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Film Friday: "Love with the Proper Stranger" (1963)

For this week's "Film Friday" I have decided to tell you a little bit about one of my favorite films of all time, classic or otherwise. Because sometimes, "there is a moment a long moment when everything is risked with the proper stranger."

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Mulligan, Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) tells the story of Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood), an Italian-American salesgirl at Macy's department store who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with a struggling jazz musician named Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen). She informs him that she is pregnant and asks him to recommend a doctor, whereupon he consults his current girlfriend, stripper Barbie (Edie Adams), but she jealously refuses to help him. Unaware of her pregnancy, Angie's mother (Penny Stanton) and older brothers, Dominick (Herschel Bernardi) and Julio (Harvey Lembeck), want her to marry Anthony Colombo (Tom Bosley), a shy cook and also of Italian extraction.

Eventually, Rocky manages to raise the necessary money to pay for the abortion, then looks up Angie at working place and takes her to meet his unsuspecting parents (Mario Badolati and Augusta Ciolli), who immediately like her. However, when it turns out that the abortionist is not qualified, Rocky refuses to let Angie go through with the dangerous procedure. After meeting Dominick and Julio, now aware of their sister's condition, Rocky offers to marry Angie, but she declines, saying that she wants a love relationship and a wedding with "bells and banjos." Angie moves out of the family home and reconsiders Anthony's proposal, for he has let it be known that she is expecting his child. By acting distant, Angie attracts Rocky, whom she invites to dinner at her new apartment. Before the meal, Rocky makes advances on her and is rejected. She says she does not want to make the same mistake again, they quarrel and she throws him out. The next day, however, Rocky wins her over by ringing bells and playing the banjo near the Macy's employees' entrance, carrying a sign reading: "Better Wed than Dead."

Angie Rossini: [listening to the song "Love with the Proper Stranger"] That's what love is bells and banjos playing? How they brainwash you! And here I spend my whole life like a nut waiting for what? A stranger.

The son of a Bronx policeman, Robert Mulligan was prevented from becoming a priest by the outbreak of World War II. After being discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps, Mulligan obtained work in the editorial department of The New York Times, but soon left to pursue a career in the emergent medium of television. Employed by the CBS network, he worked on some of the most successful anthology series of the 1950s, including Studio One (1948-1958), Playhouse 90 (1956-1960) and DuPont Show of the Month (1957-1961). His  feature directing debut was made with the baseball biopic Fear Strikes Out (1957), the first of seven pictures he would helm alongside Alan J. Pakula, a producer (and future Academy Award-nominated director and screenwriter) who had gained a foothold in the industry with an assistant job at Warner Bros.' cartoon department in 1949. Mulligan and Pakula's second collaboration was To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), a screen adaptation of Harper Lee's 1960 best-selling novel of the same name, starring Gregory Peck. The film received critical and commercial acclaim, winning three Oscars out of the eight for which it was nominated.

Following the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Mulligan and Pakula formed their own production unit at Paramount Pictures and hired writer Arnold Schulman to help them develop the perfect follow-up project, "something dramatic that resonated with a layer of social consciousness." Another veteran of 1950s live television dramas, Schulman had since written George Cukor's Wild is the Wind (1957), Frank Capra's A Hole in the Head (1959) and Anthony Mann's Cimarron (1960). A few months later, Schulman delivered Love with the Proper Stranger, a romantic comedy-drama which "had all the makings of one of those 1950s kitchen-sink TV dramas [he and Mulligan] had cut their teeth on." To Kill a Mockingbird had dealt with the themes of race and rape; Love with the Proper Stranger confronted the issue of illegal abortion. The film was made ten years before the Supreme Court declared abortion legal (to the third trimester of pregnancy) in Roe v. Wade.

Steve McQueen as Rocky Papasano
For the role of Rocky Papasano, Mulligan initially approached Paul Newman, who eventually turned it down in favor of the male lead in Martin Ritt's Hud (1963). The part was then offered to Steve McQueen, whom Mulligan had directed in a two-part television drama entitled "The Defender," produced in 1957 for Studio One. A former Marine, McQueen began learning his craft at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse in 1951, before moving to the Uta Hagen-Herbert Berghof Dramatic School. In 1955, he was one of only five of some 2000 auditionees to gain admittance to the prestigious Actors Studio, known for its "Method" approach to acting. Later that year, he moved to California and found work in several television series, achieving widespread recognition playing the lead role in CBS's Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961). His breakthrough role in the film industry came in The Magnificent Seven (1960), a western directed by John Sturgess, co-starring Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach. Prior to start working on Love with the Proper Stranger, McQueen filmed the World War II epic The Great Escape (1963), the film he is most associated with. 

