Friday, March 8, 2013

Watching Oscar: Born Yesterday

Film: Born Yesterday
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

I think it’s hard to play dumb convincingly. Sure, plenty of people in the movies play dumber than they are, but a lot of them don’t do it very well. That vacuous, nothing-going-on-behind-the-eyes look takes real talent. Judy Holliday could pull it off so well that it’s tempting to think she might really have been that empty between the ears. That’s talent. Bette Davis couldn’t do it and neither could Katherine Hepburn. If you really want to see someone very smart act very, very dumb, you’ll want to take a close look at Born Yesterday.

Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is a junk dealer, and one who has never really worried too much about the legality of what he does. Because of this, he has a great deal of influence and money and he’s looking for more of both. He arrives in Washington where he meets with Jim Devery (Howard St. John), his lawyer. Their discussion is (we gather—it’s never very explicit) on how to spend enough money in Congress to get some shady deals moved through.

Travelling with Brock is ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), his long-time fiancée. Billie is pretty, dumb, and socially embarrassing for Harry due to her lack of social graces. She is essentially his arm candy. Billie is also useful as a sort of cover for many of Brock’s shadier dealings. Jim tells her to sign things and sign she does, not caring what anything is or what it means, and completely unaware that Harry Brock has actually placed her in control of the bulk of his fortune.

Enter Paul Verrall (William Holden), a newspaper reporter hired by Harry to educate Billie. Harry’s goal is for Billie to become acceptable in public so that her lack of knowledge and lack of tact won’t be an impediment to his goals. Of course, since this is a comedy, Paul and Billie fall hard for each other right away. And as time goes on, Billie starts paying attention to things and starts using the brain she’s always had.

Born Yesterday works better than most comedies for a variety of important reasons. The first of these is the stellar performances. William Holden is serviceably good, as good as he usually is, but not as spectacularly good as he is in films like Network or Stalag 17. No, the two to watch here are Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday. For his part, Crawford plays a blustering thug, and does it just about perfectly. While he’s over the top in places, he’s never a caricature, and Harry Brock is always at least believable as an overbearing and surly goon, and is almost always pitch perfect yelling for people to come attend his current whim. Judy Holliday could not have improved this performance in any way that I can see. It’s a role she originated on stage, and it shows a remarkable knowledge of every beat of the script. Her Billie Dawn is flawless.

Second, Born Yesterday is remarkable for its nearly perfect use of irony as the source of its comedy. The entire driving mechanism of the film is the idea that Harry Brock wants Billie to be educated to prevent him from being embarrassed. The joke running through the entire film is that Brock needs no help in being embarrassed—he’s just as uneducated as she is and far more crude and cruel, far more off-putting than anything Billie could muster. While she’s not a stranger to a faux pas now and again, Brock is a walking cyclone of social destruction and unintentional, unknown offense. He’s rich and influential, but he’s also a swine and is too thick to realize he is the source of more social gaffes than she is.

Third, and this one is critically important, Born Yesterday is almost never laugh-out-loud funny. Oh, the situation is plenty funny all the way through and there are a number of fantastic lines delivered beautifully, but this film downplays the comedy instead of going for all out chuckles. It also gets pretty dark at times, most specifically in the scene in which Billie refuses to sign some critical papers and Harry slaps her until she agrees. There’s nothing funny about this, and the film is smart enough to not play it for anything like a laugh; it’s a brutal sequence that comes across as surprisingly sobering in a film that had up to that point been at least light if not always lighthearted.

In other words, I expected entertaining fluff and to be at least mildly outraged at the injustice of a little comedic goof of a performance from Judy Holliday winning a Best Actress Oscar over Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. or either of the lead performances in All About Eve. Instead, this is a film with some comic sensibilities, but with a real dramatic sense as well, a film that hides its surprising substance under a thin candy shell. In Judy Holliday, we have a performance about as good as any other and doubly good because it seems like it should be candy floss instead of steak. We’re not long in discovering that Billie Dawn has some teeth and isn’t afraid to bare her fangs when necessary.

It’s a wonderful thing when a film can surprise someone like me, who is a bit jaded and is at least a hardened veteran of films of this era. Born Yesterday is one to watch, one to love.

Why to watch Born Yesterday: For a film with so many dumb characters, it’s really smart.
Why not to watch: Domestic abuse.


  1. Added this right up to the top of my queue!

    1. You won't be disappointed, I think. It's pretty dang great.

  2. I completely agree on Holliday. I did think Crawford's character was a little too broad. If you haven't seen it, check him out in All the King's Men. He gives a fantastic performance as a Huey Long-like character running for office.

  3. My plan is to watch all of the Best Picture winners by the end of the year, so I'll get there in the next few months. I have to say that I was really surprised at how much I ended up liking the Judy Holliday character.

  4. Judy Holliday was such a unique talent. Her looks and vocal quality lend themselves to an assumption of a dumb broad which is a strength in this role but is so deceptive. Having seen her sadly small output of films, only 8 features, she brings such depth and emotion to every character always finding so much in each one. None of the eight are bad, though the one with the worst title Phffft is also the weakest, but I can't recommend her follow up to Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, enough. She's even better than she is here. Watching any of the others, particularly It Should Happen to You, The Solid Gold Cadillac or Bells Are Ringing, is time well spent.

    But back to this film. Holden, who was having a very good year, is serviceable but the role doesn't really allow him to be more. He's there to bring out the best in Billie and nothing more. However having seen a stage production of this last year I can attest that while the material makes a few pointed jabs at business and government it needs megawatt personalities like Holden, Crawford and Holliday to give it a punch. That's where the film, and I would imagine the original stage production, excel. Judy wouldn't be my choice for the Oscar but it is a magnificent performance.

    1. I've long contended that to play really dumb effectively you need to be really smart. I love Holliday in this role. She seems born to play it, and of course she knew the role well. She's believably dumb and so effortless in everything here. She wouldn't be quite my choice for the Oscar, either, but I understand why she got it.