The Best Actress envelope was the most anticipated opening of 1951. At the 23rd Oscar ceremony, movie fans, bookies, and reporters had their money split between two highly celebrated comeback candidates: either Gloria Swanson’s magnificent return to acting after almost twenty years in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, or Bette Davis’s return to critical acclaim after having been declared “box office poison” by the studio for whom she had earned multiple millions, playing Margot Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. Eve ended up being the night’s big winner, taking six Oscars (including Best Picture) to Sunset’s three, but on the choice for Best Actress, Academy voters were also likely split and allowed a third candidate to emerge. The name in the envelope was neither of these screen queens, but a newcomer who had repeated her Broadway success in the film version of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday: Judy Holliday. Or as the audience knew her, “Who?”
She was born Judith Tuvim in 1921 in Queens, the daughter of the executive director of the foundation for the Jewish National Fund of America and a piano teacher. After graduating high school in Manhattan, she got her first show biz job operating the switchboard at Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, while as a performer she got her start playing nightclubs with The Revuers in the late thirties, showing up at the Village Vanguard and on the west coast at the Trocadero. In 1944, The Revuers shot a musical number for the Carmen Miranda film Greenwich Village but it was cut (apparently you can still see Holliday as an extra). Reports are that she didn’t enjoy her time with The Revuers, she found the venues tough and was never satisfied with her performances, and always considered a way to kill time while waiting for her real dreams of writing and directing to come true. After another small part in a movie, Winged Victory the same year, she made her Broadway debut in 1945 in Kiss Them for Me, and was on the road to stardom.
By the time of her triumph in the film version Born Yesterday, Holliday’s presence was a fascinating, almost explosive combination of elements: a delightful bubbliness that could turn to a righteous, terrifying rage when called upon to do so; despite a squeaky voice and that always bright blond halo of hair, she wasn’t easy to underestimate as often happened to her type. In Kanin’s play, which premiered in 1946, Holliday got to show all of the above off as Billie Dawn, a showgirl whose nouveau riche boyfriend pays a Washington reporter to “smarten her up” while he’s doing (crooked) business in Washington. Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn bought the property for a film adaptation but announced that he was going to make it a vehicle for Rita Hayworth.Holliday was an unknown and he wouldn’t even consider her. Kanin, in cahoots with Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and director George Cukor, were determined that Holliday get the part and arranged for her to have a key supporting role in their film Adam’s Rib, whose success helped turn the tide. Holliday was still made to screen test, and her stage co-star Paul Douglas was replaced by recent Oscar winner Broderick Crawford, but the role was hers.
The film was, of course, a success and included her victory at the Oscars. The same year as her win, she was named as “pro-communist” in the publication Red Channels and in 1952 was called before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee; on legal advice, she leaned on her screen persona and played dumb when asked questions about her politics while avoiding naming any names. Her success also paved the way for a decade of movies that frequently had stage performances repeat their success on film, including herself when her Tony Award for Bells Are Ringing led to her last film role in 1960, while Shirley Booth won an Oscar for a Tony-winning stage role and Vivien Leigh, Grace Kelly, Anna Magnani, and Ingrid Bergman all won Best Actress Oscars for stage adaptations. A year after the film of Bells Are Ringing, while doing out-of-town tryouts for the play Laurette, Holliday had surgery to remove a tumour from her throat and the show was canceled. She completed her last show in 1963, Hot Spot, before her cancer returned and took her life in 1965. She was 43 years old and the mother of thirteen year-old son: Jonathan Oppenheimer, who would go on to have his own film career as editor of, among other films, Paris Is Burning, and died last year at the age of 67.
Judy Holliday’s Oscar win is still a controversial choice and one you will still hear debated quite a bit (for my part, I debated it with comedian Kyle Brownrigg on his Best Actress podcast). For some, she’s an example of how when the Academy finally chooses a comedic performance they don’t get it right, for others she’s the only deserving possibility, particularly in her skilled ability to adapt her performance to film without it ever seeming like a filmed play. Criterion’s collection of Holliday films doesn’t include Born Yesterday and so you’ll have to look elsewhere to decide this for yourself, but the films in this series included comprise her entire filmography after her win and allow the opportunity to see the good and bad of what her celebrated persona brought her: roles like The Marrying Kind, Full of Life showed off dramatic skills and the sophistication of Phffft and The Solid Gold Cadillac displayed her intelligent wit, though none of her roles ever quite broke the mold set up by Billie Dawn. Had she lived, where would she have gone after the fifties were over and she could no longer sell the bubbly ingenue bit? Mel Brooks movies and guest appearances on The Love Boat and The Muppet Show, probably, and later something wonderful on a sitcom. Or maybe that dream of writing and directing would have come true, we can only hope. What little we have of her, we cherish.
