May 6, 2014

Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth

 photo ScreenShot2014-04-27at94754PM.jpg
1937's batch of Best Actress contenders have proven to be tougher for me to evaluate than in other years. Grading Barbara Stanwyck's work in Stella Dallas was confusing in that I initially didn't know what to make of her hamminess. Luise Rainer's performance in The Good Earth was personally divisive given all the racial baggage that comes with the picture. And finally, along comes The Awful Truth, a light and silly comedy which provides some much needed, good 'ol fashioned amusement to balance out the somber deaths and sacrifices seen in the films of the other nominees. Irene Dunne's work in The Awful Truth was kind of difficult for me to analyze initially, because it's such a stark contrast from the scenes of sobbing and pain that I was forced to endure from the other ladies. In fact, it would seem as if Dunne's not putting in as much effort as everybody else, but with a closer look I realized it's easy to miss out on the little details that make her performance so effortlessly delightful.

 photo ScreenShot2014-04-27at93338PM.jpgWhen Dunne barges into The Awful Truth, she does so in a giant white fur coat and the very first thing she utters is a pitchy exhale of bewilderment. In that very moment I knew I was keen on her. I think the best description I've seen on the internet of Lucy is that she's "airily sophisticated and madcap," and Dunne inhibits these characteristics of Lucy wonderfully. She maintains an aura of sophistication on her at all times--in particular, I just adored Dunne's facial reactions to Dixie Lee's musical number...the way she takes breaths and shifts her head and eyes is so deliciously snobby. What was most striking is how natural she is in this film. Director Leo McCarey was apparently a huge enthusiast of improvisation, so what we have is a performance in which Dunne includes so many little tics and subtleties--whether it's a scrunch of the nose here or a throaty vocal inflection there--their inclusion makes it look so lived-in that they're easy to miss, yet if you catch them, it really accentuates the comedy of the film. An example of this is when Daniel suggests that Lucy come visit his Oklahoma ranch sometime, to which Dunne replies, "Oh, well I don't get out there very..." before stopping her sentence completely and shaking her head at the thought. Another is when Jerry unknowingly tries on Armand's oversized hat, and in an attempt to dissuade his suspicions Lucy tells him that sticking his ears underneath the hat will make it fit. When Jerry thinks it's a silly idea, Dunne responds, "Well I mean...well, I put my ears under..." It's shrewd and understated moments like these that I got a kick out of, and it feels like Dunne is Lucy. This may not seem like such a major transformative achievement as say, the way Charlize Theron is Aileen Wuornos, the way Marion Cotillard is Edith Piaf, or the way Meryl Streep is Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher, but watching Dunne, one really feels that she is in real life every bit as fun-loving, ironic, charming, and high-hat as Lucy is.

 photo ScreenShot2014-04-27at84932PM.jpg
Further, Dunne's comedic delivery and timing is top-notch. The way she says lines like, "That's right Armand, no one can ever accuse you for being a great lover" or "just the one hand?" or "I do laugh at the oddest times" is hilarious. Dunne also has a knack for being able to shoot out loads of lines so quickly while still maintaining the qualities of her character. She makes the technicalities of comedy look so easy you forget she's acting. And in the last sequence of the film, in which Lucy lays in bed, hoping that Jerry will join her, Dunne shades Lucy with a radiant layer of sensuality. It's a new side of Lucy, that throughout all the silliness we hadn't yet seen, the way she gazes at Cary Grant and tones her speaking voice down to a purr. And it caps off a superb, well-rounded performance that's delightfully realized. So pleasant and so full of fun, in regards to the other 1937 Best Actress nominees, Dunne's performance is like a sweet little cherry on top.



  1. I remember liking the film a lot. I must've seen it 2 or 3 times. [though not recently]

    Hope we didn't influence ur ranking. :D

    1. No worries, I like knowing how other people's feelings on certain performances. Sometimes if I don't like a certain performance that much but someone else really does like it, it helps me to see aspects of that performance from a different perspective. Doesn't influence too much, as I usually pick what my gut tells me to :)

      That said, Dunne is great but I don't think I liked her as much as everyone else did. And The Awful Truth, while entertaining, isn't quite on the same level as My Man Godfrey or It Happened One Night, imo

    2. Well, I'm one of the very few ppl who find IHON to be just good, not fabulous. :)
      and... I guess I've always had a soft spot for Cary Grant and Cary Grant comedies.

      so Greta is winning, ha? :) don't tell me.