Sunday, March 18, 2007

Looking Back: Actress Maggie McNamara


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."

27 comments:

lildb said...

god. what a lovely tribute to an unknown, but no less important, human; a (fragmented?) piece of our cultural history.

sad, now.

Anonymous said...

Her performances...although limited, have always moved me.

Debbie said...

distant cousin- if any of Maggie's relatives read this, please email me. My mom,Margo (73 yrs old) is Maggie's cousin. They never knew each other due to divorce etc. My Mom's father was Mikey McNamara, buried on Holy island in Ireland . Mikey apparently remarried Susan. Would love some assistance in making contact after all these years....plz help....my email dburr2002@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

McNamara's last performance was with Lillian Gish and can be viewed here:

http://www.fancast.com/tv/The-Alfred-Hitchcock-Hour/97804/687615257/Body-in-the-Barn/videos

Her very fine and strong performance as the brittle, embittered sister in "The Cardinal" showed that she was far more than a "light" actress.

Anonymous said...

Maggie McNamara, we'll never forget you. You touched me very deeply. God Bless you!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed her performances in films so much, how sad that her life took such a tragic downturn, she deserved better. I shall always remember her as young and lovely and talented.

Anonymous said...

She was NOT buried in an unmarked grave. There is a marker on the site. The top says "McNamara", with the names of all of the McNamara family who are buried there. "Marguerite" is clearly written 1928-1978:

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=7173167&PIpi=5963210

Bonnie said...

I just saw this movie The Moon is Blue for the first time and had to look up this Maggie actress who I was not familiar with and reminds me so much of Audrey Hepburn (probably the era). 50's movies are one of my fav genres, can't believe I never saw this before. Love the sets and the clothes. I saw this pic first before watching the movie, and now seeing this still in the movie, makes it richer. It's a great still. Evokes a lot of thoughts, stories and ideas. Maggie M. will always be remembered in her art. We lost her too soon.

starstruck said...

In 1955 Maggie McNamara starred in the Prince of Players with Richard Burton and fell widly in love with him. He said decades later - I can't be sure that I was good for her. She was one of the lost souls in Hollywood. After a promising, stellar start it all went quiet.......

Anonymous said...

Maggie WAS actually buried in an unmarked plot for sure, But eventually was reunited with members of her family.I know this because I went to find her grave many years ago and was directed to just a small grassy spot.
Very sad and I know she will be remembered.

Anonymous said...

Years later, Otto Preminger expressed regret at having cast her in "The Moon is Blue," because she apparently was emotionally unable to deal with being a movie star. What he meant was that maybe her life would have been happier if she had not been thrust into the limelight, and he seemed very sad about that.

Anonymous said...

After seeing Maggie for the first time in Three Coins In The Fountain, I was mesmerized by her beauty and acting ability. She did remind me of a young Audrey Hepburn. When I decided to look up her filmography I was shocked to find that she had appeared in only a handful of movies and died a tragic death. So sad.

Anonymous said...

I got to know maggie thru the show MASH where they tried to get the movie "The Moon is Blue". They said it wasn't worth getting it or something like that at the end of the episode "they were all virgins" at the end. I thought she was very good cute and funny. It is a shame that she died in such a lonely way. God help us all in death and life, reminds me of Gia Carangi. Peace RIP

Anonymous said...

Just watched The Moon Is Blue since
1954. Maggie McNamara speech mannerisms are unusual and perplexing to me. No one seems to comment on the way she speaks.
Any thoughts or insights out there?

Anonymous said...

I noticed her speaking was a bit strange in Three Coins in the Fountain. Seems like she was either trying to correct for a speech impediment (like a lisp) or covering up a New York accent.

Either way, although she was very cute she did not quite hit the mark in this movie. Who knows what was going on with her. It is sad that she had a short career and a difficult personal life. However, she did accomplish quite a lot for an Irish-American kid from humble origins in that time and place.

Gene said...

I loved her performances. Her personal side appears to remain cloudy and a little unknown. She may not have been "tough" enough to get along with the egocentric people who through their stardom take advange of others who can't manage being loved today and cast aside tomorrow. Gene

Anonymous said...

