In 1954, two women were nominated for the Academy Award for best actress. One played Princess Ann, a frustrated princess hiding in Rome in Roman Holiday (1953). The other played Patty O’Neill, an eccentric working class woman searching for a husband in The Moon is Blue (1953). Both were born in the late 1920’s. Both witnessed their parents’ divorce when they were 9 years old. Both played a love interest to the Best actor winner of that year William Holden.
These women were Belgian born Audrey Hepburn and New York City native Maggie McNamara. Hepburn would become an icon of old Hollywood, while McNamara would sporadically play a few roles in film and television before leaving show business altogether. So, why did Hepburn become a successful movie star and McNamara disappear into obscurity?
While she led a glamorous life, Hepburn probably had one of the most complicated childhoods of any movie star. Born in Belgium to a British Subject and a Dutch Noblewoman, her father left the family when she was six, leading to a lifelong fear of abandonment. During her childhood, her family lost everything and lived in poverty. She went to London on a ballet scholarship and worked as a model and part time actress before landing the lead role in the Broadway show Gigi (which would later become an Oscar winning movie starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan).
As a movie star the 1950’s and 1960’s, Hepburn presented multiple contradictions in class. She radiated glamor yet often played a working-class character. In Sabrina (1954), she played the daughter of a chauffeur, who’s attracted to the rich playboy David Larrabee (William Holden). Films like Funny Face (1957) and My Fair Lady (1964) involved a man transforming her from a poor common woman into a glamorous woman (Funny Face even uses the metaphor of a caterpillar turning into a “bird of paradise”). Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) has her portray a hillbilly who gets transformed into an elegant movie star, only to decide to throw it all away in order to find herself. It’s also probably the darkest version of the story. Almost every film that portrayed her character in another way tends to not be remembered as fondly. The Nun’s Story, The Unforgiven (1960), and The Children’s Story (1961) all feature Hepburn as an average woman in unglamorous situations and none have quite the following of her more famous films. It all started with William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, in which she plays a princess who wants to be an ordinary woman in Rome for one day.
Aside from winning Hepburn an Oscar, Roman Holiday also cemented her as a star and helped create the Audrey Hepburn formula: a man transforming Audrey into a more perfect version of herself. However, her next film, Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, would truly solidify what her career would become.
During Sabrina, two decisions were made that would define her career. First, she collaborated with designer Hubert de Givenchy, who helped design her iconic outfits in both Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s as well as Jackie Kennedy’s outfits. Billy Wilder also cast Humphrey Bogart in the lead role and thus setting a precedent for her romantic leads: older movie stars who brought a certain nostalgia to the movie. These stars included Fred Astaire (Funny Face (1957)), Gary Cooper (Love in the Afternoon (1957)), Cary Grant (Charade (1963)) and Rex Harrison (1964). Thus, her films became nostalgic for a past.
After Wait Until Dark (1967), Hepburn pretty much retired to focus on her family before returning to make Robin and Marian (1976). Like before, her career came out of a nostalgia for the past. Robin and Marian stars her and Sean Connery as older versions of the titular mythical characters of Robin Hood and maid Marian. Peter Bogdanovich, Hepburn’s director in They All Laughed (1981), made a career out of remaking classic Hollywood genres for a modern-day audience with mixed results. Always (1989) is a remake of A Guy Named Joe (1943). However, by this time, she had outgrown the part she used to play onscreen. In the last 15 years of her life, she made 3 theatrical films and 1 television film, but none of them touched the level of her previous success. In 1989, she became a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF and spent the rest of her life working for them.
Since her death in 1993, Hepburn has become an icon of a different time. Towards the end of her life, she had 17 requests from Publishers to publish her life story. Multiple books, movies, and articles have come out about her, including the TV movie The Audrey Hepburn Story (2000) starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. Gap and Dove chocolate even created ads by recreating her image:
One of four children born to Irish immigrants in New York City, Marguerite “Maggie” McNamara became a model after graduating from Textile High School. After appearing on the cover of Life magazine twice by the age of 20, she received many studio offers (including an offer from David O. Selznick), which she turned down. Deciding to become an actress, she worked for years perfecting her craft, which led her to a Chicago production of the play The Moon Is Blue with Biff McGuire and Leon Ames. The director of the Broadway production, Otto Preminger, decided to cast her in the movie version opposite William Holden and David Niven as she looked younger than Barbara Bel Geddes, who played the part in the Broadway show.
