Posts Tagged ‘Judy Holliday’

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

Add Born Yesterday to your queue.


During the second season of the television show Soap (1978), Chester Tate, played by Robert Mandan, surprises everyone by waking up after undergoing an experimental brain operation. To test his memory, Chester’s doctor asks him if can remember who he is, aided with a mirror that his wife puts in front of him. “Oh my god — I’m Gunga Din,” he blurts out, examining his turban-like bandaging. When the doctor tells his patient that he is, in fact, not Gunga Din, Chester turns his chin up to the mirror and confirms, “Then I’m Gloria Swanson.” Around the age of five or six years old, this was my first exposure to the madness that is the character of Norma Desmond and the masterpiece that is Sunset Boulevard.

While some films may take a few minutes to get off the runway, the opening of Sunset Boulevard — a title that I, for some reason, refuse to abbreviate with a “Blvd.” — had no trouble hooking me in the first two minutes. It’s in these couple of minutes that we see a dead body floating facedown in the pool of an old Hollywood mansion. But it wasn’t the body that strapped me to my chair; it was the angle of the magnificent shot. I’m guessing it was tricky and clever (a lovely combo) for the 1950s — the camera appears to be filming from the bottom of the pool, causing the audience to look up at the body and the blurred people standing around the pool’s edge. With William Holden’s voiceover to guide us, he takes us back about six months to let us in on how and why that body finally got the pool it always wanted.

If you’re sure that your knowledge of this remarkable film is limited to knowing only that it exists, there’s a good chance you know more than you think. Frequently called upon throughout my life to perform parts of movies for others, I grew increasingly frustrated when people misquoted movie lines. As I’ve aged (maybe not “matured,” but aged), I’ve come to realize that the frustration had more to do with my being asked to perform — let me quote the movie lines when I’m good and ready, would ya please? That said, if this blog does nothing else for the world, I hope it lends a hand with correcting an absolutely delicious line that’s been misquoted for 60 years. If you hear the words “close-up” and “Mr. DeMille,” hopefully some form of Norma Desmond’s famous words spring to mind. Without giving away the plot to those who have not experienced Sunset Boulevard, Miss Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma, ends the film with “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” And good gravy, she wasn’t kidding!

“I am big — it’s the pictures that got small.” So tells Norma Desmond to Joe Gillis (played by Mr. William Holden) when they first meet at the beginning of the film. Miss Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma, a silent film star whose career has all but faded away, is absolutely one of my all-time favorite performances. Determined to work again, Norma employs Joe to help her develop a script she has written, a script her delusional mind believes Cecil B. DeMille will jump at to direct. The first time I was old enough to understand the film (not just quote it), I remember spiraling into that universe of make-believe right along with Norma; one she creates for herself during a 30-year span of not knowing what to do with the remaining years. Escaping into a world in which Norma defines for herself what “classic film” should mean is an escape I can certainly understand! During a viewing of her own silent films, Norma rants about how the industry has changed with the addition of sound. “We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces,” she tells Joe before jumping up and swearing that she’ll be on that screen once again; that screen she was more than happy to criticize moments earlier.

Although Sunset Boulevard is told from Joe’s point of view, I never really find myself tagging along with him through the movie. I like Mr. William Holden, and I enjoy a number of his other films, but he was never really one of my favorite actors. My first exposure to him was on the episode of I Love Lucy (1955) when he gets a face full of pie moments after Lucy, Fred, and Ethel arrive at the Brown Derby (by the way, the Brown Derby restaurant chain was started by one of Gloria Swanson’s husbands — I love when my world comes full circle like that!). Rather than identify with Joe, I’m much more fascinated by the voice, mind, eyebrows, and wardrobe of Norma Desmond, who, in the capable hands of Miss Swanson, steals the entire movie. I always enjoy a little game of “what if” when it comes to film, so I find it amusing to hear that Mae West and Mary Pickford were considered for the role of Norma . . . wise choice, Paramount! The casting of Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s devoted butler is also an interesting part of the film’s history — 20 years before Sunset Boulevard, Mr. von Stroheim directed the film Queen Kelly (1929) which stared a then 30-year-old Miss Gloria Swanson. There’s that full circle again!

