Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Blogathon: The Oscars - Best Actress 1963

Shirley MacLaine received her third of five Best Actress Academy Award nominations for her role in “Irma La Douce” (1963). She plays the title character, a good-natured hooker whose specialty is – no, nothing sexual – coming up with sob stories to scam a little extra money from her clients. Stories like how she’s only a working girl in order to make money to help rebuild the orphanage that harbored her during the war. Out comes the extra money from her sympathetic johns.

Director Billy Wilder envisioned Marilyn Monroe in the role, but when she died Wilder offered the role to MacLaine. In retrospect, it seems a no-brainer since Wilder would be re-teaming MacLaine with Jack Lemmon from “The Apartment” (1960), and what made more sense than to have the female lead from that classic join them again. MacLaine accepted the role without reading the script because she was anxious to re-team with her Apartment buddies.

While she’s wonderful and fresh and in the movie, giving her character a pixie-like spirit and a case of mischief, I still think it may be the least of her five nominated performances. She’s fine in it but there’s nothing here she didn’t do before and better. However, the film was one of 1963’s biggest hits and I think that helped cement her nomination. For the record her other Best Actress nominations were “Some Came Running” (1958), “The Apartment” (1960), “The Turning Point” (1977) and “Terms of Endearment” (1983), for which she finally won the coveted gold statue. Her Irma lost to Patricia Neal in “Hud” that year.

Despite Irma’s name being in the title, the movie really belongs to Jack Lemmon, in another gem of a comedic performance. He plays a very naïve police rookie named Nestor Patou who calls for a raid on the neighborhood bordello. One of the bordello’s customers happens to be an enraged chief of police (Herschel Bernardi) who fires Nestor.

Nestor had previously met Irma at a bar and they fall in love with each other. Upon learning her profession, and now determined to keep her off the streets, he becomes an eccentric English nobleman, Lord X, who promises to visit her twice a week and give her 500 francs for each visit on the condition he becomes her only customer.

Lord X is a dandy dresser and sports a white eye patch. Speaking in an exaggerated accent, Lord X loves to brag about his war exploits, which seem to come mainly from watching movies. Let’s see, Lord X tells Irma he exploded some big guns on the island of Navarone, helped sink the Bismarck and hurt himself when the exploding bridge on the River Kwai fell on top of him.

A later meeting with Irma also reveals he rode with Lawrence, participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade, knew Gunga Din, was a Bengal Lancer and even sailed to Tahiti with Captain Bligh!

Nestor has the assistance of the coffee shop owner across the street, Moustache (Lou Jacobi), who offers comedic asides on the situation. Wilder wanted Charles Laughton for the role, but like Monroe, died before filming. He was replaced by Jacobi, who is hilariously deadpan.

Nestor takes several jobs to earn the money that he, as Lord X, gives to Irma. He’s too tired to do anything else and when Irma models a new see-through negligee for him and he falls asleep, she begins to suspect he’s exhausted because he’s seeing another woman. Concurrently, Nestor also begins to be jealous of Irma’s growing infatuation with Lord X.

This is prime Wilder material here, a breezy sex farce involving faked identities played to comedic extremes.

The prostitution on display her is somewhat glamorized, even though early on we see Irma slapped around by her pimp Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell). Still, Wilder treats prostitution as a fact of life and not a hand-wringing social problem. The girls are hard working professionals, just like a secretary or a housewife. It’s likely that Wilder’s past profession as a gigolo in 1920s Berlin made him sympathetic to the working girls on display here.

“Irma La Douce” was originally a musical play by Alexandre Breffat. Wilder and his co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond augment the play, changing Nestor from a student to a rookie policeman. Many who saw and loved the musical were disappointed to see a non-musical treatment of the material. I’ve read Wilder started out filming it as a musical but thought it wasn’t working and made it a straight comedy. How ironic then that the film’s sole Academy Award win was to composer Andre Previn in the Best Score – Adaptation or Treatment category. (The film was also nominated in the Best Cinematography – Color category).

As amusing as the film is, it has its flaws. Like much of Wilder’s later works, it goes on too long. It runs 143 minutes and could easily lose about 20 minutes. And as good as MacLaine is, she really doesn’t get a chance to shine. While Lord X is going on and on about his ridiculous exploits, there are curiously no reaction shots of Irma. She just goes on playing solitaire. I never knew how she really felt about Lord X, except as an easy meal ticket. Her feelings for him later on seem to come from left field. It’s a good performance, but not a great one.

I was proud to participate in this mini blogathon looking at the Best Actress Academy Award race of 1963. For those interested to see who MacLaine’s competition was that year, I invite you to check on these other entries.

