Monday, April 2, 2012

Cukor's "Born Yesterday"

I believe that the Founding Fathers in one of my favorite film musicals, 1776, would cheer Billie Dawn as played by Judy Holliday in George Cukor's Born Yesterday.  In it, Billie is an average American who comes to put forth her own personal declaration of independence after applying the words of our Founding Fathers to her own life.
If I was hired to do some of the programming for Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I would air this Oscar-winning classic on the 4th of July right after the musical 1776...
...starring as William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin and Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, three of the men struggling to draft the Declaration of Independence.
Born Yesterday would air after that 1972 musical and lead in to a broadcast of All the President's Men.  Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford starred in this 1976 biopic as two investigative journalists for The Washington Post.
The unrelenting reporting work of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward exposed the Watergate scandal in Washington, DC.  News of White House corruption and the presidential abuse of power lead to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.  Cukor's 1950 adaptation of Born Yesterday is just as political as those other two movies are.  It's not merely the tale of a dumb blonde who wises up.  In the Oscar nominations for 1950, Best Actress was a hot race.  There were three top contenders in the field of five.  Did Bette Davis deserve to win for All About Eve?  Yes.  Did Gloria Swanson deserve to win for Sunset Boulevard?  Yes.  Did Judy Holliday deserve to win for Born Yesterday?  Yes.  Because Holliday did win doesn't mean she was better than the other four actresses also nominated.  Holliday earned that Academy Award.  What she does vocally and physically with Billie Dawn is just as brilliant as what Swanson did with her Norma Desmond character.  Her Billie Dawn is as iconic as Davis' Margo Channing.  Let's look at America when George Cukor gave us the film version of the hit play that made Judy Holliday a Broadway star.  I've not seen the play, so I don't know how much was altered for Hollywood production codes and sensibilities at that time.  But America was in the midst of a Communist "witch hunt."  This was the McCarthy Era.  Senator Joseph McCarthy, a political bully, was a huge dark force behind blacklisting.  Freedom of speech was in jeopardy.   Screenwriters, directors and actors in Hollywood were losing not only their jobs, but their American rights as well.  The Hollywood Ten spoke out.
Think about another movie from the 1970s.  The movement of The Hollywood Ten caused friction in the marriage of the politically neutral screenwriter Robert Redford played in The Way We Were opposite Barbra Streisand as his outspoken liberal wife.  In real life, one of the artists blacklisted by McCarthyism was Garson Kanin, the man who wrote the play Born Yesterday.  Now let's look at the movie.  Onscreen, Judy Holliday communicates exactly what we need to know about Billie as the movie opens even before Billie speaks.  She's a shapely blonde checking into a deluxe Washington, DC hotel with her bellowing boyfriend.  She dresses in a way that puts the "b" in the word "subtle." All the heavy artillery is out -- two mink coats and diamond bracelets in the daytime.  Her walk is perfect  for her profession.  Show business.  She was in the chorus.  Not just in the chorus as she tells her longtime boyfriend's alcoholic, tainted lawyer.  "I spoke lines," Billie brags.  She adds, "I coulda been a star."  When Billie dances to hot music on the radio while racketeer Harry starts his bribe of a congressman, we see exactly what level of show biz Billie reached.  Most likely a burlesque show chorus line of girls with limited or no professional dance training.  During the celebrated gin game scene, her ditzy recreation of a pit band playing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" will confirm that.  When she gets to her suite in the beginning and yells across the courtyard to Harry like it's an apartment building in Queens, we know exactly her level of class and culture.  We also know that we like her.  She's one of us.
Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is a tyrant.  He's got power.  He's got money.  He's physically and verbally abusive.  "Do what I'm tellin' ya!" he constantly barks.  He's not in Washington, DC for honorable purposes.  He's a millionaire crook.  Billie doesn't really know what he's up to.  She's comfortable.  She seems to be doing well for herself.  He calls her a "dumb broad."  Billie may be, but she's no floozie.  When the congressman Harry will buy comes over, he chats with Harry's lawyer.  Congressman Hedges says, "...this country will soon have decide if the people are going to run the government, or the government is going to run the people."  For the last half of that statement, Cukor cuts to a close-up of a blank-faced Billie Dawn.  This comedy is a statement on American freedom.  Cukor is telling us not to be the "dumb blonde" in regards to our democracy.
Making small talk as Harry moves in to financially manipulate the congressman, Billie dizzily comments, "It's a free country."  She'll repeat that line when she and Harry play gin.  Not since Buster Keaton could anyone do so much with a stone-faced expression as Judy Holliday.  The face may not be moving but the mind is.  That's what we can see.  The gin game -- besides being a classic comedy scene -- is very important and not solely in the action for laughs.  It shows us that Billie is honest.  She plays fair.
