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Saturday Night Cinema: Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema feature is Love with the Proper Stranger, starring the incandescently beautiful and talented Natalie Wood and the rugged but equally beautiful Steve McQueen. Wood received a second Oscar nomination for this touching melodrama about pregnancy out of the wedlock.

“Proper Stranger is a somewhat unstable picture, fluctuating between scenes of a substantial, lifelike disposition and others where reality is suspended in favor of deliberately exaggerated hokum. Fortunately the film survives these shortcomings through its sheer breezy good nature and the animal magnetism of its two stars.”

Arnold Schulman’s scenario describes the curious love affair that evolves between two young New York Italians – a freedom-loving freelance musician (Steve McQueen) and a sheltered girl (Natalie Wood) – when she becomes pregnant following their one-night stand at a summer resort.

Charmingly bitter-sweet tale of the carefree jazz musician and the romantic shop-girl he gets pregnant, leading her to a back-street abortionist as a preferable alternative to facing her strict Italo-American family. Familiar in theme, but given a delightfully fresh flavour by Mulligan’s atmospherically low-key direction, excellent performances from Wood and McQueen, and vivid location shooting in New York’s Little Italy (the musician’s union hall at the beginning, the amusement park, the sad and shabby street of the abortionist). Edie Adams is outstanding as the quizzically cynical stripper with whom McQueen is shacked up, but who is given a characteristically raw deal by a script working its way toward the obligatory happy ending.

Love With the Proper Stranger

After the success of the Army comedy Soldier in the Rain (1963) and the blockbuster World War II adventure that made him a major star, The Great Escape (1963), Steve McQueen took on his first romantic lead in a film that would expand his audience beyond male action fans and make him just as popular with female audiences. Pairing him with one of the top young actresses of the day, Natalie Wood, Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) added a new dimension to McQueen’s appeal and helped propel him to the superstar status he would maintain over the next decade.

McQueen’s motives for taking the role weren’t strictly commercial, however. Trained at the prestigious Actors Studio, he was always torn between box office success and a desire to be seen as an accomplished actor like the man he considered his chief rival, Paul Newman (who was actually director Robert Mulligan’s first choice for Love with the Proper Stranger). He was also attracted to the notion of filming the offbeat love story with its frank and then risky treatment of abortion, on location in New York, where he got his start in acting. In addition, he was eager to work with Mulligan, then riding on the great success of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). As Rocky, a self-centered jazz musician who beds an innocent young woman, gets her pregnant and finally learns a sense of commitment, responsibility and love, McQueen revealed both a vulnerable and a macho side, and it made him a sex symbol. It also earned him critical praise, including a suggestion from Newsweek that he should receive an Academy Award for his work.

Ironically, McQueen didn’t even get nominated, but his top-billed co-star playing the naive but spunky Italian-American shopgirl who ends up “in trouble”, received her third Best Actress nomination. Wood was apparently as taken with McQueen during filming as his female fans were. According to the biography Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel (D.I. Fine, 1993) by Marshall Terrill, Wood made several attempts to seduce her co-star but was rejected because of his fondness and respect for her ex-husband Robert Wagner, who Wood later remarried. The fact that during production McQueen was married to his first wife (of 16 years), was likely not a factor in a refusal of his leading lady’s advances – he was well-known for extramarital adventures throughout most of his life. On the other hand, in her biography of Natalie Wood, her sister Lana noted that Wood gave a sly indication that an affair did occur. With both parties deceased now (Wood drowned in 1981 at the age of 43), there is no way to verify the rumor.

Director Robert Mulligan came out of early television and worked on some of the legendary dramatic anthology series of the 1950s, including The DuPont Show of the Month, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. He made his feature directing debut with Fear Strikes Out (1957), the first of seven pictures he would make with producer (and future film director) Alan J. Pakula. In 1962, the two formed their own production company, and their first project was the acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Although their second venture, Love with the Proper Stranger, was not a resounding box office success, McQueen liked the experience enough to work with Mulligan again immediately after on Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965) in a role that capitalized on the three-dimensional qualities of his screen persona first brought out by this film. Wood also returned to work with Mulligan again on Inside Daisy Clover (1965), which despite an intriguing Hollywood insider approach, did not greatly boost either of their careers.

In addition to Wood’s Oscar® nomination for Love with the Proper Stranger, the film received nominations for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Screenplay. It earned Golden Globe nominations in the top dramatic acting categories for both its stars, plus Wood received Second Place in the Golden Laurel Award for Best Female Dramatic Performance (from the Producers Guild of America) and won the Best Actress award at Argentina’s Mar del Plata Film Festival. Screenwriter Arnold Schulman was also nominated by the Writers Guild of America. The film’s theme song – music by Elmer Bernstein, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, recorded by Jack Jones – was number 62 in the Billboard Top 100 singles for 1964.

The Paris premiere of Love with the Proper Stranger, and the party following the screening at Maxim’s, the city’s most famous restaurant, raised substantial money for charity. McQueen attended, and his international stardom was evident in an exclusive cover story in Paris Match and by the screaming horde of fans outside his hotel.

None of the lead actors – Wood, McQueen, Herschel Bernardi and Harvey Lembeck (as Wood’s overprotective brothers) – were Italian-American like their screen characters. McQueen’s first acting break was replacing Ben Gazzara on stage in the play A Hatful of Rain, another role in which he played an Italian-American though he felt he was never convincing as that ethnic type.

Love with the Proper Stranger was the debut of Tom Bosley, who later found fame as dad Howard Cunningham in the long-running TV sitcom Happy Days. Also appearing in a small uncredited role is the director’s brother Richard Mulligan, best known years later as a featured actor on the hit television spoof Soap and in the Blake Edwards Hollywood satire S.O.B. (1981).

Director: Robert Mulligan
Producer: Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay: Arnold Schulman
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Editing: Aaron Stell
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Edie Adams (Barbie), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Anne Hegira (Beetie), Harvey Lembeck (Julio Rossini).
BW-101m.

by Rob Nixon

The Truth Must be Told

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