struggles any true focus and instead always put every plotline in the overall context of a wanna-be romance, she still got a lot (maybe even the most) out of it.
The beginning of Natalie Wood’s performance is not only a very intriguing entrance but maybe even her best scene of the entire picture. When she wants to tell Rocky (played with goofy charm by Steve McQueen) that she is pregnant and then suddenly realizes that he does not even remember her, Natalie Wood avoided to fill this moment with early pathos and instead let Angie react with a combination of slight amusement and anger at herself for having expected his reaction and yet having hoped for something else. And she quickly lets this realization turn into anger when she tells him that she only came to him for the address of a doctor who will help her with her ‘problem’. It’s commendable that Natalie Wood refused to win any sympathy at this moment and showed that Angie is not in the process of making up her mind but actually made it up already – or at least, that’s what she thinks. As mentioned before, Love with the Proper Stranger never gives Natalie Wood the chance to display her character’s thoughts about the child growing inside of her but only wants her to reflect about her emotional feelings towards Rocky. In some ways, it’s a typical romance between two different characters who everyone knows will end up together at the end any way – the pregnancy is apparently only thrown in to spice things up a bit. But this shift of focus both harms the movie and Natalie Wood as Angie very often comes across as so…thoughtless and one-dimensional and even though this is not Natalie Wood’s fault, it still does prevent her from digging further in the part than she might have had otherwise. And even the changes and the growth of Angie are mostly done from an outside points-of-view – whenever Angie stands up for herself, realizes some unexpected truth about herself or simply comes to an important conclusion, it is mostly done with a big speech, a dramatic monologue and some wordy action that lacks too much subtlety and shows that Natalie Wood is mostly following the screenplay from A to B to C to D without trying to find her own tempo, her own pattern and her own ideas.
So, there seem to be a lot of obstacles in this role which would make it seem that this performance may actually rather fall into the ‘West-Side-Story-category’ – but unlike her Maria, Natalie Wood’s Angie is not a creation that overcame all these obstacles. Her very often temperamental and fiery interpretation sometimes don’t connect with her more quiet moments because they don’t come across as another side of the same character but rather as another side of Natalie Wood’s acting. Her attempts to appear clumsy and a little confused when she it having dinner at the house of her suitor feels a bit too forced and uninspired. And most of all, her chemistry with Steve McQueen, which is the major foundation of Love with the Proper Stranger, often feels strangely unsatisfying because neither actor seems to be quite sure of what to do with his and her character and where to take them. Their relationship feels too forced into the movie despite actually being its major part and Natalie Wood often seems to be acting more ‘independently’ from Steve McQueen instead of trying to build a union between them. And unlike Leslie Caron, Natalie Wood also does not make it completely believable that this young woman would actually get into the kind of trouble she finds herself in – Leslie Caron played Jane with a certain melancholy and acceptance that made it plausible that she would just go to bed with a man because they both wanted to do it. Natalie Wood makes Angie often too resentful and distant to make this aspect truly acceptable. So, all this shows that neither the movie nor Natalie Wood’s performance are flawless – but, as stated before, her performance is still able to fall into the third category of her work as it that shows that her instincts are often right and her charm mostly helpful enough for the occasion.
Her first on-screen moments, as just mentioned, are maybe the highlight of her performance but there is still much to enjoy. Most of all, Natalie Wood knows how to handle the comedy in her performance without overdoing it. When she is arguing with her stereotypical Italian family, slamming doors, shouting through the apartment, packing her bags to leave forever only to come back a few moments later, she does it in a way that is somehow completely unexpected in a movie likes this simply because she does not try to go for any dramatic intensity but mostly emphasizes all these scenes with a slightly exaggerated acting style that is genuinely…funny. Yes, she may miss to craft the character of Angie in these moments and, just like the movie itself, drops dramatic depth and development for the sake of short-term entertainment but within these limitations, it’s still a refreshing and sometimes actually touching approach because it works as a nice contrast to later, more dramatic scenes. Natalie Wood also may not truly work well together with Steve McQueen but what she does achieve is the captivating portrayal of a woman who is looking for help only to realize that the man who is supposed to help her actually needs her much more – not in any romantic way but only regarding the pregnancy, a topic that Angie handles with much more maturity and practicality than him. Of course, Angie’s determination to have an abortion does not last long and soon changes when she is faced with the dark reality of an empty, hidden room and a woman who is willing to risk the life of young girls for the sake of some money. Natalie Wood’s silent horror as she slowly undresses and later her breakdown are again moments that may seem slightly over-the-top but still work very well and leave a haunting impression. Unfortunately, Natalie Wood again forgot to go for a deeper approach here for the sake of the obvious drama – would Angie also have rejected the abortion in the end if she could have gone to a normal hospital? What does she truly feel about the baby? How does she see her life in the future? While Leslie Caron showed a woman who was constantly dealing with these thoughts and questions, Natalie Wood underestimated their impact and overestimated the possibilities of superficial drama. But despite all this, her characterization does feel strangely complete – the relation with Rocky, with her family, with herself, it all somehow comes together in the end and while she did not really tell the audience much about Angie than apart from what the screenplay told us anyway, she still gives the illusion of having done much more.
So, Natalie Wood gives a performance that never goes beyond the surface but still works surprisingly well because her charm, her ability to handle comedy and drama, and her clear display of Angie’s journey are still so intriguing, entertaining, poignant, funny and provoking. Neither Natalie Wood nor Love with the Proper Stranger aimed for grand drama but settled for a lower level on which Natalie Wood was able to impress nonetheless. Like Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce, she could have done more if a) the screenplay had allowed her to and b) she had actually been willing to do it, but her quiet moments of self-realization during a moment alone with Rocky, her desperate attempts to find her own life while being aware that she is falling in love with Rocky after all or simply her strong screen presence are enough to applaud her even so. In the end, for all her efforts she receives
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 IrmaLa 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