A progressive film and theater director of the time, Preminger made films to challenge the status quo. After this film, he directed the African American musicals Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959), while also making films about taboo subjects as The Man with The Golden Arm (1955). Made during the time of the Hollywood production code and the Catholic legion of decency, Preminger and United Artists released it without the MPAA’s seal of approval due to the film’s light treatment of sex and seduction. In their book The Dame in the Kimono, film historians Leonard Leff and Jerold L. Simmons concluded that “The Moon is Blue sounded the death rattle of the legion of decency and the production code.” (Leff and Simmons 203). Although scandalous at the time, it now remains largely forgotten.
The film gave McNamara’s career a big boost. After her Oscar nominated performance in the film, she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, the studio that Preminger worked at before setting out to make his own projects independently.
After starring in the Romantic Comedy Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) and the Richard Burton vehicle Prince of Players (1955), she would not appear onscreen for another 8 years, but made an appearance on the Broadway stage in Step on a Crack in 1962, which closed after one performance. The show’s producer, Herbert Swope Jr., had given McNamara one of her first jobs on the Anthology TV show, The Clock (1949-1952). She personally thanked him when Preminger cast her in The Moon is Blue, saying that “I would not be here without you.”
Feeling bad about the state of her career, Preminger gave McNamara her last film role in The Cardinal (1963). In Foster Hirsch’s book, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, co-star Carol Lynley says, “He told me we must be very careful with her… He treated her like Gold.” (Hirsch 375). Lynley would also star in the musical remake of Three Coins in the Fountain, The Pleasure Seekers (1964).
After The Cardinal, McNamara appeared in four guest roles on television before disappearing from the screen altogether. During her later years, she made her living working as a typist. Reportedly suffering from a history of mental illness (described by the Toledo Blade as “acute depression”), she died of a tranquilizer and sleeping pill overdose in 1978. A suicide note was found on her piano. Her friends hoped that the media would forget about her death. Many newspapers did not post an obituary until a month after her death. Shortly before her death, a screenplay she had written, The Mighty Dandelion, had been picked up by a new production company. She is buried alongside her parents and one of her sisters.
So, who was Maggie McNamara and why did career disappear while Audrey Hepburn’s succeeded?
Maybe she was the character she played in movies: a working-class woman playing a part. In The Moon is Blue, McNamara stars as Patty O’Neill, a broke pseudo-intellectual and part time actress who schemes of ways to trap a successful bachelor into marriage. In Three Coins in The Fountain, McNamara plays a naïve small town girl who pretends to be something she’s not to impress a prince (Louis Jourdan) in Rome. In Prince of Players, she plays actress Mary Devlin, the terminally ill wife of actor Edwin Booth (Richard Burton), the tormented brother of John Wilkes Booth. As a leading lady, she starred in three movies that share as much with the theater as with the cinema. The Moon is Blue opens up a play for a more cinematic feel. Three Coins in the Fountain has the actors play many scenes out in master shots, like a play. Prince of Players tells the story of most famous American actors to play Hamlet. In almost all of her early roles, she plays a woman who is either revealed to be of Irish heritage (in Three Coins, she claims to closely resembles her Irish grandmother) or has an Irish surname. What made McNamara interesting was that she played eccentric, sweet, and genuine characters, rather than the elegant romantic leads that Hepburn played.
One of the differences between Hepburn and McNamara came in their ambitions. Hepburn knew how to market herself as a brand, while McNamara just loved to act. Unlike Hepburn, she never moved to Hollywood and refused to do interviews or pinup shoots that the studio wanted. The April 1954 issue of Photoplay magazine said that “McNamara, like Brando or Montgomery Clift, wants to be accepted for what’s inside rather than what’s on the surface.” Even the films where she plays a lead (The Moon is Blue, Three Coins in The Fountain, Prince of Players), she’s part of a larger ensemble.
The Moon is Blue
The Moon is Blue and Roman Holiday are as different as day and night. Roman Holiday is warm, idealistic, and plays out on the open streets of Rome, while The Moon is Blue is cold, acerbic, and happens entirely on closed off sets. A modern-day fairy tale that utilizes its star’s personality and talents to full effect, Roman Holiday dresses Hepburn in the most flattering outfits possible and frames her character in the most appealing way by making her the unsuspecting mark of a charming journalist (Gregory Peck) who inadvertently falls in love with her.
Although it demonstrates her comedy skills, The Moon is Blue dresses McNamara in the most unappealing outfits (frumpy dresses, pillbox hats, a bow in her hair) to make sure the audience knows how innocent and naïve she is. Her character also falls into an unsympathetic archetype: the female Pseudo-intellectual of the 1950’s. This idealistic character has a lot to say, but the film makes a point of proving that she’s misinformed and needs a man to straighten her out (other examples include Gloria Talbott’s character in All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Hepburn’s character Jo Stockton in Funny Face). McNamara’s Patty O’Neill claims to be an actress, but the film portrays her only role as a bathing beauty in a beer commercial. When looking out over New York at the top of the Empire state building, she feels sorry for “all those poor people in Brooklyn,” only to be informed that Brooklyn is in another direction. This is also how some members of the original play’s cast saw McNamara. Biff McGuire said, “Maggie was dear and sweet… but she wanted desperately to be an intellectual – to be someone other than who she wasn’t.” (Hirsch 193). This character came to define McNamara’s early career in many ways. Despite all this, McNamara provides a likable center to the film and turns in a good performance.
