I know you know Judy Garland, and you probably know Jennifer Holliday, but if you are under the age of 40,there's a good chance you're having trouble conjuring up a mental image of Judy Holliday. If that's the case, you need to stop everything and go add Born Yesterday to your Netflix queue. And bump it to the top. Go ahead, I'll wait.
To be honest, I'm having trouble finding words to describe the genius of Judy Holliday. I could go on about how fresh and original she is, but it's just so evident in her work that it seems silly to elaborate. If I can convince you to check her out, my work will be done; hers is not the kind of genius that requires deep analysis. She is not an acquired taste. She doesn't really need to be put into context. You will start watching Born Yesterday (or any of her films), and she will make her entrance, and she will open her mouth, and you will understand the fuss I'm making -- or your money back!
I don't think Born Yesterday is the best movie she made in her too-brief career, but she won an Oscar for it, so from a film-history perspective it's probably the one to see. It's a film adaptation of the Garson Kanin play (she starred in it on Broadway, too), in which Holliday plays Billie, the former-chorus-girl mistress of a crooked tycoon. The semi-mobster boyfriend arrives in Washington, DC, looking to do business; he worries that his uneducated, unpolished "fiancee" will hold him back, so he rather improbably hires an influential journalist to tutor her. The script isn't as smooth or as witty as I'd like it to be; there's a lot of corny preaching about American ideals, and I'm sure you can see the tutor/pupil romance coming already. But it does keep taking unexpected turns, which is appropriate for any vehicle starring Judy Holliday. She is a captivating performer because she always seems to make the unexpected choice, and yet every gesture and line-reading seems completely organic. When Judy is onscreen, you can't take your eyes off her.
That's just as well, because her romantic partner in this movie is the always underwhelming William Holden. Somehow Bill Holden got a reputation as a heartthrob, but I have to say he leaves me cold in this and every role. In every film I've seen him in, there's a palpable void where his leading-man presence should be. That works, somehow, in Sunset Boulevard; it seems appropriate that Joe Gillis should be a nonentity, at least in his relationship with Norma Desmond. But think how much more enjoyable that movie would be if he brought a tiny smidge of character and charm to his scenes with Nancy Olson/Betty Schaefer! I can never quite understand what the attraction is there. Sure, honey, your fiance is probably gay, but he still seems like a better life partner all around. And I have the same problem with Sabrina -- that's the guy you're attempting suicide over? In that movie his underwhelming presence helps to make the case for Bogart, so again, in a way, he's well cast. But in Born Yesterday he just leaves Judy doing all the work -- I can't shake the impression that he's a production assistant walking through the part in dress rehearsal, feeding lines to the star. And although Judy is more than entertaining enough to carry all of their scenes, the lack of chemistry between them makes the romantic plotline a bit of a dud. (It doesn't help that his hair is an oily mess -- what woman would want to touch that with her bare hands?! -- and his highly symbolic eyeglasses look like he picked them up cheap at a party-supply store.)
As I said, it's no surprise that the dumb blonde and the smart reporter end up together, but there are a few surprises along the way. I certainly wasn't prepared for the scene where Billie propositions Paul; it's rather a gut-punch after all the raised eyebrows and euphemisms in the first 15 minutes of the movie ("She's a fee-ancy!"). And the Billie-Harry relationship isn't all Guys and Dolls-ish cuteness, either. There's a dark thread running through this comedy that keeps you invested in Billie's progress in spite of the broadness of the setup (and the dull preachiness of her would-be paramour, Paul).
Comic performances don't snag many Oscars, as we all know, and they very seldom take Leading Actor/Actress honors. Judy's win is all the more remarkable when you note that she defeated Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond (gosh, busy year for Bill Holden) and both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve. So Born Yesterday is the place to start. But personally, I prefer It Should Happen to You, another Garson Kanin-scripted, George Cukor-directed screwball comedy with a lot of the elements that worked so well in Born Yesterday. This one has a smoother script and a much more charismatic leading man in Jack Lemmon (his first film!), and it presents its "moral" without all the oppressive civics-lesson posturing. Plus there's a lot of very nice on-location work in 1950s Manhattan. There's also Adam's Rib, Judy's first film; she has a smaller role, but she does steal the movie rather shamelessly whenever she's onscreen, and when she's not onscreen you're still watching a terrific Tracy-Hepburn battle-of-the-sexes comedy. And of course, for all you musical lovers, there's her final film, Bells Are Ringing. I gave up on that one halfway through -- too much Dino and not enough pep. But maybe you'll be more patient. So what are you waiting for? It's about time you dabbled in Judyism, don't you think?
ETA: I later wrote about two other Judy Holliday films: Phffft! and The Marrying Kind.