Monday, Feb. 21: Classic Film and TV Cafe will profile Rachel Roberts, nominated for "This Sporting Life" NOW POSTED!
Tuesday, Feb. 22: Kevin's Movie Corner will present Shirley MacLaine in "Irma La Douce"
Wednesday, Feb. 23: Classicfilmboy will cover Leslie Caron in "The L-Shaped Room"
Thursday, Feb. 24: ClassicBecky's Film and Literary Review will examine Patricia Neal in "Hud"
Friday, Feb. 25: Noir and Chick Flicks will look at Natalie Wood in "Love With the Proper Stranger"


Dawn said...

Kevin, What awonderful review for a wonderfully funny film. Spicy and innocent enough, not to offend anyone. Shirley Maclaine's, performance just sparkles on the screen. I think.. If you are a Jack Lemmon fan, you will love this movie.

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, an excellent summing up of this film, which I enjoyed a great deal, probably more than it deserved on an objective basis. Some interesting background on its production too. The level of artifice was very high, with its completely unrealistic view of prostitution and its Paris sets, and rather old-fashioned for the time. But then it didn't pretend to be a social document, so I found it easy to like as a contrived farce. You're absolutely right about the movie really belonging to Jack Lemmon. Also about MacLaine's performance being charming but the least of her nominated performances. That said, she was probably a better choice than Marilyn because her sexuality wasn't so overt.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, your assessment of IRMA pretty much dovetails with mine. It's much too long and Shirley & Jack don't really get to show off their talents. While mildly amusing, it's a huge letdown from THE APARTMENT (realizing that they're two very different kinds of movies). I've often wondered if its boxoffice success was a carryover from THE APARTMENT--with the public expecting more of the same given the same performers and director. Your background info (e.g., changes from the play) and insight (e.g., Wilder's portrait of prostitution) are first-rate, as always.

Archdude said...


Very well done review for a film I never heard of. You have a knack for making films like this fascinating. As for your comments on Jack Lemmon, they are right on.


Classicfilmboy said...

Great review of the film! I agree with everything you said. It's too long, MacLaine is fun but not spectacular, but the movie itself is entertaining, even if it's not Wilder's best. Thank you for participating in the blogathon!

ClassicBecky said...

Billy Wilder was a gigolo?!!! I think you are inferring he was a pimp?!!! My mouth is still hanging open in complete shock...is that true? Boy, you sure can't judge a book by its cover!

I always thought it was hilarious that Irma Lo Douce was populated with main actors and character actors like Jacobi who are not even remotely French. Jack Lemmon is his usual endearingly funny self, and Shirley MacLaine is darling, as always, but you are right that her role was surprisingly overpowered by Lemmon's character.

Cute movie, sweet Shirley, but this was not an academy award performance. I'm really enjoying these articles, and look forward to the rest of the week, especially Thursday (LOL).

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you, everyone, for your nice comments. Becky, Wilder was supposedly a gigolo when he was a struggling writer in Berlin in the 1920s. In later years, he amended that to a professional taxi dancer. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

Classicfilmboy said...

I read the same thing about Wilder in a biography on him. He had such a cynical view of life, particularly sex. It's really interesting to see how he treats sex in his movies, and how he kept pushing the envelope more and more. People felt he went too far with his next film, "Kiss Me Stupid." I'm sure his views on sex were fueled by those early years as a gigalo ... maybe "male escort" is the proper term. :)

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks for that clarification.

toto2 said...

Kevin, your review is excellent. I concur that "The Apartment" is superior to "Irma" on many levels. What I keep seeing when I revisit these works is how outstanding Jack Lemmon could be. I really enjoyed your informative post. Well done!

Dees Stribling said...

Nice review, Kevin. I'm sure the film has its charms, and I might watch all of it sometime. I saw a few minutes some years ago and must not have been in the mood to wrap my mind around Jack Lemmon as a Frenchman. Just didn't jell somehow.

The Lady Eve said...

Well...I learned a lot from this post...from Wilder's original casting preferences (MM and Laughton) to that tidbit about his earlier occupation as a gigolo!
I think you've pretty much nailed the films plusses and minuses. I've always liked it much, tho it does run long. But so entertaining - and Shirley, Jack and Billy together are irresistible.
I'm thinking about Marilyn as Irma - what a different film it would've been. But I can see why Wilder would have her in mind.
Hope you don't mind that I tweeted a link to your post on Twitter.

Page said...

This was a great write up on a very enjoyable film. I love Shirley's early films and this one is high on my list of favorites of hers.

This Blogathon was a great lead up to the Oscars which I'm looking forward to.