After I watched Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I decided to watch one more film that I had recorded off of TCM. The movie I chose was Born Yesterday.
This 1950 film was directed by George Cukor and stars three Academy Award winners. The lead actor was William Holden, who would win best actor three years after the release of Born Yesterday. The villain was played Broderick Crawford, just a year after playing his Oscar-winning role in All The King’s Men. Finally, the true star of the film was Judy Holliday, recreating her Broadway role of “dumb intelligent blonde” Billie Dawn. For playing Billie, Holliday would win the award for best actress of the year.
In Born Yesterday, Billie is the girlfriend of Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). The crude and not particularly intelligent Harry has made a fortune as a “junkman” and, though the film never comes out and explicitly says so, it is suggested that Harry may have ties to the Mafia. Harry has come to Washington, convinced that he can buy his way into political power. Harry’s lawyer (Howard St. John) suggests that Harry should marry Billie, specifically because a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband.
However, there’s a problem. Billie is uneducated and lacks formal manners. Of course, Harry is even worse but then again, Harry is a rich white guy and, therefore, he doesn’t have to be polite or know what he’s talking about After Billie embarrasses him during a meeting with a congressman, Harry hires journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach Billie how to fit in with Washington society. At first, Paul refuses but, ultimately, he takes the job because he needs the money.
As Paul teaches Billie, it quickly becomes apparent that Billie is not as dumb as everyone assumes. In fact, she has an insatiable desire to learn. When Paul takes her on a tour of Washington, Billie is excited to learn the story behind every monument and to take a look at every historical artifact. (When Paul shows her the bill of rights, Billie immediately reads the 2nd Amendment and gets Paul to explain it to her. As Paul explained that it meant that citizens had the right to bear arms, my sister walked through the room and said, “You got that right.”) Judy Holliday perfectly captures Billie’s excitement as, for the first time in her life, she’s actually treated like someone with a brain.
Billie also starts to fall in love with Paul. After reading one of Paul’s articles, an obviously impressed Billie tells him, “I think it’s the best thing I ever read. I didn’t understand a word.” At the same time, Paul starts to fall for Billie.
Meanwhile, Harry is not falling for anyone but himself. He continues to bribe congressmen but now, Billie not only realizes what Harry is doing but also understands that it’s illegal and goes against everything that the authors of the Constitution envisioned. After a rather nasty scene in which she is repeatedly slapped by Harry, Billie goes down to the Lincoln Memorial, hears the voice of old Abe himself, and is finally ready to stand up for herself, for Paul, and for the American way of life.
(“When you steal from the government, you steal from yourself, you dumb ox!” she yells at Harry.)
Born Yesterday was based on a stage play and, with the exception of the scenes where Paul and Billie explore D.C., the entire film takes place in Harry’s hotel suite. The film never quite escapes its theatrical origins. Broderick Crawford bellows his lines out to the last row and William Holden feels miscast. (That same year, he gave a far more interesting performance in Sunset Boulevard.)
But ultimately, Born Yesterday is mostly designed to showcase Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn. When the film first started, I have to admit that I had my doubts about Holliday’s performance. Her character was so stereotypically ditzy and spoke in such a nasal whine of a voice that I found myself wishing that the film had been made with either Marilyn Monroe or even Jayne Mansfield in the Billie Dawn role. But, as the film progresses, I started to better appreciate Holliday’s performance. I started to notice the sadness and the insecurity lurking underneath the surface. I discovered that there was unexpected nuance to both the character and the performance. By the time she was running through the National Archives and asking Paul questions about George Washington, she had totally won me over.
Still, Holliday’s victory for best actress does seem a little strange. After all, to win the Oscar, Holliday defeated All About Eve‘s Bette Davis and Anne Baxter and Sunset Boulevard‘s Gloria Swanson. Holliday’s performance definitely deserved a nomination but it’s a bit more difficult to argue that it deserved the Oscar. Of course, Davis and Baxter played two tough and sarcastic divas, neither one of whom depended on a man for their success. Swanson, meanwhile, played an older woman who ends up murdering her much younger lover. Billie, meanwhile, is never without a girlfriend and doesn’t murder anyone. Perhaps it’s understandable that certain Academy voters would be more comfortable with Billie Dawn than they would with Norma Desmond or Margo Channing.
Born Yesterday was also nominated for best picture but it lost to All About Eve.