A sexy, dolled-up blonde enters a fancy hotel suite with an oaf of a man. Her face is impassive and haughty, her posture erect. This dame is not easily impressed. She stands around as the hotel’s manager attempts to please the oaf, showing him around, but she hardly pays attention. The manager politely leads her to her room, which faces the one the big oaf is in. The oaf, seeing her across the courtyard, opens a window, and shouts, “Hey, Billie!”
Taking her time, the blonde demurely saunters over and in her Tenement-best wails, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat??!!”
Such are Judy Holliday’s surprising first moments in the 1950 film Born Yesterday. Three-and-a-half minutes in, that “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat??!!” marks the film’s real start like a steam trumpet. From then on, you’re hooked. Holliday steals every scene she’s in. As Billie Dawn, the ditzy former chorus girl turned fiancé of a well-to-do mobster, she is hilarious and mesmerizing, mainly because you’re never sure just what she’ll do next. She moves in a practiced shimmy, knowing she’s putting on a show but never making a big show about the fact that she’s putting on a show. The voice of Billie Dawn — which Holliday spent four years perfecting on Broadway before starring in the movie version — is the high-pitched, Damon Runyon-esque “Toity-toid and Toid” that audiences have come to expect of their dumb broads, but she slurs her lines a little and never leaves the moment. She’s a Marlon Brando of dingy dames. It’s an iconic performance, one that would win her the Academy Award for Best Leading Actress at the age of 29 and come to define her career.
This month marks both the birth and death of Judy Holliday (1921 and 1965, respectively). During her life, she was a celebrated actress of stage and screen. Today, few people remember her at all. Unlike a slew of other actresses from the same era, Judy Holliday got lost in time. A round-faced Jewish “goil” from Queens, she didn’t have the angelic, feminine grace of Audrey Hepburn or the imposing, feminist grace of Katherine Hepburn. She was certainly attractive, with magnificent dimples and a smile that was pure charm. But she was never destined to be a modern style icon and hated dressing up when she wasn’t onscreen.
Her comedic delivery was more cerebral than the physical humor of Lucille Ball, whose mastery of slapstick made it safe for future generations of women. Judy Holliday could be goofy but she wasn’t zany. She wasn’t a traditional physical comedian, yet the way she moved her body — a faint exaggeration of natural movement — is funnier than any hammed-up pratfall: her slightly hunchbacked posture as she’s feeding the pigeons in Central Park in It Should Happen to You, for instance, or her daffy smile when she’s posing for a photo shoot in the same film. The absent-minded way she removes her earring to allow Peter Lawford to better kiss her ear while never changing her doubtful expression. Holliday was a master of timing, lingering before a punchline just long enough to keep you on your toes. In taking her time, she maintained a focus and grace that allowed a real enthusiasm to seep into the performance. Her deliberate style was perfect for George Cukor’s (the director she often worked with) unusually slow-paced comedic directing. There’s a scene in Born Yesterday in which Billie and boyfriend Harry Brock play gin rummy. It’s one of the funniest in movie history and almost nothing happens. They speak about six lines of dialogue in seven minutes. At the beginning of the scene, Billie walks over to a minibar, fixes herself a drink, sits down, and takes about a year to extinguish her cigarette before fixing up her hair, then her jewelry, then her hair again. She’s ready to play. She shuffles and reshuffles her cards, takes Harry’s discard, shuffles, shuffles, pats her hair, looks at her cards. She seems to be having more fun shuffling than playing. She is annoying the hell out of Harry, but pays no mind. She takes two more cards, and then slowly, slowly discards, looking uncertain what to do next. She takes a breath, looks at her cards once more, and says calmly, “Gin.”
Judy Holliday never performed in her personal life the way others expected her to, and it would affect her career. Though friendly and loyal, she couldn’t have been less interested in Hollywood socializing, and rarely went to shmoozy parties. In his biography of Holliday, Will Holtzman tells the story of Humphrey Bogart coming to dinner. So it goes, after eating a huge Jewish meal cooked by her mother, Bogart proceeded to scold Holliday for not attending enough parties and wearing blue jeans in public. He bet she didn’t even have green Chartreuse in her liquor cabinet. Holliday was unfazed. After a few more uncomfortable moments, Bogart left. Her mother walked over to the liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle. “You have green Chartreuse,” she said. And Holliday replied, “Yeah, but I’d be damned if I let him know.”
Judy Holliday wasn’t a star and she wasn’t a clown. She was an actress and she was funny as hell. She created sympathetic, honest dreamers from the stock-character airheads in her scripts. Written by Garson Kanin, Billie Dawn’s dialogue in Born Yesterday is actually snappy and smart although Billie herself is somewhat standard. Running with Kanin’s script, Holliday created a complicated, real person who is compromised and knows it. She turned the cliché of the vapid, washed-up starlet upside down. Think of the wretched Gaye Dawn in Key Largo, forced to sing for her drinks. Or Sunset Boulevard’s infamous Norma Desmond, desperate for that eternal close-up (who, played by Gloria Swanson, Holliday beat out for the Oscar). Nor did she play Billie as a fragile beauty á la Marilyn Monroe. And she would never go for the all-American good girl thing, like Doris Day. In Born Yesterday, Judy Holliday developed a character all her own: the dumb broad.
