Actress Files: Irene Dunne
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1939 Best Actress Oscar to Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind)
Why I Waited: As with Lee Remick, checking off this performance meant signing off on a top-drawer roster, and I was sorry to see it go. Affection for Dunne, and hearsay that this was her favorite among her own movies, only amplified the anticipation.
The Performance: The first thing Irene Dunne does in Love Affair is say "I beg your pardon" through a porthole-shaped window connecting an enclosed hallway on a cruise-liner to an outdoor promenade. Why is that special? Because she says it in the quick, peremptory way that you'd actually say "I beg your pardon" in real life, and not as you would say it to a soulmate disguised as a stranger, whom you were meeting at the outset of a classic romance. Her character is called Terry, and the reason she has been hailed into conversation by Charles Boyer's Michel is that a gust of wind has just blown a telegram from his fiancée out of his hand and through this window; he's asking that she pass it back. Sizing up this charismatic, brutely handsome Continental and enjoying his embarrassment, especially after taking a glance at the ripely romantic telegram, Terry teases him to prove that the telegram is really his, forcing him to recite certain details. She's having a passing lark, like a woman who is used to entertaining herself on the spur of the moment with cheeky little dares and parries. She's also baldly flirting with someone she's never met, whom she can only see from the neck up, and about whom the only things she knows are 1) that he's engaged and 2) that he's rich enough to be with her on this boat. Within an instant, she seems like a pretty rare bird, and she has sized him up as one, too, ascertaining as well that they belong to the same flock. Thus, they have immediate bonafides as movie characters, and the makings of a high-flying, promising couple. Yet she's also the kind of woman who can say "I beg your pardon" like she's any woman, anywhere, talking to anyone.
Irene Dunne's appeal rests on such unusual fusions of the ordinary, the glamorous, and the subtly but defiantly odd. There are shots fairly early in Love Affair, while she's encased in a huge, armoire-shaped fur coat and coiffed in a matronly updo, when she looks a bit grandmotherly for a romantic lead. You can see why, as early as Cimarron, when she was eight years younger than she is in Love Affair she was so easily adaptable into old-age makeup. (She was in fact 41 when Love Affair opened, which should inspire a lot of Hollywood women, as well as their fans.) Dunne's air of strangeness has to do with how quickly she presumes familiarity and sets about seducing and needling men who are more "obviously" attractive than she is: Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, John Boles, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She takes liberties, verbally tickling them, looking fully confident that her rectangular smile, her mischievous gaze, her nutty hats, and her habit of throwing arch or exhausted "ah"s and "mm"s into her dialogue are as fetching as anything these matinée idols bring to the table. In her screwball and pseudo-screwball performances, but even in roles like the one in Love Affair, she comes across as a sort of tenuously acculturated version of Katharine Hepburn's Susan from Bringing Up Baby, pleased as punch to start a little trouble at any given moment, and it's both perplexing and funny that she can nonetheless transform in a second into a completely credible society type. One minute, in Love Affair, she's throwing a photographer's pictures into the ocean and having a dry, self-satisfied little chuckle about it. Three beats later, she's embodying the kind of woman who might need to worry if the gossip columns catch her scent, who would feel bad about breaking a rule if it hurt someone, or drew agitating attention to herself. Even if you don't know that Dunne was raised from solid, devout, Republican stock, you can feel her bone-deep handle on "proper" behavior in her performances, even the oneswhich is most of them, especially in the 30s, whether she's laughing, yearning, or cryingwhere she's one way or another tossing dart after dart at the bulls-eye of respectability.
Stanley Cavell famously wrote in Pursuits of Happiness that, of all the great screwball heroines, Dunne is the one whose movies suffer most if you can't jive to her idiosyncratic appeal, even as she's also the actress who's wry and eccentric in just the sorts of ways that might annoy a lot of viewers. Compared to Theodora Goes Wild or Joy of Living or My Favorite Wife or even The Awful Truth, Love Affair strikes me as the film from Dunne's peak period where it's hardest to imagine not falling for her character, but it's wonderful to discover that this isn't because it's a boring or safe performance. Maybe Dunne knows that after playing so many daffy miscreants, it's something of a risk for her to play so many of Terry's feelings semi-straight, whether falling rather suddenly for Michel, or realizing their attraction to each other has an 8©-day lifespan until the ship reaches port. She takes undisguised and unironic pleasure in meeting Michel's stately but smiling grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya, who also plays the ship) and bids her a full-bodied, close-to-tears farewell as they're prancing out of her house. The script even requires that Terry duck into the matron's private chapel and take a few moments out for God. Rudolph Maté lights this scene like a meaningful interlude of piety, catching Dunne and her all-white outfit in a nimbus of angelic light, and her look of simple, religious earnestness is as welcome a surprise as the solemn, perceptible agnosticism on Boyer's brow. Love Affair, a famous movie whose plot is even more of a cultural mainstay care of the 1957 remake An Affair to Remember, eventually depends on a big, bathetic plot contrivance and needs the ballast of plausible, un-tricked-out acting to avoid total shamelessness, and to pack the enormous charge that it has for decades of viewers. A lot of actors, even good ones, would seek to establish plausibility and overcome the big narrative stunt by expressing ardor, anticipation, devastation, and climactic, chin-up martyrdom with such surging commitment that the penny-romance conceits get buoyed along by sheer emotional force. We'll call that the Whitney Houston way to play the part, and make no mistake that I(IIIII-ee-IIIIII-ee-IIIIII....) can be a sucker for that stuff.