The wonderful problem I run into when writing about Sunset Boulevard is that there’s just too much to say. With all the cameos (Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton, to name a few), a bitter view of Hollywood (Louis B. Mayer supposedly asked Billy Wilder “How could you do this?”), and Edith Head’s costume design, I could go on for pages, just as many have! Schwab’s drug store makes a few appearances, with its wonderful old sign advertising “Breakfast, Luncheon, and Dinner” that never fails to tickle me. The always hardworking cigarette finds itself a new costume in the form of a holder that looks like a bent paperclip. Wound tightly around Miss Swanson’s finger, it’s one of the many accessories that positively made for Norma Desmond. As I venture deeper into the world of classic films, the names on the opening credits become more and more familiar. Aside from the credits themselves (my favorite is “Gowns by” so-and-so), the one name I really started to notice was Edith Head, who seemed to contribute to the costumes of every movie I watch. A woman I know little about (but will soon learn more), I always consider seeing Miss Head’s name to be a good sign, if my eye happens to catch it.

And then we come to the Academy Awards. If I were casting an Oscar ballot in 1951, I think I would have had a panic attack . . . and aside from the horrifying times I’m inside an IKEA, I don’t get panic attacks. A year that put the sensational Sunset Boulevard against the phenomenal All About Eve is a part of film history that makes my head explode. Norma Desmond and Miss Bette Davis’s aging theatre star Margo Channing are tied for second place on my list of all-time greatest performances by an actress. Just to keep you on your toes and hopefully faithful to my beloved blog, I’ll soon reveal who reigns supreme in the number-one spot. In addition to Best Actress in a Leading Role (which was awarded to Miss Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, a wonderful performance), the films competed in a number of categories, including Best Picture. As much as I love Sunset Boulevard, I’m happy that the Academy handed the Best Picture Oscar to All About Eve. Apples, oranges . . . it’s all wonderfully delicious dried fruit!


Academy Awards for Sunset Boulevard (1951): Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.


My Oscar Time Machine: I would have called Best Actress in a Leading Role a tie between Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis for All About Eve. Miss Judy Holliday is hilarious in Born Yesterday, and any other year, I would have been thrilled to see her take home the gold. But in 1951, my apologies to the talented Miss Holliday, I’m going to need that Oscar back.

Add it to your queue.

A few months ago I was out at happy hour when someone posed an interesting question — if I had the power to pick my dream job, what would it be? After a bit of negotiating, she allowed me two answers, the first being that I could easily become a travel writer. Circling the world and blissfully writing day and night sounds like heaven to me, as long as I can fit some of my classic DVDs in my bag. Venturing more into the “fantasy” aspect of the question, my second answer was that, if I could, I would be Katharine Hepburn. The love and respect with which I always speak that name had barely escaped my lips when, quite innocently as if she hadn’t heard me, my host replied, “Who?” A bit of this blog was born that evening . . .

A few words about the magnificent Miss Katharine Hepburn, the woman who, to this day, holds the record for number of Academy Awards won by an actor or actress. Of the 12 nominations she received throughout her career, four Oscar statues went to Miss Hepburn. And as with so many remarkable artists of Hollywood’s golden age, my first introduction to Miss Hepburn was at a very young age. If I were ever to write an autobiography, the title would have to be Katharine Hepburn Taught Me How to Give the Finger. Yes indeed, my first exposure to the woman who is the very definition of “classy” and all its synonyms was in her film On Golden Pond (1982), Hepburn’s fourth Oscar win. Imitating Henry Fonda, who plays her husband in the film, she gives the bird to a group of young people in a speed boat, shouting “Buzz off!” as they motor by and scare the loons away. Now I ask you, what six-year-old boy wouldn’t fall into worship with a woman like that? Almost 24 years later, I’m learning that sadly, the answer is very few.

Yearning to expand my collection of women who misbehave (I may have begun the retirement of my witch’s hat at this point), it didn’t take me to long to mimic the 75-year-old Hepburn in the back my mother’s Volvo station wagon. I don’t know if they still make them as they once did, but in the Volvo of the 1980s, the back of the station wagon had a seat that would fold out, easily fitting two children who would then be riding backwards. Perhaps the people behind us were tailgating, maybe I found them unattractive, or it’s possible I didn’t even look at them — regardless, the Hepburn magic I felt dancing around in my middle finger was not to be contained. That car riding at our heels received a proper “Buzz off!” that I felt would have done Miss Hepburn proud. My mother, not so much with the “proud” at the time, but today she’ll smile about it more than anyone else.

