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MOVIES
Irma la Douce

United Artists/1963

One of the most publicized and eagerly awaited films of 1963 was my next vehicle - 'Irma la Douce'. It was based on a highly successful 1960 Broadway musical about a Parisian prostitute. The film was to be directed by Billy Wilder, probably the hottest director in Hollywood at that time. He had done 'Some Like It Hot' and 'The Apartment'. Both of those films had broken records for box office receipts for a comedy.

Jack Lemmon was set and signed for the male lead, but Irma, it was reported, was to be played by Marilyn Monroe. After Marilyn's death in 1962, Elizabeth Taylor was prominently mentioned around town as the front runner for the coveted role. I felt the part would be disastrous for a Hollywood sex symbol like Monroe or Taylor. To me, Irma was more naive, wide-eyed and an innocent-looking, young thing, like I was in those days. I was surprised when Billy Wilder called me to say that he had been impressed with the chemistry between Jack and me in 'The Apartment'. Then he asked when I could begin filming! I remember signing to do Irma without even reading the script because I believed in Jack and Billy.

Without Billy's knowledge, Jack and I went to Paris' 'Les Halles' district and spent two days in a house of ill repute to study and observe the working girls. This is where I met Danielle, the French hooker that I patterned my character of Irma after. Danielle spent hours with me. She explained the routines and skills required in her profession. I learned so much in those two days. There are certain inalienable traditions in the world of prostitution such as never removing one's shoes or the speed at which they accomplish their goals - sometimes turning seventeen tricks in an hour. There is an unbelievable sense of camaraderie and mutual respect among the girls, but there is also a sadness and spiritual emptiness in them. The realization that Danielle and many of the others were hooked on dope and were working only to satisfy their drug habits had a profound impact on my life. This experience reaffirmed my disdain for all forms of drugs and is still with me, even today.

Filming took place at the Goldwyn Studios where the Les Halles district was reproduced on several sound stages. Controversy surrounded the filming as many of America's more prudish interests feared the film would border on pornography and there was concern that it might not pass censorship. After all, this was the 60's.

The picture was released in June of 1963 and proved to be as controversial as expected. In some quarters it was criticized for its boldness and in others chastised for not going far enough. Still the picture had a healthy domestic gross and I received my third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. I lost to Patricia Neal and her performance in 'Hud', but I did win the Golden Globe. During the ceremonies I was accepting the award and telling the television audience how moved I was during my sojourn among the Parisian streetwalkers. Then I cracked a joke about how I had enjoyed my research so much that I nearly gave up acting. Well, it was funny to those in the house audience, but not considered at all humorous for television. They pulled the plug on me! Such was the hypocrisy of the '60s.

About Shirley
Shirley in Irma la Douce
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