March 25, 2017

Judy Holliday • Born Yesterday

as Billie Dawn
Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
Won: Academy Award - Best Actress • Golden Globe - Best Actress, Comedy or Musical

Within the time-honored tale of 1950's Best Actress race, two questions present themselves: how in the hell did newcomer Judy Holliday manage to beat out the career-defining work by legendary veterans Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis? Furthermore, was Holliday's victory an injustice?

When Holliday saunters through the first few minutes of Born Yesterday, she's just your usual gun moll...pretty, glammed-up, and bearing a gaze which reads as mostly unimpressed (or is it vacant? or both?) And then, out of the blue, you're hit with it: "WHAAAAAAAT?" It's a brief yet sharp, potent, Donald Duck quack-like sound with enough power to stimulate at least a smile on your face. My feelings towards that first exchange with Billie essentially summarizes how I feel about Holliday's entire performance.

Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
The beauty of this performance lies in how Holliday proves herself to be completely indelible as Billie. Ironically, this is in spite of the fact that she was never the first choice to play the part both on stage and for the film. But if you've seen Holliday's work, take a look at how Melanie Griffith completely butchers the part in the 1993 remake, or the clips available online of Nina Arianda's take for the 2011 Broadway revival; neither can match the fluent magic and charisma that Holliday brings to the film, on display as if with total effortlessness, which is to say that Holliday simply is Billie Dawn. Her work here is a great example of an actor creating a one-of-a-kind rendering which ingrains itself into and remains in the minds of viewers, all future interpretations be damned.

We see them often in old Hollywood films; that of the outlandish, gaudy personalities played by character actors, who steal their scenes but are otherwise limited in screen time. Billie's got many of the attributes that would be typical for a flashy supporting part (she's loud, she's got a funny voice, she's dumb). Holliday's got the challenge of caricaturing these flashy qualities for the laughs needed to sustain the film, while concurrently fleshing out a dynamic, realized character.
Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
What's most impressive is how masterful Holliday's comedic timing is. It is said that director George Cukor made his cast rehearse extensively, going as far as performing in front of a live audience so that Cukor could precision-time the pacing of the film's jokes. Holliday's expert delivery (lines like "He's right, I'm stupid and I like it," "Anything but tutti frutti!," and "What makes you think I'm thirty?!" never fail to get a chuckle out of me, no matter how many times I rewatch them) to the cadences in which she alters her voice for certain lines, down to the many reaction shots she throws out (such as the proud little smirks she gives as she's sassing Broderick Crawford) are demonstrative of the knowledge she has of the character, the material, and what's required to make a mere written line optimally funny.

Sure, she might sound like a baby on helium; but again, what Holliday achieves with her Billie that I found lacking from Griffith and Arianda is in the instantaneous impact of delight just from Holliday being present; she possesses a unique, bubbly air about her that's endearingly naive and playful...her charm locks you in. A testament to how well Holliday plays Billie's exuberance: the film presents a big dramatic moment towards the end, and I was surprised to find how difficult it was to watch the scene; rather jarringly intense in respects to the rest of the film - it's not easy to see watch a happy character boil over into strong sadness, and Holliday powers through this scene with aplomb.
Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
Until the end of time Oscar enthusiasts will debate the result of the 1950 Best Actress race; I've seen some cite Holliday's win as being among the worst, I've seen some treat the win neutrally as though it was a natural result of vote-splitting, and I've seen some praise it. I'm of the latter - this is as excellent a comedic performance that I've seen since I started these reviews. On the outside this is a not-so-intelligent character, and yet I'm of the belief that there's a great amount of comedic intelligence laid in the framework here by Holliday. I also think her mastery of the role is highly underrated. While one might make the argument that Davis and Swanson may have cannibalized the "veteran" vote, I do think that Holliday's win is indicative of a (large enough) contingent of voters who appreciated her commanding comedic prowess.


  1. And it almost didn't happen.

    Harry Cohn of Columbia openly referred to Holliday as "that fat Jewish broad" that he didn't want anything to do with.

    Luckily for Judy, she had powerful allies in George Cukor, Spencer Tracy and especially Katharine Hepburn who conspired to deliberately build up Judy in "Adam's Rib" so that Cohn wouldn't cast anyone but her as Billie Dawn. Hepburn insisted the scenes she shared with Judy be blocked to favor the younger actress, then went further, sitting in on the editing to make sure none of Judy's scenes were tapered with.

    "You and your big numbers! If you don't watch out, you're gonna be wearin' one across your chest!" How I love this performance, and the romance between Billie and Paul blossoms with a ultra-gentle tenderness. You can't totally hate Harry Brock either, thanks to way Broderick Crawford makes it so clear that Harry is his own worst, dumb enemy.

    A wonderful movie and Holliday is quite deserving.

  2. At the risk of alienating the astute regulars who participate in this blog (and whose opinions I always look forward to), I simply have to say that I dislike this performance in the extreme. Holliday grates on me from start to finish. Part of it is the doormat aspect of the role itself and the fact that I saw the outcome a mile ahead, but that's only a small part. I simply did not find the character of Billie appealing, funny or compelling in the hands of Holliday. I don't consider this one of the 'worst' BA wins of all time (I'm not as enamored with the nominees as a group as history tells me to be) but this is not work that I will ever feel the need to re-visit because I simply did not enjoy Holliday's performance. Of the 5 on the list, this is my five.

    I'm sorry if my opinion offends but, after all, one of the points of this great blog is for avid film buffs to come together and share their thoughts and viewpoints. It's all part of the mix.

    1. You're doing just fine, click5 :) As you've no doubt already read, we're in disagreement on this one, but so what? It's like falling in love, and some will never understand the chosen beloved of yours or mine.

      Keep speaking your honest mind as you have. I look forward to your 'talking up' my appreciation of this or that performance to come as you already have. ;)

    2. Somehow, I think I knew you would say something like this, dvlaries. I've read and looked forward to your posts here for some time and, even when we disagree on something here or there, I always believe that we are of like and knowledgeable minds where film is concerned. Thanks for your encouragement and thoughtfulness. It really does mean a lot to me and I'm thankful to Allen for creating this forum where we can all come together. I look forward to all of your future posts.

  3. I should rewatch the movie, but it's definitely an underrated performance. Not a big fan of the movie though.


  5. I love this too. And people should consider this was before Jean Hagen's Singin' in the Rain.

  6. She was truly delightful and played the dramatic moments equally well. I even found the voice charming, which was surprising. More of 4.5 for me, but still great.

    This is a wonderful year for this category, the performances were all very unique and very strong. Anne Baxter weak link for me, but still good. Can't wait to read your thoughts about her.