Ring a Ding Ding
When I learned Judy Holliday took home the Best Actress Oscar in 1951 over Bette Davis in All About Eve, I was naturally intrigued. For those who know Eve –and you should if you don’t– it was a veritable whirlwind of overwhelmingly grand performances, and given that Davis was a master of her craft, it is a bit stunning to find that the ditzy-seeming actress Holliday could out do her. I’ve never loved Holliday, and frankly it is difficult to with the grating, high-pitched voice of hers, but in Born Yesterday she is truly admirable.
The story is a unique and fun one. Holliday as Billie is a former showgirl who has been the girlfriend of successful ”junk” salesman Harry Brock, played by Broderick Crawford, for a number of years. The plot surrounds their extended stay in Washington D.C. where Brock is attempting to lobby/bribe congressmen to pass legislation in favor of his shady business dealings. Fearing his girl is too dumb, Brock hires freelance writer Paul Verrall (William Holden) to wise her up to a few things. In the process of educating Billie, however, Paul makes her all too aware of the unjust ways her boyfriend is gaming the system.
Holliday seems born to play this role. Her naturally high-toned voice dumbs down the speaking of each word. The hotel floor the couple has occupied involves several suites over such a large space that the two can literally shout out their windows at each other. This proves particularly amusing as the strong-lunged Crawford bellows calls of “Billie” while Holliday responds with a “Whaaat!” that sounds more like a bird squawking than a human speaking. Holliday’s portrayal of naivety makes her unrelentingly sweet so that the audience has no choice but to love her.
Born Yesterday takes a different approach to the romance in the plot. One would expect to be entreated to a drawn-out, rising tide of sexual tension between Billie and Paul, but the two put their feelings out the open early on. Upon their first meeting, Billie declares she got a yen for her tutor right off. When Paul returns later that night with a stack of books for his student, Billie speaks of her relative blindness. When the man suggests glasses, Billie laughs and makes fun then, realizing she’s speaking to a spectacle-wearing guy, places her hand on his chest to apologize. The contact seems sufficient to spark their attraction and the two mutually lean in for a kiss. Paul is not scared of Brock even though he probably should be. Nevertheless, he refuses to smooch on Billie any further for fear of complicating an already tricky relationship. No worries, the romance comes full circle in the end.
I saw the stage performance of this show last fall at a college in central Ohio. The woman playing Billie did the same ditzy, raised voice, and I could tell all characters took some cues from the movie actors. In all honesty, the play was a bit subdued but the subject matter and drama really grabbed me. I would say the movie is much funnier and exciting.
Holliday played Billie in the stage version, but Rita Hayworth was originally selected for the movie. When she dropped out for a marriage-induced respite from acting, Director George Cukor advocated for Holliday to take the spot. Good thing she did. I cannot imagine Hayworth being anywhere near as great in this role.
Source: Ben Mankiewicz