But Dunne takes the road of Dolly Parton, letting us know that she will always love Michel by allowing Terry an absolute candor around him, in mirth and passion and sorrow. She banks on the power of sharp, clear, modest phrasing to signal concealed depths, rather than plunging right into them and dragging us along. Some actors congenitally suggest that one mustn't play two emotions at once or can only do so by pointing huge arrows at your own double-meanings. Dunne, though, manages a tinge of sexiness while being briskly funny, adopting a slurry Mae West timbre while dissuading Boyer from confiding his secret romantic angst. "I'm really not very good at that sort of thing," she drawls. "I talk a lot." There's no double-meaning here, just a tangy friskiness that packs more into the line than it's asking. When Ouspenskaya's benevolent dowager worries that Michel has missed out on romantic partnership because "he's been too busy...," Dunne is the perfect actress to complete the sentence ("...living?") in a way that preserves the tactful euphemism, appropriate to speaking with one's elders, while grinning that she knows just what "living" involves in this context, and that she's the last person to frown upon it. "I guess you and I have been more or less used to a life of pink champagne," she confides to Boyer's playboy, without an ounce of the censorious, compulsory Hollywood pretense that the rich, or at least the best among them, don't care about their money. Dunne's Terry is thrilled to have money, and aware that it won't be comfortable to proceed without it, even as she's sportingly up to the fresh challenge of earning her own.
An actor can't give us such complete frameworks for grasping a character's complex feelings, especially those that are germane to the whole plot of the film, without being able and willing at crucial times to tell a different story with her face than with her voice, or able to turn nimbly from one affect to another, as when Terry follows her dreamy citation of her father saying "Wishes are the dreams we dream when we're awake" with the dry-gin chaser of "He drank a lot." In a brilliant bit of direction, perfectly enacted by Dunne, Terry outlines the famous meet-atop-the-Empire-State-Building stratagem for rendezvousing with Michel six months in the future as though she really has lost her heart to him and she enjoys a good romantic cliffhanger... and at the same time, she's clutching her arms and bobbing up and down like it's very cold out there on the deck, so she ends the scene with a clipped, over-the-shoulder "Take care of yourself" as she dashes inside for warmth. Love Affair has enough of its barrels aimed at the summit of screen romance that Dunne, Boyer, and McCarey know that not every shot they take needs to hit that same target. We might even believe the scenario more fully, or care about the characters more richly, if their layers and peccadilloes drive the narrative, rather than allowing the abstract goal of just smashing our hearts dictate everything they say and do, and every way they do and say it.
Why not five stars, then? Well, the final third of Love Affair, where The Whitney Approach would really start going for brokeand I presume, sight unseen, that this is just what Deborah Kerr attemptsis a little less hospitable to Dunne. Her genius lies primarily in timing and in creative, multi-faceted interactions with her co-stars. Therefore, long sequences of her singing unmemorable songs in close-up, while Terry builds up her nest-egg as a nightclub chanteuse, prove an unexpected advert for Dunne's opera-trained soprano but otherwise don't give her anything to do creatively. I love her typical counter-intuition in diluting the performance just when so many actors would start pumping up the volume, and she is a godsend in the moment when Terry and Michel unexpectedly meet in a theater, each in another person's company, and in the short taxi-cab scene just afterward, when she insists as conversationally as possible that she really doesn't want Michel knowing about her waist-down paralysis. But in other, neighboring scenes, playing the ukulele and singing with a cadre of orphans, or negotiating for a job with the orphanage director, she looks a little bored without a more inspiring scene partner. One sign is the deflated way in which she reads some of her lines, even if this deflation is meant to register the ebb in Terry's spirit following her accident. It's just as revealing, though, that in these scenes Dunne reprises some of her oldest standby mannerisms from other performances, like her mischievous grin, with one fingernail resting on her teeth. Not in every moment of an Irene Dunne performance does she look unreservedly involved in what's going on. There are flashes of this habit even in the long final scene with Boyer, where she emotes very movingly in some of her close-ups, but you still sense that she'd be thrilled to do a little more of the talking.
Still, Dunne succeeds memorably in being amusing and aroused and resilient and regretful and somewhere close to ideal in Love Affair, without almost ever taking the most predictable paths toward any of these goals. At 88 minutes, Love Affair itself is as succinct as she is, covering a lot of ground without needing a lot of time, and proving, in perfect sync with its leading lady, that sly and disciplined pithiness can be just as powerfully moving as extravagant excess. At the midpoint of the movie and again in the closing moments, Dunne has to recite a line concerning "the nearest thing to heaven"I'm sure you can guess what that isand the sentiments feel too inescapably on-the-nose for a performer who so clearly prefers to arrive sideways into a screenplay's designs, or to tell the audience what we expect to hear through a counter-harmonic approach that only Dunne would conceive. We don't need to hear about the nearest thing to heaven when, left to her own devices, and furnished the proper companions, she has such a sparkling track record for getting us there herself.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 9 to Go