June 21, 2011
The optimistic liberal populism of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday has dated, but the play’s central character, vacuous chorine turned Tom-Paine-quoting intellectual Billie Dawn, remains iconic, thanks to the comic genius of JUDY HOLLIDAY (Judith Tuvim, 1921-65), who created the role on Broadway and reprised it, after every other actress in Hollywood had been tested, in George Cukor’s 1950 film. The director once remarked that Holliday could read lines not only as written, but as punctuated, and even today, to watch her precise modulations between sharpness (the famous gin-game scene) and glazed imbecility is to forget that the character is little more than a metonym for an incurious and ill-educated citizenry. In the wake of the film’s success, Holliday was typecast as a ditz or naïf, despite a real-life IQ of 172 and a bohemian background as a writer-performer in Village nightclubs, and after several more pairings with Cukor, including Jack Lemmon’s debut (It Should Happen to You) and the underrated dramedy The Marrying Kind, she returned to Broadway for a long-running musical (Bells are Ringing) before succumbing to breast cancer at 43. A thorough hounding by Red-hunters also sped her departure from films: she later admitted that she “played Billie Dawn” when confronted with evidence of politically suspect petitions and organizations to which she had lent her name in the ’40s, but unlike the dumb blond she wasn’t, Holliday knew better than most what she had been signing.
READ MORE about members of the New Gods generation (1914-23).