Full of Life: The Films of Judy Holliday 

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006

It’s 1950, and postwar America is seething with anxieties over, among other things, women reluctant to relinquish economic powers tasted during the war years, the conflict between progressive politics and commie-hating paranoia, and the common man’s transition from national hero to boom-time drone. Enter Born Yesterday, directed by George Cukor and starring Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn, a chorus girl who gets some book learning and swaps Broderick Crawford’s rich bully for Bill Holden’s all-integrity journalist. In her first film lead, Holliday so succinctly embodied the national mood — with atomic intensity beaming from her oversize eyes, a voice swooping manically from murmurs to screeches and tightly wound energy roiling behind each carefully calibrated movement — that she beat out Gloria Swanson for an Oscar and established how a certain strain of smart dummy would be played from then on. She had help: The year before, as the story goes, Cukor and married screenwriters Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon convinced Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn to let Holliday play Dawn (she’d originated the role on Broadway) by showing her off as a would-be murderess in the movie they were then collaborating on — the Tracy-Hepburn firecracker Adam’s Rib. For Born Yesterday, they workshopped Holliday through an intensive, stage-style rehearsal period. (That famous Billie Dawn elocution sound familiar? Close your eyes and it could be Gordon talking.) The quartet then made two more movies together, including the often-stunning paean to working-class life and love, The Marrying Kind (1952) — in which Holliday eases naturally into a sensitive, well-rounded portrayal of an everyday woman — and It Should Happen to You (1954), a send-up of instant celebrity that also features Jack Lemmon’s film debut. The four features screen as part of LACMA’s two-weekend Holliday series, the rest of which offers a lesson in what happens when an actor nails one character too well. Holliday suffered through inferior variations on a theme until her final film, Bells Are Ringing (1960). Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the Comden-Green musical can’t help but occasionally pop into life, but by the time Holliday sits alone and sings “The Party’s Over,” you have to wonder if she knew how true it was. Five years later, she died of cancer at 43. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater; thru April 1. www.lacma.org)

—Hazel-Dawn Dumpert

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