The films of Judy Holliday are listed in order of preference:
Phffft (Mark Robson, 1954)
Holliday stars in another story about a couple falling apart two years after The Marrying Kind, but by comparison this one has all its ducks in a row. She’s a television writer and Jack Lemmon (in his second film role) is a lawyer who decides to call it quits after eight years of marriage. They immediately throw themselves into the enjoyment of bachelor living–he’s catting around with Kim Novak and she’s experimenting with his best friend Jack Carson. The title is taken from Walter Winchell, whose byline makes a cameo here with his famous phrase used when announcing the divorce of a famous couple. It’s as deep as a thimble but it’s stylish and funny, and Holliday’s rages against marital disappointment are always rooted somewhere deeper than just raising the volume of her deliciously squeaky voice.
It Should Happen to You (George Cukor, 1954)
The desire for celebrity without artistic accomplishment is not a modern phenomenon. Cukor and Kanin see it already happening in the era of game shows and mass-market advertising. Down on her luck and out of job, Judy Holliday, whose performance shows off her remarkable commitment to making a real character out of a comedic possibility, spends her savings on putting her name on a New York City billboard. Peter Lawford is the owner of the soap company that wanted the ad space and tries to woo her away from her documentary photographer boyfriend (Jack Lemmon, in his film debut), while Lemmon holds her accountable for her soulless ambition: Holliday’s stunt makes her a celebrity on television, but are you a real somebody if the people paying attention to you don’t care at all about you? Whatever the lesson being taught (quite optimistically) here, our society didn’t learn it, but the sharp writing and direction at least keep this film from ever feeling too painfully dated.
The Solid Gold Cadillac (Richard Quine, 1956)
Judy Holliday’s best role after her Oscar win is this delightful adaptation of the play by George S. Kaufman and Howard Teichmann, reuniting her with her Born Yesterday Broadway co-star Paul Douglas. She plays a minor stockholder of a huge corporation who attends meetings and asks so many questions of the crooked and greedy men on the executive that they hire her to manage “stockholder relations” as a way of shutting her up. Their plan backfires and she teams up with Douglas, the company’s founder who now works for the federal government, to catch these guys with their hands in the cookie jar. A lot of what this film has to say about American corporate culture still hits the bullseye today, particularly its criticism of Wall Street one-percenters who manage to vote themselves bonuses even while sinking their own business. However, amid the joyful laughs, there’s also a much subtler criticism of the rest of us who don’t keep tabs on those above us because the dividend cheques are clearing. Jean Louis won an Oscar for his costumes.
Full ff Life (Richard Quine, 1956)
If there was a studio film focusing on the fears and vulnerabilities of pregnancy made before this, I’m not aware of it. Holliday manages to be as captivating and glorious without her usual pitch-perfect punchline delivery. She and Richard Conte playing a couple who have to do something about the hole in the kitchen floor. She’s already dealing with insecurity and mommy brain while eight months pregnant when dry rot and termites cause a major crater, and since the couple can’t afford a fancy contractor, they travel to Sacramento to see his parents and ask his estranged father to do it for him. They bring dad back to Glendale and something worse than a sunken floor occurs when his traditional old-world Italian ways clashes with Conte’s modern ideas, while Holliday, preparing for motherhood, finds herself growing ever more curious about life, reading books about semantics and asking her father-in-law questions about his perspective on things. It’s not a riveting film, but it’s a sweet and considerate one, and Holliday shows the vulnerability missing from the The Marrying Kind. While the film’s style is dated (it’s the fifties, so Holliday still gets out of bed with her makeup on), its sympathy for its heroine’s situation feels so modern.
Bells Are Ringing (Vincente Minnelli, 1960)
Holliday’s final film sees her commit her Tony-winning stage performance to the big screen in what was also the last project completed at MGM by both director Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed. She works for an answering service and is so committed to her job that she gets involved in the personal lives of her subscribers, including meeting and falling in love with a playwright with writer’s block (played by an unnoticeable Dean Martin). It’s a fluffy movie that would work so much better if there was less chatty dialogue and more singing and dancing; the two stars soft-shoeing a performance of “Just in Time” is the kind of classy energy that the rest of the movie is sorely lacking, and more such flights of fancy would make the painfully weak stakes and lack of chemistry between the leads much more forgivable.
The Marrying Kind (George Cukor, 1952)
Holliday reunites with Born Yesterday director Cukor and writer Garson Kanin (here co-writing with writing and life partner Ruth Gordon) for a muddled but light battle of the sexes that begins with her and Aldo Ray in court requesting a divorce. The judge asks them to tell her their entire relationship story and they do, flashing back through their meet-cute, their nuptials, raising kids on a tight budget and their personal tragedy, eventually falling into constant bickering after their passion has worn off and all is left is pride and struggle. There’s far more consideration for the limitations of a married housewife than a movie of this era would ever consider, but there are too many genuinely dark and disturbing elements in a film that sells itself as a situation comedy. The lack of chemistry between the leads makes the short running time drag.