Just how blissful is ignorance? From day one we’re pumped full of should-be useful slogans and general guidance — knowledge is power, stay in school, graduate, get a job, make money, go back to school, make more money, change the world . . . the more knowledge we absorb, the happier we’ll become. While that may be the case, the flipside of that shiny penny reveals that, at times, with great knowledge comes great stress. If it’s true that the more you know, the more you worry, is there a happy medium for happiness? Feh, okay enough of that analytical fiddle-faddle . . . too much talking spoils the movie.
Based on the 1946 play by Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday stars Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn, the role she originated earlier on the Broadway stage. With hilarious one-liners and a killer wardrobe, Billie is straight out of the How to Make a Ditzy Blonde cookbook. In a predictable, Pygmalionesque storyline, Paul (a witty Washington, D.C. reporter played by William Holden) is brought in by Billie’s boorish boyfriend to smarten her up. “I’m stupid, and I like it,” she tells Paul with a smile. Although she gets whatever she wants (two mink coats, everything!), she has a yen for the fortuneless Paul immediately and makes no secret of it. Paul gets Billie reading books and newspapers (the front part: the not-so-funnies), takes her around D.C., and slowly introduces her to our country’s history. As her education continues, Billie and her teacher start to fall for each other. No, really they do!
It’s unfair, I know — my indirect anger towards Judy Holliday is nowhere near justified. An incredibly talented actress who perfected the art of comedic timing, she also comes with the Katharine Hepburn stamp of approval, in part due to their work together in Adam’s Rib (1949). Miss Hepburn was certainly not one to give those stamps away and became a vocal supporter of casting Holliday in Born Yesterday. That certainly paid off! The race of 1951 placed not one but two women from All About Eve in the Oscar ring, facing off against Gloria Swanson’s tour de fabulous in Sunset Boulevard, and of course, Judy Holliday. This had to be one of the most exciting and unfair competitions in history; if ever a tie were needed, it was the year Margo Channing, Eve Harrington, Norma Desmond, and Billie Dawn faced off in a battle for the gold. The lawyer part of my brain has prepared cases in which each actress deserved a win (à la Oscar ballot counting that must have occurred in Florida, that sort of thing). Despite overwhelming evidence from all parties concerned, the only decision I can arrive at is a tie that does not include the wonderful Judy Holliday.
Although I would have handed an Oscar to both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, I do have to gush a bit over Miss Holliday. She makes me chuckle all the way through, bringing an innocent, and often wordless, humor to something as simple as a card game. My favorite scene puts her at a table with her boyfriend (played by the husky Broderick Crawford) and involves very little dialogue as the two play a little gin rummy. The way Holliday shuffles the deck, deals, and wins every game is delightful to watch, and I’m hardly aware of how much she’s making me smile. As Billie continues to win, she also starts to hum preciously the right tune to drive her man up the wall, and eventually her sore loser of opponent explodes with a “Do you mind?!?!” Much more enjoyable than the love affair between Holliday and Holden was the chemistry between Holliday and Crawford . . . not to be missed.
To this day it’s true that many remain content as long as they have their two mink coats, but blissful ignorance didn’t work for Billie. I look around at the Billies of today who seem happy and stress-free as long as they don’t have to think or worry too much, and I begin to think too much about them, sometimes with a twinge of jealousy. But I realized that these people tend to be the very same folks who, well, talk endlessly during a movie and spoil the experience. When that dawned on me, instantly I became grateful for the mind and the life that I have. So if you need the Cliffs Notes version, Born Yesterday is one of those easy ones I start while dinner is cooking and finish off with a bowl of Oreo ice cream later that night. But remember, nothing brings out the flavor of a simple bowl of ice cream better than a good, informative hour with Rachel Maddow.
Now that’s a happy medium . . .
Academy Award for Born Yesterday (1951): Best Actress in a Leading Role