Summer Under the Stars: Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)

TCM’s star of the day is Natalie Wood, and my film pick for the actress is Love with the Proper Stranger, which airs today at 10:15 P.M. (EST).

This romantic comedy-drama follows a Macy’s sales clerk named Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood), who finds out she’s pregnant after a one-night stand with a musician named Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen). She tracks him down so that he’ll help find her a doctor for an abortion, only to find he hardly remembers her at first. But he decides to help her out, and as the two spend more time together leading up to the appointment, they get to know each other better, and in turn, begin to figure out what they want out of life and love.

By the time Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen starred together in Love with the Proper Stranger, the two were coming off big-budget films from earlier in the decade, from West Side Story and Gypsy for Wood, and The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape for McQueen. Unlike their previous screen appearances, Love with the Proper Stranger was much smaller in scope, focusing on a more intimate subject matter. The movie earned both stars some of the best notices of their careers, as they both received Golden Globe nominations in the drama category for Best Actress and Best Actor. The film itself also earned five Academy Award nominations, including Wood’s third and final Oscar nomination, her second in the Best Actress category. Also nominated for the film was costume designer Edith Head, who went on to collaborate with Wood in six more films, the most times she worked with any other star in her storied career (she had also worked on three prior films Wood had appeared in as a child). In multiple ways, Love with the Proper Stranger marked a major turning point for Wood after working in Hollywood after nearly two decades.

Natalie Wood is one of the most successful child stars to transition to a respected actress. She made her first credited film debut at just eight years old in 1946’s Tomorrow Is Forever, opposite such acting heavyweights as Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert. Even at her young age and just getting started in the business, Welles recognized her talent, saying she was “so good, she was terrifying.” Wood practically grew up before audiences, acting in more pictures as a child, most notably Miracle on 34th Street, and later graduating to teen stardom in such films as Rebel Without a Cause, for which she earned her first Oscar nomination, her only one in the supporting category. It was in 1961 when she really became a major Hollywood star, with the one-two punch of Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story both released that same year, with the former providing her another Oscar nomination, this time in the lead category. After such a banner year for Wood, she moved into more mature roles, and Love with the Proper Stranger marked her true turn into an adult actress. With her role in the film, she was able to exercise her acting skills more than ever before, displaying much more than her natural charisma. As mentioned previously, Wood earned another Oscar nomination for her work here, and with three nods under her belt, she became the youngest to make that feat at age 25 alongside Teresa Wright (the record was later broken in the 2010s first by Jennifer Lawrence and Saoirse Ronan, who both scored their third nominations at age 23 and have since earned more). Though it was the last time Wood received Oscar recognition for her work, she still had great successes ahead of her that decade, such as the box office smash The Great Race, more dramatic turns in Inside Daisy Clover and This Property Is Condemned, and ending the 1960s in a major adult role with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Entering the 1970s, she slowed down her career to focus more on her family, and after sporadic film and TV roles, she made her final onscreen appearance in 1983’s Brainstorm, released two years after her tragic death at the age of 43. But despite her untimely passing, Wood left behind a wealth of great performances that show the full range of her talent from a young child to a grown adult.

While there are other films Natalie Wood is best remembered for, it was Love With the Proper Stranger that she held in the highest regard. She said working on the film was “the most rewarding experience [she] had in all films, all the way around.” And it’s not hard to see why, as she was able to really develop her skills and was now well-regarded as a serious actress. She also formed one of the most important collaborations of her career with Edith Head, whose costumes in Wood’s other films helped form her characters. With this film, it’s amazing to see how much Wood had grown from the girl questioning Kris Kringle in Macy’s to a working woman as a sales clerk in the same department store.

For an actress who often expressed vulnerability in her work, I think Natalie Wood gives her most deeply-felt performance, and it’s become my personal favorite of all the great work she turned throughout her career. It embodies both the best of her dramatic abilities as well as her on-screen charm that audiences continue to fall in love with decades later.

I wrote this as a part of the 2020 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!

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