Actress Files: Maggie McNamara
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1953 Best Actress Oscar to Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday)
Why I Waited: Mike usually has a faultless needle for what I'll like or dislike, and he made a point of lowering my expectations on this one.
The Performance: Welcome to the 1953 Best Actress race, or, as it should probably be known, the Hussies vs. the Pixies. While Deborah Kerr rolls adulterously in the surf and Ava Gardner (whom I'll profile later) tries to out-humidify the African highlands, Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn contribute the rather undemanding impressions that not a single guilty thought has ever crossed their minds; Caron cavorts with puppets and Hepburn with Gregory Peck, who rate about the same in their potential for randy distraction or moral compromise. The fifth nominee, Maggie McNamara, finds herself in the middle ground of this battle in at least a few ways. The character she plays, an actress named Patty O'Neill, has neither an innocent nor a salacious nor a neurotic approach to sexuality, which is hardly any rarer these days in a female lead than it was in 1953. William Holden plays a bachelor who picks her up, with trouble obviously in mind, at the top of the Empire State Building. When, after several Broadway-style plot convolutions, he discovers her canoodling with David Niven, she simply can't see what the problem is. "Okay, so you found me sitting on his knee and kissing himis that so awful?" she asks. Over the course of the plot, she reveals that she's an unexpectedly dab hand with a post-hangover potion, and we wonder why. Though she's demure enough to be labeled a "professional virgin" by one character, with less complex meaning than you might be guessing, and to be praised by another for her "look of wholesome rapture... the kind of smile I'd like with my orange juice every morning," she admits that she's mad about kissing men and seizes any occasion.
Compared to Caron in Lili, that's practically BUtterfield 8, even if in many another lineup, McNamara's Patty would be the glaring naïf. Kissing and "professional virginity" wouldn't go very far at imputing a sexually mischievous streak if The Moon Is Blue itself weren't so improbably notorious as the film that called the bluff of Hollywood's rating system, preserving its Broadway dialogue about mistresses, pregnancy, and yes, virginity. After thereby failing to earn a stamp of good standing from the Catholic Legion of Decency, director Otto Preminger released the film anyway, and so a film and a new star that frequently smell like soap bubbles arrived to the public with a bizarre patina of boundary-pushing. Even before she knew she was appearing in a Hollywood landmark of anti-censorship, though, McNamara must have recognized that she was playing a girl who accepts an invitation from a husky, virile stranger to repair to his private apartment, ostensibly so she can sew a button onto his coat (!). Good for her for making the character lucid about her own attractions, seemingly aware of what she's walking into even as she determines immediately not to go all the way, chiding Holden for talking down to her while espousing her own conservative convictions about romantic life: for example, her notion that a wife ought to be half her husband's age plus seven.
It's intriguing but also a bit disappointing that she elects to play Patty as a gawky ditz whose chirpiness and fogginess simply don't, in McNamara's approach, ensure that she is blind to the seductive maneuvers, the rhetoric, or the practical possibilities of sex. Arriving the same year as Roman Holiday but also three years after Born Yesterday, she bespeaks a perky but inexpert meeting-ground between aspects of Hepburn and Holliday, lacking the credible refinement of the former or the veiled, voluptuous savvy of the latter. McNamara's dark, beady eyes stay perpetually wide open as part of her overall posture of breathy buoyancy, though she uses the same basic expression to communicate pique at the bullishness Holden and the arch cynicism of Niven. She can be funny and rather dear, even in the absence of tangible personality. Her well-worked groove of baffled smiles and kooky poise is sometimes charming enough as a pleasing end in itself, lifting her above the script's silly, arduous feints at "sophisticated" humor; Niven's at his best in material like this, absconding with the audience the way Bill Nighy does in contemporary parts, but McNamara's cheer certainly succeeds better than Holden's stolidity does at making the dated living-room farce seem halfway larkish. In general, she seems more spry when she's with Niven. Their brief, hilarious exchange about whether to kill time watching television ("Is it in color?" / "Don't be silly, it won't be in color for years!" / "Let's wait till then") is a memorable highlight of repartee, not coincidentally because it has nothing to do with the plot. So too with McNamara's empty-headed melancholy as she stares out of the binoculars on the top of the Empire State Building: "I want to cry for all those people." Holden: "What people?" McNamara: "In Brooklyn." Reader, I chuckled.
McNamara's performance might be ideal for clip-reels, if you can get past the incongruity of this elongated, ponytailed baby giraffe as an object of immediate desire from multiple quarters. The problems in her performance are only detectable with time, but not with much time. For one, she never connects one iota with the script's conceit that Patty is a professional or even an aspiring actress. She has no craftiness, no vanity, no ambition, no obvious regard for how she moves or sounds. Moreover, McNamara plays too many scenes in an inflexible register of flat but high-voiced affectation, eerily close to Shelley Duvall in 3 Women but with none of the surreal ironies or dark shadings. She also lacks Duvall's genuine eccentricity, which at bare minimum would keep a character like this compelling even as the scenario repeatedly runs out of gas. What the part really needs is someone who could generate friction and sparks by heightening the two focal points of this elliptical character: her amiable oddness, and her amorous excitability. Think Joan Blondell, or Liza Minnelli. It's one thing to say that McNamara lacks the inimitable charisma of legends like those, but she actively plays down the daffy-kid and curious-adult facets of Patty as The Moon Is Blue wears on, in its bizarrely windowless, unmistakably settish set. She seems more and more average, like a new toy that wears out its welcome unexpectedly quickly. It's not even clear that McNamara is having fun with herself, though she never stops gamely going through the motions.
The other insuperable flaw in McNamara's work here involves how, in its nominal way, the last third or so of The Moon Is Blue turns on Patty's debates with herself, her capacity for choice between alternatives, her self-conscious reasons for acting as she does. McNamara has banked so heavily on the spaciness of her Patty as a way to get laughs and sell the character that she's left herself no foundation for showing us Patty's inner life, much less for making it interesting. She never fully deflates, and the performance never forecloses entirely on its appeal. But the youthful glow of mischief and the modest glee in her own shtick, amply evident in the first half of The Moon Is Blue, either disappear by the second half or become impossible to appreciate in the same way because they never deepen or evolve. McNamara's own career turned out to be a bright start with a rapid drop-off, and her story is finally a sad one. You wouldn't want to watch The Moon Is Blue thinking too much about the actress's own future, but even her first and most famous performance is a case study of qualified sparkle giving way to dwindling dividends.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 27 to Go