Apparently, McQueen "read the script overnight and committed the next morning." Indeed, there were several reasons why he wanted to star in Love with the Proper Stranger. Although his action pictures brought large numbers of men into theatres, he knew he would never be considered a true A-list star until he became a romantic lead and was able to attract a large female audience. He was also attracted to the idea of working with "winning talent" like Mulligan and Pakula; of doing a "one-on-one romance" opposite a beautiful leading lady, something he had not yet attempted on screen; and of filming on location in New York, where he had gotten his start in acting. In addition and as always McQueen wanted outdo Newman, his self-perceived biggest rival, and he was certain that Rocky Papasano was the perfect role for that.

Wood and McQueen in a publicity still
The "beautiful leading lady" chosen to play Angie Rossini was Natalie Wood, who made her screen debut at the age of five in a small, non-speaking role in Irving Pichel's Happy Land (1943). One of Hollywood's top child stars in the post-war era, she transitioned successfully into more adult roles with an Academy Award-nominated performance in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Wood's career stalled in the late 1950s, but she made a triumphant comeback with  Elia Kazan's Spendlor in the Grass (1961), which earned her a second Oscar nomination, and Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's West Side Story (1961).

By the time Love with the Proper Stranger began production, Wood had divorced her first husband, actor Robert Wagner (whom she remarried ten years later), and embarked on a difficult relationship with Warren Beatty, her co-star in Splendor in the Grass. To get herself into character, she relied on her feelings for Beatty. According to Tom Bosley, who made his motion picture debut as the unappealing cook Anthony Colombo, Wood "was able to use, obviously, her relationship with Beatty in some of the scenes with McQueen, there's no question about it." For her part, Edie Adams, who played McQueen's regular girlfriend in the film, recalled that "she was vulnerable to anything at that point. She was more fragile than people thought." As Wood herself remembered, "Making Love with the Proper Stranger was the most rewarding experience I had in films, all the way around. [...] [M]y personal was quite meager then and the picture was 'it,' we were like a family."

McQueen and Wood during the making of the film
Neile Adams, McQueen's wife at the time, believed that Wood "was making a play" for her husband during the making of Love with the Proper Stranger. "Natalie had a real crush on Steve," Adams said. "She tried every which way to ensnare him short of using a butterfly net, including adolescent tricks like waiting on the steps of her dressing trailer for Steve to pass and then pretending to be talking to someone inside. It gave Natalie an opportunity to stop him and chat. Steve was amused by the methods she employed and actually looked forward to the next day's shoot to see what her next move would be." Although Adams lost her husband to Ali McGraw in 1972, she claimed that McQueen resisted Wood's advances for two reasons: first, he was very much in love with his wife and devoted to their two children; second, Wood had been married to one of his best friends, Robert Wagner, his co-star in The War Lover (1962).

When she made Love with the Proper Stranger with Steve McQueen, she was on the rebound from Warren and, in general, feeling punitive toward him. I saw her and Steven working together and sensed a closeness that went beyond the camera. Later, when I asked, she looked up and grinned wickedly the closest I think she could come to a leer, which was not very close at all. I hope it happened, because it could have provided her with comfort during some unhappy times.
(Lana Wood)

Mulligan, Wood and McQueen on location in New York
Love with the Proper Stranger opened at Loew's State Theatre in New York on December 25, 1963 to generally mixed reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "Miss Wood's little salesgirl is a charming and credible lass whose most dramatic moment is that ordeal in a market-district loft, which Robert Mulligan has directed with harrowing forcefulness and tact. [...] But, I must say, I cannot go with her in her enthusiasm for the whirling dervish of Mr. McQueen. He's a face-squinching simpleton, for my money. Let's hope she is happy with him. The picture itself is diverting, but weak on that main romantic point." For their part, Variety said that the film "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."

The joint power of Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen was enough to make Love with the Proper Stranger the 13th highest grossing film of 1963, with an initial domestic theatrical take of nearly $6 million. At the 36th Academy Awards held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in April 1964, Wood received a third nomination for Best Actress, while the film was nominated for four additional Oscars: Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Costume Design (Black and White). Despite Newsweek's strong lobbying, McQueen did not get a Best Actor nomination; even with his much publicized "retirement," he was openly disappointed about it. Regardless, McQueen liked the experience enough to work with Robert Mulligan immediately after in the drama Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), co-starring Lee Remick. Wood also returned to work with Mulligan again on Inside Daisy Clover (1965), which featured Robert Redford in his second film role.

Feature Cinema in the 20th Century: A Comprehensive Guide. Volume 2: 1951-1963  by Jacek Klinowski and Adam Garbicz (2012) | Natalie and R.J.: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner by Warren G. Harris (2011) |  Natalie: A Memoir About Natalie Wood by Her Sister by Lana Wood (2011) | Natalie Wood: A Life by Gavin Lambert (2004) | Steve McQueen: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2011) | Steve McQueen: The Great Escape by Wes D. Gehring (2009) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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