Birthday Girls: Shirley MacLaine
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1963 Best Actress Oscar to Patricia Neal for Hud)
Why I Waited: Neither Billy Wilder nor Jack Lemmon is high on my list of favorites; it's quite possibly true that I've seen too many of the wrong movies by both of them, but I don't care for The Apartment, the previous and more famous outing for this trio. Irma La Douce is appreciably longer and less well-liked than that one is. Plus, in my experience, Hollywood producers not named Arthur Freed should have stayed out of their studio-set versions of "Paris" more often than they did. Plus, we know right off that we're dealing with a "cute" hooker, handled by a director whose apparent feelings about women I am elated I do not share. So, I admit I had the collywobbles.
The Performance: You say tomato, I say tomahto, you say self-fulfilling prophecy, I say no, Irma La Douce really is incredibly lame, despite the game contributions of cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg and the production designers. MacLaine doesn't help out nearly as much as you're hoping, partly because she can't, and partly because she won't. First, the "can't" part: while it's no surprise that Wilder and Lemmon are utterly besotted with each other, I still thought a film called Irma La Douce had a fighting shot at being about Irma. But once Lemmon's naïve, incompetent police officer shows up, and then falls for Irma, and then concocts one of those don't-ask schemes for why he just has to spend half of the film as a tony British aristocrat duping Irma into serving him exclusively, you just know who's going to win the looming mug-off. In this case, Wilder won't even allow for a fair fight. He cedes MacLaine less and less screen time as the film wears on, and more than that, he pushes her into second- and third-level planes of his setups, or frames her in key scenes so that her back is to us during most of her dialogue. She's annoyingly, joylessly neglected in her own film, which I suspect might have been sold to her as a chance to seize center stage in flouncy costumes and expensive studio style, especially after she was the best damn thing in The Apartment, and cruelly un-Oscared.
So, poor Shirley, whom I often like. But there is most certainly a "but," since nearly all of the charm she used to endear us to Fran Kubelik and distract us as well she could from the distasteful and chauvinist story-structures of The Apartment has turned into a rote, flippant kookiness in Irma La Douce. To grind down all of MacLaine's appeal would take a much worse movie than this one is; she's hard pressed to reap any laughs, but she wins a few smiles. Still, she occupies an unenviable middle-ground between limping through the tired motions of the screenplay and buying into the myth of her own pixie irresistibility. One needn't blame her for the script's many redundancies, like the long opening sequence in which she wheedles extra cash out of all her johns through a daisy-chain of cooked-up bathetic stories. However, she sells all of these stories in just the same low-energy way, appearing as though she adores Wilder and Diamond's dialogue beyond any sense of having to help it along, yet without actually believing a word of it. The character and her circumstances are just a routine to her, a middling-at-best sketch that she might use to pad out a Vegas show or a variety hour, and so it's telling when she ends one scene grinning nonsensically into the camera and making jazz-hands at the audience, and later has to batten down her own giggles after bellowing out a seemingly random line, with a deep, chesty bravado that makes no sense except as the fleeting impulse of an inveterate cut-up who's just entertaining herself.
What MacLaine needs, not for the first or last time, is a director who won't cut away from her quite so often but also won't put up with all her tics and lunges for audience affection. She also needs a film that yanks the lapdog out of her hands and the black rat's-nest wig off her head and gives her something to do instead of crap to hold. Her whole being is cluttered here with props to assemble into a color-by-numbers characterthough I admittedly liked her adorable emerald bra, and feel it more than earned its screen time. The one scene where the writing breaks form to suggest what Irma La Douce might have been, if it felt like turning the tables with real zeal on Hollywood's massive dowry of pop-sexist clichés, comes when MacLaine's Irma begs Lemmon's nebbishy boyfriend not to get a job, asking what kind of woman it would make her if she couldn't support a man through her own honest work. It's clearly meant as a needle in the eye of all those "Baby, I'm the breadwinner!" scenes in mid-century movies (and in mid-century marriages), but there's nothing on either side of this scene, despite the gigantic 150-minute running time, to let MacLaine take it anywhere... and because she's taking such a slim and coasty approach to Irma anyway, she's built no reserves of emotion or personality in the character by which to sell the joke as anything but a toss-off gag. She tries that laughing-through-tears bit that shows up in so many of her performances, particularly on the seemingly annual occasion when she rendered another gamine streetwalker, but the bit doesn't have any specificity. You can't deny the movie or the lead performances their moments of zest and color, but there's a lassitude and a spendthrifty, Brat Pack-y complacency to the whole affair, and certainly, too, in MacLaine's comportment. It still speaks ill of Wilder that he so patently loses interest in Irma, but it's more than possible that Shirley beat him to it, and I can't honestly say that I missed her when she receded.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 38 to Go