Harry doesn't.  He aggressively limits her freedom of speech.  "It's a free country," she whines.  "That's what you think," he bellows back.  She's got furs, jewelry and she can stay in the best hotels.  But Billie Dawn is oppressed.  She doesn't have full rights and liberty in that relationship.  She's told to shut up and she's told to sign papers for Harry that, unbeknownst to her, are part of his greedy plans to exploit the country.  Refining Billie in DC is also part of Harry's manipulative scheme for more power, more money and some media control.  The owl-tutor he hires for Billie-the-pussycat is a political journalist out to uncover the real reason for Brock's stay in our nation's capitol.  Harry thinks he can buy journalist Paul Verrall too, like he did Congressman Hedges.  Paul (played by William Holden) is hip to the scheme.  He's proof that you can't judge a bookworm by his cover.  He takes the job of giving Billie a culture makeover.  "I'm stupid and I like it," Billie gleefully says to Paul.  But she's not as stupid as even she thinks she is.  As expected, she gets an immediate crush on her paid DC tutor.
Paul keeps things business-like, really more interested in getting the goods on Harry.  When he sees that Harry treats Billie like a second-class citizen,  Paul realizes he can get the story more easily from her while tutoring.  Not-so-stupid Billie figures she can make a move on him if she seems really interested in this new education.  It turns out Paul really falls for Billie and Billie really is eager to learn American history.  Her makeover doesn't come with a complete overhaul of fashion and sound, but with a simple accessory.  She starts wearing her eyeglasses so she can read.  She takes a DC tour with Paul and learns about the Gettysburg Address, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  Her transformation is definite, significant and more realistic than in, say, My Fair Lady, also directed by George Cukor.  She doesn't go from guttersnipe to belle of the ball with a new sophisticated accent.  She won't do a complete 360 in sound and behavior like Mia Farrow's poor dumb blonde in Radio Days.  But change, she does.  Billie becomes enlightened and aware.  She absorbs the words of our Founding Fathers and makes them an active bright force in her life.  At the Watergate Concerts, she reveals that her long-fractured relationship with her loving widower dad may be on the mend.  Her dad dislikes Harry.  Billie says, "He always used to say 'Never do nothin' you wouldn't want printed on the front page of The New York Times.'"  We know her dad would like Paul.
Paul tutors her on American history, art and classical music.  She inspires him to have more clarity in his political writing.  He wrote a article called "The Yellowing Democratic Manifesto."  She couldn't understand it.  Who could?  Paul Verrall wrote in a way-too-upscale National Public Radio or New York Times film critic style.  It's too intellectual for its own good.  She tells him basically to make the same points but put it in a working class voice that everyday people can understand.  Billie's right.
Still, Billie is blind to the dangerous depth of Harry's selfishness.  She's gotten used to it in their eight years together but she's never really paid attention to it.  She doesn't realize how vicious it is.  As Paul rants to her, "Sometimes selfishness can even get to be a cause, an organized force, even a government.  And then it's called fascism.  Can you understand that?"
Billie has changed from the opening scene.  She's still a shapely blonde.  She still sounds the same.  But there's no more New York burlesque chorus girl in the walk.  She's cut down on the liquor. Fashion affectations like the diamond bracelets and the cigarette holder are gone.  So is the look of stupidity in the eyes.  Billie Dawn is no longer content to be ignorant.  Now she speaks her improved mind to Congressman Hedges when, before, she could've cared less about political conversation.  She's embraced her freedom of speech.  The glasses she wears are a threat to Harry.  They represent knowledge and freedom.  She'll now painfully understand what Paul meant about Harry's selfishness.  He'll use brute force to make her sign more papers to help him in his racketeering scheme.  The minks, diamonds and fancy clothes are no longer important to Billie.  Her dignity and personal freedoms are.
Harry throws her out of their hotel rooms.  She's blacklisted, if you will.  Billie walks back to the Washington monuments she toured with Paul.  This will be her personal 4th of July as she's about to break away from the fascism of Harry.  While she walks and thinks about the state of her life, the soundtrack is a soft orchestral rendition of "America the Beautiful."  She will overthrow a menace with what she's learned and with the help of a free American press.  Judy Holliday's dumb blonde is a different take on that stock American show biz character.  Billie Dawn is not like Jean Harlow's hotsy-totsy blonde wife in Cukor's 1933 classic, Dinner at Eight.  She's not like the Marilyn Monroe blondes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Some Like It Hot.  She's not like the Jayne Mansfield blonde in The Girl Can't Help It or Jean Hagen's Singin' in the Rain blonde movie star, Lina Lamont.  Holliday created a unique variation on the dumb blonde.  Off-screen, Holliday was closer to Mensa member than airhead.  Reportedly she had an IQ of 172.  Plus she was a versatile film actress as she proved again for Cukor in It Should Happen To You, in which she plays the 1950s equivalent to a reality TV show star, and The Marrying Kind.  In that film, she makes me cry with her kitchen sink performance as a Manhattan wife and mother on the brink of divorce.  Another favorite of mine is Full of Life starring Holliday as the very pregnant, college-educated, intellectual wife who bonds with her Italian immigrant father-in-law.  Also there's Vincente Minnelli's Bells Are Ringing with Holliday reprising her role from another Broadway hit of hers.  That one, a musical comedy with memorable tunes.  Often folks forget that comedy is hard work.  Born Yesterday is a comedy with a very serious political core.  The core is, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "tyranny over the mind of man."  Born Yesterday deserves more regard as a film classic.  The gifted and greatly loved Judy Holliday died in 1965 at age 43 of breast cancer.  She deserved the Best Actress Academy Award she won for the memorable character she created first onstage and then on film, an all-American character called Billie Dawn.

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