She was NOT buried in an unmarked grave. There is a marker on the site. The top says "McNamara", with the names of all of the McNamara family who are buried there. "Marguerite" is clearly written 1928-1978:

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=7173167&PIpi=5963210
__________________________

You may have neglected to notice that this article was written before that picture was posted. She was originally buried in an unmarked grave.

Madison Guy said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the update. I've made the correction.

DevilYouKnow said...

I discovered Maggie McNamara after reading a short entry about her in a book. I finally saw The Moon Is Blue about a year ago and loved it. The story it trite but William Holden and McNamara had great chemistry and were fabulous. David Niven was also hilarious. Her second film, Three Coins In a Fountain, was a hit of a dud but McNamara was still very cute.

I've read a bit more about her life and while I think she did have some emotional problems, I don't think they were caused by her career decline. She supposedly didn't like the Hollywood game and refused to jump through hoops to become (or continue to be) some little cutesy starlet. After her death, one of her friends said that she walked away from her film career and had no regrets about doing so. She spoke fondly of some of the people she worked with but didn't miss acting.

So yeah, her death was and remains sad but I don't think she was not some kind of Norma Desmond-esque figure who was daytripping about her long gone Hollywood days. I think she came and saw and decided that life wasn't for her. That's admirable as some actors stick around because the money is decent and end up being bitter. It's too bad she didn't find happiness as she seemed like a wonderful and bright woman.

DevilYouKnow said...

I discovered Maggie McNamara after reading a short entry about her in a book. I finally saw The Moon Is Blue about a year ago and loved it. The story it trite but William Holden and McNamara had great chemistry and were fabulous. David Niven was also hilarious. Her second film, Three Coins In a Fountain, was a hit of a dud but McNamara was still very cute.

I've read a bit more about her life and while I think she did have some emotional problems, I don't think they were caused by her career decline. She supposedly didn't like the Hollywood game and refused to jump through hoops to become (or continue to be) some little cutesy starlet. After her death, one of her friends said that she walked away from her film career and had no regrets about doing so. She spoke fondly of some of the people she worked with but didn't miss acting.

So yeah, her death was and remains sad but I don't think she was not some kind of Norma Desmond-esque figure who was daytripping about her long gone Hollywood days. I think she came and saw and decided that life wasn't for her. That's admirable as some actors stick around because the money is decent and end up being bitter. It's too bad she didn't find happiness as she seemed like a wonderful and bright woman.

Anonymous said...

just watched her in the "ring a ding girl" episode of the twilight zone...such a sad episode and what a lovely person and beautiful to look at...so sad she had it tough later on..she should have had someone to love and look after her later in life..rather than a audrey hepburn...she reminds me of jean simmons..

Anonymous said...

As I watched Ms. Mcnamara's episode "ring a ding girl" today, I was mesmerized at the talent and beauty of a era long gone. Her acting touched me and after reading her bio,I felt sad that she seem to not have reach her full potential. Nevertheless, I am grateful to be able to enjoy and respect great talent at it's best. ¶Rest In Peace¶

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie a few years after it came out. Even then I knew she was trying very hard to be Audrey Hepburn - unfortunately a third-rate effort.
Holden and Niven do their thorough, professional jobs and hold up the picture. They carried her through it. Had both of them not been in the movie it would have been a flop.

Anonymous said...

There's an answer why her career fizzled out. "If she coulda been, she woulda been. That's show business." Otherwise known as a one-hit wonder with no staying power.

Anonymous said...

The Moon is Blue is one of my favorite movies. So sad that she felt she had to leave this world before her time. My grandparents are buried in the same cemetery as she is and whenever I visit their graves, I stop and pay my respects to her also.

Anonymous said...

When you see "Carol" you will think you've seen Rooney Mara channel Maggie McNamara and restore her to life.

Dr. J said...

Thank you, I am watching Ring A Ding Girl now,, looked up McNamara and found these comments. I have not seen Carol, in fact, planned for that film today, after catching a few recorded Twilight Zone episodes.

I suspect she was stubbornly independent as well as very intelligent. These are two characteristics a female would conceal seventy years ago.

Dr. J