Family & Companions
A petite brunette, McNamara was part of the 1950s vogue for slender gamines (Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Shirley MacLaine) which stood at the opposite extreme from the equally popular voluptuous sex goddesses (Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield). Less chic than Hepburn, less wistful than Caron and less rowdy than MacLaine, she had a perky, determined quality not unlike Debbie Reynolds. Unlike all of the above, however, McNamara enjoyed only a partial and brief success, partly undone by a history of mental illness.
A teenage fashion model, McNamara studied dance and drama for three years before making it onto Broadway in 1951; the style of the dutiful neophyte would never leave her. She soon enjoyed success when she replaced Barbara Bel Geddes in the lead of the coy, smarmy sex farce "The Moon Is Blue." When Otto Preminger combated Hollywood's Production Code head-on by refusing to remove the words "virgin," "mistress," "pregnant" and "seduction" from his 1953 film adaptation, the resulting notoriety meant that McNamara was in a huge hit in her film debut. Critical opinion was extremely split on her somewhat mannered pertness, but she copped an Oscar nomination that year as Best Actress.
Signed by Fox, McNamara consolidated her status in another huge hit, "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954), though she received much less attention amid an all-star cast and especially the postcard-pretty Italian settings. After a third film, "Prince of Players" (1955), though, McNamara left Hollywood. She later did a bit of stage work ("Step on a Crack" 1962) and Preminger tried to help her out with a supporting role as one of the protagonist's sisters in his earnest epic "The Cardinal" (1963). Divorced from director David Swift, she worked for a time as a typist, but was almost entirely unheard of until a suicide note and her body, dead from sleeping pills, were found shortly before she would have turned 50.
Made Broadway debut
Replaced Barbara Bel Geddes in the leading female role of the hit Broadway comedy, "The Moon Is Blue" (Date approximate)
Made feature film debut reprising her role in Otto Preminger's adaptation of "The Moon Is Blue"
Made second of two films for Fox, "Prince of Players"; was her last film for eight years
Returned to Broadway after many years to act a role in "Step on a Crack"
Returned to films when director Otto Premingers cast her in a supporting role in the film, "The Cardinal"; proved to be her last film