Thursday, July 23, 2015

1950: Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday

In a role she originated on Broadway, Holliday plays Billie Dawn, a mobster's girlfriend who has been called stupid so often that she just accepts it as fact. That is, until a reporter gives her some basic education, which makes her realize that she wants and deserves more out of life than she's been getting.

I think this is probably one of the most surprising wins so far. Given that Gloria Swanson's iconic performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard was nominated alongside two from Best Picture Winner All About Eve - Anne Baxter as the cunning title villain and the legendary Bette Davis, who had already won Best Actress for two decidedly inferior performances - it now seems odd that a relative newcomer to Hollywood beat them for a performance that has been mostly forgotten. Furthermore, the Academy generally favors drama over comedy, which makes this an even more unlikely win. But just because it was unlikely doesn't mean it was undeserving. Judy Holliday's performance in this movie is at once hilarious and heartbreaking. A lot of people speculate that Davis and Baxter split the All About Eve vote, thus handing Holliday the Oscar, but while that may be partially true, I think Holliday deserves a lot more credit than she gets for this performance.

For one thing, her comedic timing was impeccable, and she demonstrates it perfectly in this role. I could not stop laughing at the scene when the Congressman and his wife are visiting, and she keeps carrying the radio around and starting to sing along with it in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. Also I think she and Broderick Crawford could have made an entire movie in which they did nothing but play gin rummy and it would have been one of the greatest comedies ever. But Billie Dawn is more than just a silly, dumb blonde, and Holliday makes her seem like a real person that the audience can sympathize with even before the reporter starts tutoring her. She definitely had the talent of producing facial expressions that are clear without being exaggerated. She especially had the confused-but-trying-to-appear-otherwise look down, which was particularly useful at the beginning of the movie. Once the reporter invites her to ask questions, she gradually drops that look and replaces it with one of eagerness for understanding. One of my favorite things about the way she plays this is that the transformation from clueless to clued-in is actually not incredibly drastic - she's basically the same except more assertive and using a wider vocabulary - indicating that Billie was always smarter than people thought she was. The only thing I don't like is that her voice is kind of annoying, but even that works to the performance's advantage here. All in all, this is a beautiful, comedic performance, and definitely deserving of recognition.

Unfortunately, Holliday played this character so well that she was essentially typecast for the rest of her career. Fortunately, this did work to her advantage in one respect. When she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she played dumb so convincingly that she was neither blacklisted nor compelled to name names, which was extremely rare. But even being called before the committee probably negatively impacted her career. Add that to the fact that she was mostly just cast as less interesting versions of Billie Dawn and it's not exactly shocking that this was her only Oscar nomination. She only made a total of 13 movies, and in many of those she just had uncredited bit parts. It's kind of tragic that she didn't get to play more interesting roles on screen, especially because by all accounts she was actually incredibly intelligent. While it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that Hollywood screwed her over, it's not entirely their fault; they ran out of time. She died of cancer in 1965, just two weeks before her 44th birthday, which means she holds the morbid distinction of being the youngest Best Actress Winner to pass away. While I'm still hesitant to agree that hers was the best performance by an actress in a leading role in 1950, it was certainly one of the best.  And it's not like Bette Davis really needed another Oscar anyway.

Next up: the return of Vivien Leigh!

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