Born Yesterday (1950) Directed by George Cukor. Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford. 103 min.

Over fifty years ago, Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar in this comic fable, confounding her competition, Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. She plays Billie Dawn, the unruly mistress of millionaire junk dealer Harry Brock. Afraid she'll embarrass him in front of the congressman he is planning to bribe, Harry hires a tweedy tutor (William Holden) to smooth her rough edges.Of course, everyone gets the education they deserve.

Comedy heroines can get away with plenty that dramatic heroines cannot. But, unlike the madcap heiresses of 1930s screwball comedy, the wacky behavior of the 1950s dumb blonde is linked to dimness, rather than a liberating eccentricity. Holliday was a comedienne of shrewd intelligence and exuberant talent. Her not-so-dumb blondes enjoy a superior detachment from the world and were a model for the slightly later comic characters of Marilyn Monroe.

Holliday's Oscar win is considered one of the great upsets in Academy Award history. From a modern point of view, it does not seem at all odd that two flamboyant "older" actresses, playing aggressive, sexually voracious women with younger lovers, were rejected in favor of a pretty actress validating the 1950s status quo.

Garson Kanin wrote the play, Born Yesterday for Jean Arthur, who dropped out right before opening night. Judy Holliday learned the role in 3 days, and played it on Broadway for 4 years, opposite Paul Douglas. In the play, Harry, the millionaire junk dealer, was a more sympathetic character, and the young reporter was a bit of a stuffed shirt. Broderick Crawford specialized in boorish characters, and was cast in the film because he had won an Oscar the year before for All the King's Men. He is not much of a romantic rival for William Holden's Paul Verrall. Holden had been groomed for stardom much earlier, in 1939, after playing the title role in Golden Boy. He'd spent over a decade playing bland leading men, and after his WWII service, he restarted his career. Holden's cynical outlook and slightly used pretty boy looks are shown to great advantage in this film, and even more memorably in Sunset Boulevard in the year 1950.

Holliday also had a false start in films. As a member of the comedy group, The Revuers, with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, she was hired to appear in a Carmen Miranda movie called Greenwich Village. The Revuers act was cut out of the film, but they can still be glimpsed as extras. One of their nightclub routines was a satire of the early days of talking pictures, which Comden and Green expanded into the brilliant musical Singing in the Rain. In the film, Jean Hagen closely modeled her performance of the screeching diva Lina Lamont on Holliday's performance in the nightclub skit.

Harry Cohn of Columbia paid $1 million for the play Born Yesterday intending to star his hottest property, Rita Hayworth. He was forced to shelve the project after her marriage to Aly Kahn. Cohn, a famously vulgar and abusive film mogul, did not want Holliday "that fat Jewish broad" in the part. Director George Cukor shrewdly showcased Holliday in a pivotal part in the Katharine Hepburn--Spencer Tracy film Adam's Rib and he relented. Holliday was glamourized in classic Hollywood style, with 13 elaborate outfits by designer Jean Louis. She said later, " I love to cook and I love to eat what I've cooked. But when I was doing Born Yesterday for Columbia, I had to diet for months. I had to show up at the studio 2 hours before they started shooting. From 7-8, they worked on my hair. From 8-9, they worked on my face. And, they bleached me every other day." Judy Holliday only made 6 other films. She was called before the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee right after making this film. She mystified the questioners who accused her of Communist activities by answering in the voice and illogical logic of her Born Yesterday character, Billie Dawn. She wasn't officially blacklisted by the HUAC, but her refusal to cooperate cost her at least part of her career. She was a good businesswoman and became rich, but died of breast cancer in 1965 at the age of 43. No grand mystique clung to her after her death, as it so often does to movie stars who die prematurely.

In Born Yesterday, Harry's junk business represents the abuses of capitalism, which must be reformed by the ideals of democracy. This is symbolized by the 1950s agenda of taming Billie's comically rowdy behavior and indoctrinate her with a little middle class virtue and restraint, especially sexual restraint. In many films, hero or heroine are transformed when they take off their glasses. In Born Yesterday Billie puts her glasses on.

 

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c. moviediva2000RevisedMay2005