#164) Born Yesterday (1950)
OR “Billie’s Holliday”
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Albert Mannheimer (More on that later). Based on the play by Garson Kanin.
Class of 2012
The Plot: Wealthy junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) takes up residence in a Washington D.C. hotel suite while he’s in town to “buy” a senator. He brings along his equally brash fiancée Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), a stereotypical dumb blonde and former showgirl. Realizing her lack of intelligence could ruin his chances of impressing the political elite, Harry requests Billie be tutored by freelance D.C. reporter Paul Verrall (William Holden). Though initially hesitant, Billie soon finds herself becoming enlightened and more self-assured through her lessons. As time goes on she starts to question the tumultuous relationship (both personal and professional) she has with Harry, and develops feelings for Paul. Hilarity (and political/social commentary) ensues.
Why It Matters: The NFR compliments the script, and calls Judy Holliday’s performance “one of the era’s most finely realized comedy performances.” An essay by film archivist Ariel Schudson gives an overview of production, as well as I’ll assume a mandatory emphasis on the film’s scenes in the Library of Congress.
But Does It Really?: I’m gonna chalk this one up to “minor classic”. It’s good, and still very funny, but the material shows its age in just enough places to prevent full enjoyment. This all being said, Judy Holliday’s performance is worth the trip out. She’s giving easily one of the best comic performances on film. I just wish the movie as a whole matched Judy’s level of comic genius.
Everybody Gets One: Though not a prolific screenwriter throughout his career, Albert Mannheimer got the plum task of adapting the hit Broadway play into a film. After the powers that be were unsatisfied with his screenplay, playwright Garson Kanin was brought in to adapt his own work to the screen. For legal reasons, Kanin remained uncredited, and Mannheimer received an Oscar nomination and an NFR credit, despite very little of his work actually being used.
Wow, That’s Dated: Evening papers, and the stigma associated with wearing glasses (he said while adjusting his glasses). Also pretty dated is the speech about how all senators are honest, hard-working, and not corrupt at all. Uh-huh.
Seriously, Oscars?: In a year dominated by “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve”, “Born Yesterday” managed five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. With major competition from Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and Gloria Swanson, Judy Holliday won Best Actress in a victory so surprising even Holliday herself didn’t think she would win. The film lost in all of its other categories to “All About Eve”.
- A few words about Judy Holliday’s performance: For starters, it’s pretty damn perfect. Her Billie is somehow shrill and uneducated without being annoying or one-note. The joy of her performance is watching the gears turn in Billie’s head as she starts to think (or doesn’t) for herself. I suspect her Oscar win is considered an upset because the film is not the classic “Sunset Boulevard” or “All About Eve” is. But Judy is giving a performance that’s just as electric as the work of Swanson or Davis or Baxter. Plus there’s no way the Academy could have known which of these films would become classics. Further proof that awards of artistic merit are, in this film’s parlance, bull.
- Man, between this and “Sunset Boulevard”, William Holden had a great year. Don’t call it a comeback.
- If Harry’s looking for a corrupt politician I can think of a Huey Long-esque gentleman that he might get along with.
- I may need subtitles for Billie.
- Harry does the Donald Trump power handshake move. So that’s where he got it from!
- The gin game is pretty hilarious. The dialogue is scarce, but you still learn plenty about the relationship between Billie and Harry.
- Billie would understand politics a lot better if “Schoolhouse Rock!” was a thing back now.
- This on-location trip to D.C. takes up a lot of screen time. Are we going to see every historical monument?
- The concert Billie and Paul attend is at the Watergate steps, which housed outdoor concerts until the mid-‘60s. And yes, they are walking distance from that Watergate.
- The scene where Harry is abusive to Billie is tough to watch, even though Broderick Crawford is clearly not actually hitting Judy Holliday.
- “Wouldja do me a favor, Harry? Drop dead.” Classic.
- Paul pronounces Washington as “Warshington”, a regional pronunciation believed to have its roots in New England, with traces in the mid-west. William Holden was born in Illinois, and had ancestors who emigrated from England to Virginia. Dialects!
- The cop at the end is definitely played by a different actor in the on-location long shots. A little continuity is all I ask.
- Judy Holliday leveraged the success of this film to sign an exclusive “one film a year” contract with Columbia, allowing her to continue living/performing in New York. She did mostly light comedies throughout the ‘50s, including something with Jack Lemmon called “Phffft!”
- The role of Lina Lamont in “Singin’ in the Rain” was written with Judy Holliday in mind. When she was unavailable, Stanley Donen cast Jean Hagen, who scored at her audition with a pitch-perfect Judy Holliday impression. Coincidentally, Hagen played Billie Dawn on Broadway after Holliday left the show.
- George Cukor would direct a similar play-turned-film about a woman who reinvents herself through tutoring: 1964’s “My Fair Lady”.
- “Born Yesterday” was also performed on live TV in 1956 starring…Mary Martin? Doesn’t quite seem like a match.
- Don’t worry, they remade this in 1993 with Melanie Griffith. It sucks the life out of everything this play has going for it.
- “Born Yesterday” has been revived on Broadway twice: in 1989 with Madeline Kahn and Ed Asner, and 2011 with Nina Arianda and Jim Belushi (whom critics were forced to admit was quite good as Harry Brock).