Categories
Film Essay Judy Holliday

Judy Holliday, A Name for Herself

A centennial tribute.

On the subway, someone is reading a magazine with an ad for soap taken out of the back. An attractive blonde woman smiles generously, modeling the soap, bubbles surrounding her figure. The print reads: “The average American girl Gladys Glover always uses Adams Soap.” It’s the name that seems to populate every advertisement space in New York City. Who is Gladys Glover, and why is she so special? Why, she’s the average American girl!

***

The film is It Should Happen to You (1954), and Judy Holliday is Gladys Glover, average American girl. Born Judith Tuvim to Abe and Helen Tuvim in New York City on June 21, 1921, today marks Holliday’s 100th birthday. The only child of a Russian-Jewish household, Holliday had early introductions to the arts and to social causes she would later associate herself with as an adult; her maternal relatives were brought up by their socialist mother, an education that certainly tracks for Holliday’s uncle, socialist journalist and author Joseph Gollumb. At the age of 10, Holliday scored a remarkable 172 on the Otis IQ test, qualifying her as a genius at a very early age, and she continued to pursue theatre and the arts into her young adulthood. In 1938, Holliday (then still Tuvim) joined Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alvin Hammer, and John Frank in establishing a night-club act, The Revuers. Leftist slant characterized their comedic routines, often pasquinades of high society, performed for mixed-race working class audiences; in the Greenwich Village circuit, Holliday had found a niche for herself as a burgeoning comedienne in social satire, notably with people who had something sharp to say about the world, too. This formative time with The Revuers, that camaraderie in craft and pushing comedy to examine social issues, would stay with her for the rest of her career; regardless of her status as a Hollywood star, in spite of industry abuse and pressure to conform, a loyalty to her ideals had been formed out of upbringing and early-career experiences, and would not be shaken.

Following her time in The Revuers, Holliday pursued Hollywood briefly, where she was given the name Holliday in place of Tuvim, and received none of the returns in the way of a successful career in the pictures (at least not at that time). In 1945 and at the suggestion of her Revuers friend Adolph Green, Holliday starred in Herman Shumlin’s Kiss Them for Me on Broadway, her first experience on the legitimate stage. A year later and in a role originally written for Jean Arthur, Holliday made her Broadway debut as the character Billie Dawn in the “dumb blonde” type she would later become known for in Garson Kanin’s play Born Yesterday. Under the Pygmalion-esque tutelage of a journalist hired to make her wise to the world, Billie Dawn, like Judy Holliday in her immortal role, blossoms; Billie esteems her education by challenging her racketeering boyfriend’s business practices, liberating herself and interrupting cycles of common corruption in the process. From Billie Dawn, Holliday arrived at a short but remarkable film career, whose streak of starring roles out of a decade in American film history marked a fleeting moment in the industry’s intersection of politics, gender, and ethno-religious identification where the films of a big star were all, more or less, an extension of her steadfast progressive beliefs. Judy Holliday, almost always remembered aside Billie Dawn, borrowed from the expected qualities of the “dumb blonde” type to redefine the dynamics of womanhood in all of her characters thereafter, and in one vital instance, in a fight for her individual, inalienable rights.

With her centennial at the back of my mind this year, I’ve centered my focus refamiliarizing myself with Holliday, a woman whose life was brief but extraordinary, who I felt an immediate, life-affirming connection to years ago. Since her death in 1965, anecdotes from her colleagues, friends and family, as well as government records, have left much to retain the legacy of Judy Holliday as not just the characters she played, but the smart woman behind them. Holliday manipulated gendered expectations and a limited typecast to deliver affecting characterizations of modern women, marking her as one of the most perceptive comediennes in American film history, and more, a woman who found the humanity in every part she played.

