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Italian American Romance in the Era Before Roe v. Wade

Italian American Romance in the Era Before Roe v. Wade

Laura E. Ruberto (April 4, 2009)
"Love with the Proper Stranger" 1963

The 1963 film Love with the Proper Stranger dealt with the limited choices faced by an Italian American woman a decade before abortion was legalized in the U.S.



Last month the Sacramento Italian Cultural Society screened the 1963 film Love with the Proper Stranger. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Natalie Wood’s portrayal of Angie Rossini, the young Italian American woman who finds herself pregnant after a one-night encounter with Rocky Papasano (played by Steve McQueen).
The film’s exposition quickly gets to the drama at hand: Angie, a sales clerk at Macy’s, goes looking for Rocky on her lunch break at a New York City musicians’ hiring hall, and tells him frankly:
I’m gonna have a baby…..Don’t worry, I’m not gonna cause you any trouble, all I want from you is a doctor, an address, you know.
The film comes the closest I’ve seen in a pre-Roe v. Wade era to showing an illegal abortion. Even more interesting is the sensitive way it handles the challenging decision faced by Angie as she courageously leaves her overbearing family and wrestles with the possibility of single motherhood.
It has long fascinated me that director Robert Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman placed Italian American characters at the center of this narrative, a story with a very controversial topic, not to mention a ghastly visual image of the set up for a back-alley abortion. (I first watched the film in 1999 after I heard about it at the American Italian Historical Association’s Annual Conference, where Marina de Bellagente La Palma presented a paper juxtaposing Love with the Proper Stranger with Saturday Night Fever.)
French Movie Poster

The film makes use of Italian American characters to give shape to a narrative that in great part is simply about generational rifts within immigrant families—marked most prominently by a bohemian tendency in a young man who doesn’t want to settle down and a young woman’s growing sense of independence. But what makes the film particularly noteworthy is that it does so without a single gangster in sight. Although some of the supporting characters are drawn in stereotypical fashion (e.g., nagging mothers, protective brothers), the two protagonists—Rocky and Angie—come across as complex, layered characters.
In no way does the film shy away from marking the protagonists and their immediate families as Italian American—from bocce and vino to vegetable peddlers and exchanges in Italian. As Marina deBellagente La Palma puts it, the protagonists “are meticulously authenticized as Italian-American through names, accents, neighborhoods, mannerisms...” (unpublished paper).
La Palma offers an astute reading of the film, calling it, for one, an “inverted Romeo and Juliet story,” where the families would love for them to get together. For La Palma, the character’s “italianicity” is a great illustration of ethnic stereotyping for the sake of easy story-telling. In other words:
            in the strict economy of commercial cinema, it has served as a kind of compression: to
            quickly make a working class character recognizable to large urban audiences….
Moreover, the film, for La Palma, is emblematic of the larger generational “gulf between immigrants and their Americanized children”: by making the characters Italian the film addresses “quintessentially American themes of upward mobility and the importance of individuation, the Italian family provides an apt and ready-made foil.”
Belgian Movie Poster
There have been a few other academic readings of the book, mostly having to do with the film’s sympathetic portrayal of Angie—the decisions she faces and the actions she takes in this period where sexual mores were looser but before abortion became legal in the United States. In these analyses, Angie and Rocky’s ethnicity is usually just noted in passing.
Theresa Carilli, however, in her “Still Crazy After All These Years,” suggests a reading that counters La Palma’s and argues that the film “failed to present . . . multidimensionality of character” and goes on to say that
some of the family interaction, which had a seemingly comic intention, was overplayed and made the characters appear like unsympathetic whiners. (119)
This overplaying is certainly part of the broad strokes with which some of the characters are drawn, especially, I’d argue, Angie’s brothers (wonderfully played by Herschel Bernardi and Harvey Lembeck). However, they fail to win our sympathies not so much because they are caricatures—which they are—but because they refuse to accept Angie as a fully-individualized woman.
My reading of the film favors La Palma’s take. Angie and Rocky are thoughtful and sensible even at their most ambivalent; further, Wood’s and McQueen’s performances are human and real.
The film ends predictably, with the two opting for marriage. Angie rejects her other options—a dangerous abortion, single motherhood, or a loveless marriage (her well-intentioned suitor, played by Tom Bosley, would have never been able to fulfill her full desires). It’s an ending that could fairly be read as reactionary and, at the least, like any old Hollywood light drama.
The film does not have the artistic flare of, say, Morris Engel’s 1958 Weddings and Babies—another film that situates Italian American assimilation in the hands of the smart and young. But Love with the Proper Stranger gives us a glimpse into some of the conflicts between Old World Ways and New World possibilities--conflicts that suggest the likelihood that tomorrow some lovers might find a hybrid, or just plain kooky, way of making it all work out.
(Mille grazie to Marina De Bellagente La Palma for sharing her unpublished essay with me.)

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