Ahhh Tracy and Hepburn . . . once again I find myself tackling a topic about which so much has already been said. Since I could find two conflicting stories of Miss Hepburn’s relationship with the married Mr. Spencer Tracy, I’ll leave you to your own devices (or mine, if you visit the “Some Good Reads” page of my blog). Undeniable is the chemistry on-screen that occurs between these two incredible artists, so perhaps we’re safe in assuming that the offscreen chemistry made its way to the movie soundstage. So convincing are Hepburn and Tracy as a couple onscreen, that the love always feels just as authentic as the bickering.

Adam’s Rib tells the story of a married couple, both lawyers, battling each other in court over a woman who attempted to shoot her cheating husband. Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner defends of her client (played by the hilarious Miss Judy Holliday) by invoking equal treatment for women, claiming if the sexes were reversed in this case, the outcome would be quite different indeed. Adam (Tracy) sticks to his guns as the prosecutor, maintaining that the law is the law, and no person has the right to shoot another, regardless of sex. The case shines certain light on the Bonner’s own marriage, and as the cuddling and kisses turn to bickering, Hepburn and Tracy give us yet another gem, reminding us of how far we think society has come.

I realize I harp on about the cigarettes, drinks, and hats of classic films, but I have to say, no one wore a hat like Spencer Tracy. Cocked to the side just slightly, Tracy’s hat always threatened to fall off (in my eyes, at least), but his commanding presence wouldn’t allow it — that hat wasn’t going anywhere until he said so. In this particular film, Adam Bonner is in less control of the hats he gives his wife. After he surprises Amanda with an “absolute miracle” of hat, she turns around and gives it to her client, attempting to rattle her husband in court. If nothing else, Adam’s Rib taught me not to underestimate the power and importance of a hat in 1949 — she succeeds in rattling him like nobody’s business!

As the courtroom antics spiral further into the ridiculous, the film doesn’t seem to lose its message of inequality between the sexes. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, who received an Oscar nomination for the film’s screenplay, pulled off one of my favorite techniques — the ever-changing “whose side are you on?” Like watching my parents argue over the proper use of the dishcloth (can one towel be used for both hands and dishes?), I’m constantly switching alliances, as both the defense and prosecution continue to make reasonable points. But since Miss Judy Holliday really captures my heart while cracking me up, I do find myself siding with the lovable defendant. As she rehashes the film’s opening scene in which she shoots at her husband and his mistress, my face starts to hurt from smiling. The events of the shooting are interspersed with details of what she ate, where, and how it was cooked. The priceless scene is filmed as one shot with no cuts (as far as I can tell), giving it a theatrical feel and allowing Miss Holliday to draw my attention away from Miss Hepburn . . . an accomplishment not to be sniffed at!

And dear Mr. Spencer Tracy; his voice is as soothing to me as the slant of his hat. At times a willing punching bag in Adam’s Rib, Mr. Tracy allows himself to be hoisted up in the air by a rather strong circus woman who’s testifying on behalf of the defendant. The cable that is actually holding up Mr. Tracy may as well have its own spotlight and cartoon arrows pointing to it, but those are the little things about old movies that I enjoy — this lack of perfection has a comforting truth to it that I rarely see today. Like Hepburn and Tracy themselves, the movie simply is what it is, without the help of green screens, explosions, or chase scenes. I’ve learned recently there’s little that can annoy my father more than a movie chase scene, and while sometimes I can appreciate a frantic pursuit in a film, I’m back to the dishcloth, agreeing with both sides of the argument.

Duplicating the effect of a “Hepburn and Tracy” combo is impossible, but then again no two couples are exactly alike. No better or worse, but simply different, there is one other couple that makes me smile in that “slump-my-shoulders-up-and-look-at-the-ground” kind of way. I’m grateful to say that documented for all of us to see is a 19-year-old Miss Betty Perske in her first film with a 45-year-old (and married) Mr. Humphrey Bogart. The well-known formula of a tough man and his even tougher woman worked wonders on the black-and-white screen, and the folks of the 1940s were about to see just how well. Miss Perske and Mr. Bogart began a relationship that eventually led not only to marriage but also to one of the greatest onscreen couples I’ve ever seen: Bogie and Bacall. 

Add it to your queue.