Much of what is great and terrible about The Moon is Blue comes from director Otto Preminger.
As a director, he does not seem to understand comedy that well. While he made a few mediocre to bad comedies (Skidoo (1968)), Preminger’s greatest successes came in serious minded melodramas like Laura (1944) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and his skill set works against him in the Moon is Blue. For example, he shoots, edits, and scores a scene where David Nevin accidentally spills ketchup on McNamara like an old melodrama would portray a man getting shot. It also does not help that Preminger shot this film and the German version Die Jungfrau auf dem Dach (1953) at the same time. The film has some good lines, great sets, and a great comic performance by Niven, but it just never quite becomes anything special.
Preminger was hard on his discoveries, and McNamara was no exception. In Hirsch’s book, he describes the filming situation of The Moon is Blue vividly: “When, unlike her costars, she was unable to give him what he wanted on the first take, Otto would roar that her flubs were costing him time and money.” (Hirsch 193). This was common in Preminger’s career. According to Dana M Reemes’s book Directed by Jack Arnold, when Preminger worked with Jean Seberg on both Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), he created a distinct impression on her acting style. The director of her next film, Jack Arnold, said that “Preminger was a screamer and a yeller. He waited until he got her into hysterics and then he turned the camera on. I don’t yell or scream and this was a new experience for her. Sometimes it took to twenty takes, but we got it.” (Reemes 128). Arnold then goes onto describe how when he filmed the first scene in The Mouse That Roared (1959), Seberg would step forward and say her line before stepping back. Like McNamara, Preminger had plucked Seberg from relative obscurity to play his lead.
Working with Icons
This also presents another quality of McNamara’s filmography: she never worked with the icons Hepburn did. During her career, Hepburn worked with cinematic legends over and over again. Edith Head designed costumes for four of her most famous films (Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s). She worked for consistently great directors including Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Children’s Hour, How to Steal a Million (1966)), Stanley Donen (Funny Face, Charade (1963), Two for the Road (1967)), and Billy Wilder (Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon). Even the directors of her lesser films rose to the top of their field: Steven Spielberg made her last film Always, a film considered mediocre at best considering that Spielberg made it. Her least remembered film, Green Mansions (1956), came from a person not known for directing: her first husband, Mel Ferrer. While McNamara worked with committed professionals throughout her career, her films never became as Iconic as Hepburn’s did.
Three Coins in The Fountain
From a studio perspective, casting Maggie McNamara in Three Coins in The Fountain felt like a logical next step: it put the star of The Moon is Blue into a light comedy abroad. This film sells McNamara (the trailer even refers to her as “The Wise Little Girl of ‘The Moon is Blue’”), but she’s playing a smaller part in a bigger tapestry. Three Coins tells the story of three women (McNamara, Jean Peters, Dorothy McGuire) who find romance and marriage in Rome. The film’s director, Jean Negulesco was a studio director at 20th Century Fox and friend of Preminger’s. For Three Coins, they brought him on to make a Rome set light comedy film in the spirit of their previous comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), which starred Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall. It became the biggest financial success of McNamara’s career.
The style of the film also brings out another side of McNamara. For Three Coins, the studio asked Negulesco to use Cinemascope, a process that squeezes the frame to stretch it to 2 and a half times the size of a normal screen. With this process, most scenes play out in the staging of master shots or medium shots as it was legitimately hard to get close-ups without rear projection at the time the film was made. While McNamara does a professional job, the film reveals a whole bunch of her nervous habits. She seems to not know what to do with her hands. She touches her face multiple times. She looks down instead of looking somebody in the eye. She nervously licks her lips. This works somewhat as she plays a shy character who lies about who she is to win an unobtainable man, but the character seems to call for a confident comedic performance more like the one in The Moon is Blue. Some of these habits carry over into Prince of Players, but seem quite pronounced here due to the style of the film.
Prince of Players
Her next film, Prince of Players, would demonstrate a warmer side of McNamara. The directorial debut of screenwriter Phillip Dunne (who had previously scripted How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Robe (1953)), the 102-minute film tries to include all of Edwin Booth’s life, from his father to his brother to his wife and it comes across as a little compromised. That being said, McNamara plays one of the best parts in the movie. As Booth’s terminally ill wife, she has a great scene in the movie where she tries to get out of bed to go see her husband. It makes the audience see her struggle to get across the room and back. While small, it does illustrate McNamara’s talent well.
