Seen at the UW Cinematheque last night: A Picasso lithograph leans against the wall. A young woman sits in almost ominous isolation surrounded by the designer furniture of the early fifties.
It's a still from near the end of a famous 1953 movie, although the scene is not very representative of the movie as a whole, which started out as a hit Broadway comedy and arrived on the big screen as a busy, frothy screwball romance with lots of "adult" dialogue by the standards of the time.
The actress is Maggie McNamara, and in this film she's rarely alone on screen. Rather, she's playing a wide-eyed ingénue reminiscent of the young Audrey Hepburn with a bit of Debbie Reynolds thrown in, flirting comically with one or the other or both of her costars, William Holden and David Niven. Hers was the kind of fresh, memorable performance that enlivens an otherwise not very good film. Part of the fun of watching the movie is seeing the excitement of a career-making performance.
Yet there seems to be an undercurrent of sadness in her portrayal of the hyperactive, outspoken flirt, or maybe it just seems that way in retrospect. Something about the eerie stillness of this picture tugs at us and makes us worry about McNamara's future. What happened to her after this impressive debut?
The movie is Otto Preminger's "The Moon Is Blue," which the Cinematheque showed in a newly restored print, lovely to look at, fifties modern interiors in wonderful, pristine shades of gray on the silver screen. With its "racy" dialogue featuring then taboo words like "virgin," "seduce," "mistress" and "pregnant" -- along with zingers like "better to be preoccupied with sex than occupied with it" -- this was a controversial film at the time, the first ever released without a Production Code seal. The controversy made it a hit.
Now the movie is a time machine of fifties lifestyles, social customs and interior design. The above still is from SuperAdaptoid's Flickr set of screen captures from a broadcast of the film. He started watching because of the furniture, got hooked on the action and kept watching. He aptly titles the set "The Moon is Blue, Saarinen's Womb Chair is Gray."
Just idly flicking channels, my eye was caught by the unmistakable outline of a Womb Chair by Eero Saarinen taking a prominent position mid frame. I kept watching to see where and how the set designer used it and it mostly stayed on camera throughout the film as a prop and a mood enhancer. Just the thing for indicating Holden's bachelor and architectural credentials, it would have been fresh off the Knoll assembly line that year.But what about Maggie McNamara? She was born in New York in 1928. She began modeling in her teens. In 1951 she joined the national touring company of "The Moon Is Blue." Then Preminger signed her to star in the film version of "The Moon Is Blue." It was her first movie, and it not only made her a star, but garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1954. She was signed by Fox and starred in another well-known movie, the 1954 comedy "Three Coins in a Fountain." Her career seemed to be taking off.
But something went wrong. The known facts about her life are sketchy, but there was a marriage in the fifties that had ended in divorce by 1957, when her ex-husband David Swift remarried. She acted in a couple other films, including the role of Florrie Fermoyle in Preminger's "The Cardinal" in 1963. After that it was television. A month after John Kennedy was killed, she played a Hollywood starlet named Bunny Blake in a Twilight Zone episode shown here, called "Ring-A-Ding Girl," written by Earl Hamner who a few years later would create "The Waltons." In 1964 she was in several more TV shows, including "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." After that, she dropped out of sight.
An actor's absence from the screen can seem like a metaphorical death for performers and a literal one for fans. A few years ago, author Mary Gordon wrote in the essay collection Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity of going to see "Three Coins in a Fountain" when she was five years old. On p. 188 she writes about the three American girls in the movie who are looking for husbands in Rome: "The youngest, played by Maggie McNamara, who in real life died soon afterward, is a typical Midwestern naive." In reality, she lived on for 24 years after the 1954 film, in growing obscurity.
She died in New York in 1978 from a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills. She was 49 years old and supporting herself as a typist.
Maggie McNamara was buried in a family plot in Saint Charles Cemetary, Farmingdale, New York. A relative told the New York Times that Maggie had been doing some writing, and that her film script had been accepted by a new production company. The screenplay was called "The Mighty Dandelion."