The dumb broad is not to be confused with the dumb blonde or the glamour girl. She’s not a victim and she’s not looking to impress you. She’s too self-aware for that. She’s just fine being who she is. The dumb broad is dumb but there’s a freedom in her special brand of dumbness. She’s ridiculous but the joke won’t ever be on her. She gets the joke more than anyone, because it’s hers. There’s an art to being a dumb broad: perceptive but not pretentious, cheerful but not false. You can’t be a dummy to play a dumb broad, and by the way, Judy Holliday was no dummy — she had an IQ of 172.
Take another scene from Born Yesterday. After Harry Brock decides to hire Paul to make Billie less dumb, Paul gently broaches the subject with her by trying to pass the hire off as simply companionship. To which Billie quickly responds, “He thinks I’m too stupid, huh?”
“Uhh, no…, uhh…” Paul mutters.
“He’s right,” Billie says happily, “I’m stupid and I like it!”
In the mouths of most pre-Holliday actresses, the lines would be delivered with a bubble-headed flightiness, aimed to make you laugh at Billie for being stupider than you. Most post-Holliday deliveries, in contrast, would be all growls and cynicism, never letting you believe in the first place that Billie was actually dumb, so that her transformation at the end is not redemptive but rather revealing — of course Billie was just smart all along.
The creator of some of Hollywood’s most sympathetic women, Garson Kanin’s screenplay has an obvious agenda. You’re supposed to like Billie and also feel sorry for her. Judy Holliday brings a conviction to the role that makes you believe Billie’s going to be alright no matter what she does — don’t feel bad for her. She’ll be OK not because she’s smart or dumb or cultured or coarse, but because she has an inherent joy for living. At the beginning of Born Yesterday, Billie doesn’t know much about the world, but “as long as I know how to get what I want, that’s all I want to know!” She’s adaptable, open. After some field trips around Washington and some book-learning, Billie decides she wants something more, and pursues her new interests with the same delight as she did her mink coats. Holliday’s Billie isn’t hilarious in spite of being compromised, but because of it. She is utterly, absurdly human. When the film first came out, men and women alike identified with Billie; she was your dingy aunt or sister, a real person you loved and wanted the best for. Holliday would bring the same humanity to other roles, like Ella the switchboard operator in the musical Bells Are Ringing, and the working-class wife Florence in The Marrying Kind, her only leading dramatic screen role.
Fans and friends often say Judy Holliday’s early death robbed her of a full career. Not counting a few early bit parts, she acted in only 10 major motion pictures (Katherine Hepburn, a fan of Holliday’s, made nearly 50 films). After a four-year struggle with breast cancer, Judy Holliday died at the age of 43. It was just about the time of Holliday’s death in 1965 that the dumb broad also died. After the ’60s, female characters were geniuses or dumbasses (a modern spin on the airhead/glamour girl) or crazy bitches. You couldn’t play a dumb woman unless you were making fun of her. Judy Holliday never celebrated ignorance, but she never mocked the dumb broad either. That would have been contrary to the whole spirit of the dumb broad. Somewhere in the course of the later 20th century, people forgot that a woman could be funny simply for being genuine. Judy Holliday brought a vulnerability to her characters that the hard-edged toughs of the ’70s and ’80s, and then the dissatisfied cynics of the early ’90s lacked.
The dumb broad did pop up every now and again in skewed incarnations. Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (and Love and War) is an example, as are Adam Sandler’s characters in Punch-Drunk Love and The Wedding Singer. As the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, Julia Roberts’ performance in Pretty Woman employs the charm of the dumb broad albeit with a bit too much of a Cinderella complex. All are descendants of Billie Dawn.
Judy Holliday’s style is most evident in Ruth Gordon’s portrayal of Maude, the 80-year-old former concentration camp prisoner with joie de vivre in Harold and Maude. The likeness is no accident. Back when she was working as a writer, Ruth Gordon wrote some of Judy Holliday’s best lines in Adam’s Rib and The Marrying Kind with husband Garson Kanin. In the film, Maude’s familiarity with death is used as a justification for her free spirit attitude: stealing trees, falling in love, committing suicide — it’s all just life! Made in 1971, Harold and Maude has become a prototype of the 21st-century’s Post-Irony, Neo-Sincere movement in art. Neo-Sincerists harnessed the exuberant nihilism of Maude and brought the dumb broad back into popular cinema, minus the apologies. Characters from the films of Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, and especially Wes Anderson all owe a debt to Harold and Maude, Ruth Gordon, and consequently Judy Holliday. (If there is a contemporary descendant of Judy Holliday it’s probably Owen Wilson.) These filmmakers have created characters that all share a key aspect of the dumb broad philosophy — that you can be smart and funny and fucked-up and still, essentially, joyful.
Though Judy Holliday was no dummy, she shared something with the characters she played: even through adversity, they were true to themselves. With her intellect, Judy Holliday could have been anything. I’m glad she was a dumb broad. • 22 June 2009