When McNamara first left Show business in 1955, two big events happened in her life. First, McNamara’s father died. Second, she got divorced from her husband, Screenwriter and future film and television director David Swift. At the time, Swift worked as a TV writer and producer known for creating Mr. Peepers (1952-1955). In his later career, Swift would become known for the creator of light comedy films. He directed two films with Jack Lemmon and two films with Hayley Mills. Perhaps most famously, he wrote and directed Disney’s The Parent Trap (1961) with Mills. His last credited work is that film’s 1998 remake.
When obituaries came out shortly after her death, they often included quotes from Preminger to describe McNamara. Preminger attributed McNamara’s apparent breakdown to fame and said something went wrong with her marriage. Preminger said that “she had suffered a nervous breakdown after divorce and just gave up acting.”
Return to the Screen
When McNamara came back to screen acting in her early thirties, she played a different character: a spinsterish woman who never settled down. No longer shackled by leading roles, McNamara became a character actor for a short time, starting with Preminger’s The Cardinal.
Made in Preminger’s period of making epics, the almost three-hour long film features McNamara in about 4 or 5 scenes as Florrie, the older spinsterish sister of priest Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) and McNamara’s most terrifying role. In the film, the filmmakers dress McNamara up in glasses and make her seem as sweet and innocent as possible. She seems like everybody’s aunt. As a character, Florrie exists in the background most of the time, but in her one big scene she reveals her anti-Semitic views on her sister Mona’s Jewish fiancé (John Saxon). By making the innocent sweet sister a racist, Preminger makes it clear that anybody’s sister or aunt can be racist. McNamara plays the role fine, but has very little to do. By contrast, Hepburn had previously starred in The Nun’s Story in 1959, a similar epic about the Catholic church based on a novel. Unlike most of her films, that film displays Hepburn in a less glamorous role to the audience.
However, none of these films quite capture Maggie McNamara as well as an episode of TV.
Twilight Zone: “Ring-A-Ding Girl”
Probably the best encapsulation of who McNamara was came in the form of a Twilight Zone episode: “Ring-A-Ding Girl” (1963). Unlike most of her other roles, McNamara plays a woman with a struggle independent of a man. In the episode, McNamara plays Bunny Blake, an actress torn between her ambitions and her family. She is a character who made a decision that McNamara declined: to leave her hometown for Hollywood. As she tells her nephew, while she loves her hometown to death, she had too much ambition to stay there. The episode presents a more freewheeling version of McNamara. Strutting around in a fur coat, she seems almost like she’s playing the star that the Hollywood system wanted her to be. According to episode writer Earl Hammer Jr., the furs were McNamara’s idea. However, underneath Bunny’s brash exterior lies a woman who’s kind and caring. The episode ends on a bittersweet note with McNamara saving the town in the most heartbreaking and supernatural way possible.
Despite her complicated career in Hollywood, she never seemed to see herself as a victim of the Hollywood system or fame itself. In an obituary for the Village Voice, a friend noted that she did not seem too sad or resentful about her career in Hollywood: “Maggie didn’t pine for the old days. Occasionally she talked about Richard Burton, and she admired Jean Peters, but all that was long ago.” Another acquaintance of hers said that “whatever happened to Maggie… wasn’t because of rejection. It was because of her own desires. She wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring. The phone rang. She just never answered.” Although she had a brush with fame, it never seemed as important to her as it did to the Hollywood system.
In her commentary for Three Coins in the Fountain, film historian Jeanine Basinger talks about how the 1950’s was a time where women’s film told the audience to “undercut conformity, but conform.” In Three Coins, this means a woman should travel the world and be independent, but also settle down and marry a man according to the morality of the day. It also fits both Hepburn and McNamara’s career well.
Hepburn conformed to the studio system while adding her own style to the movies she starred in. Hepburn will always be remembered as a fashion icon and actress. Her career left an indelible imprint on the history of the film.
McNamara, on the other hand, played her roles like a pro, but never conformed to the studio system. The Village Voice obituary stated that “someone else who knew her well said that she was ‘a volatile, delightful woman, yet possessed of demons. She spoke of death more than most of us do. She was so full of life – and so full of death, always singing and dancing, but always angry at the injustices of the system.’” Big and brash yet small and frightened, she was a consummate performer yet a private and shy person. A one of a kind person and actress, McNamara illustrated a genuine presence in her short yet memorable career.
Originally published to FilmExodus. Updated and revised for Screenage Wasteland.