***

In order of her starring roles—Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, It Should Happen to You, Phffft!, The Solid Gold Cadillac, Full of Life, and Bells are Ringing—as I’ve recently revisited them under the Criterion Channel’s wonderful “Starring Judy Holliday” collection, there is a clear dynamic mined between performance and deep internal conflict, creating a uniquely touching and exciting evolution of Holliday as an artist. There is an indescribable something that tracks through all of these films, brought to the screen by Holliday and never captured or imitated since. Though this enigmatic force is introduced with Holliday’s spectacular supporting turn in Adam’s Rib (1949) where she plays a woman who shoots her husband in defence of her marriage, Judy Holliday as a screen presence really started to develop a year later when she brought Billie Dawn to the screen in the unforgettable, brilliant Born Yesterday (1950).

Her squeaky-voiced ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn—an Oscar-winning turn that still invites controversy over 70 years later—is similarly unassuming to Holliday as a contender: in both of them, there’s an inexhaustible drive to be present in the conversation, a drive that ultimately comes and conquers. Holliday plays Billie Dawn as a perceptive woman, whose wit and worldliness (the famous gin rummy scene early in the film makes an excellent case for this) only becomes refined through traditional book learning over the course of the film; Billie is a sponge, understanding and presenting to others hard pills to swallow about the world they live in. One particularly precious piece of knowledge Billie receives is by word-of-mouth, her “teacher” Paul Verrall (William Holden): “The whole history of the world is the story between the selfish and the unselfish. All that’s bad around us is bred by selfishness. Sometimes selfishness can even get to be a cause, an organized force, even a government. And then it’s called fascism.” This she internalizes, and in one scene, a blow up between Billie and her boyfriend Harry, all of these world boil up in her mind and blister into a kind of venom to spit at him: “You big fascist!” These words are timeless, they catch. Born Yesterday picks up a steam at this moment, pointing the finger at the everyday menaces of society, the true harbingers of fascism. Though a lot of the lessons come from Paul Verrall, the person who really sends home the film’s message about the exploits of free-market capitalism is Billie Dawn: scathing criticism disguised as Billie’s “aha” moments. Born Yesterday is not only bold for exposing the everyday casualties of capitalism, but for treating its female protagonist, all of who she is, completely seriously. It was never this film that casted Judy Holliday as a “dumb blonde” (her natural sharpness and evolution into a learned individual is text), but the need for American industry to brand “I’m stupid and I like it” as a type. It was a way for the conservative press to not take her seriously, to equate a woman’s dynamic presence with her lack of distinction between performance and self, and more, to make a circus of her allegiance to communist-front organizations. This could not have been further from Holliday, both in how she embodied her characters and carried herself as a person, and it was this very assumption that she took and leaned into in order to stave off the House Un-American Activities Committee from further speculation into her political and personal associations.

On March 26, 1952, Holliday appeared as a witness before Senator Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) in a closed hearing to assess the validity of her allegiance to communist-front organizations and whether or not she was a “threat” to American ideals. For Holliday, politics ran deep. Her whole family had been long-associated with socialist organizations and journalism; it was how she was raised and what she believed in. But of course, she wouldn’t confirm any of that to Senator Pat McCarran’s committee. She gave a testimony that assured to them that she had no idea what she had pledged allegiance to. To them, she was Billie Dawn. Withstanding persecution, Holliday remained in character, protecting her core beliefs, friends and family, and was dismissed from her hearing without further government inquiry (more on its intricacies and ramifications here). Though Holliday continued to be an active presence on the American screen and stage, her time on the (unofficial) Hollywood blacklist, the swells of civil harassment and targeting by right-wing organizations that came with the territory, informs us greatly about an industry’s fascistic desire to self-censor and the lengths it will go to oppress subversive thought. 

***

Following the prestige of Born Yesterday, Holliday appeared in The Marrying Kind (1952), also directed by George Cukor, and written by a team she was friendly and familiar with: Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. The film is a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer divorce drama that examines the fissures of the American marriage and nuclear family with a surprising but welcome nuance. The Marrying Kind, certainly no Born Yesterday, was also likely the greatest dramatic material Holliday received during her film career, and it went right under the radar due to its release in April of 1952, not even a month after Holliday’s appearance before the SISS. If the Billie Dawn type had made an impression with Born Yesterday, then her SISS testimony, and the fact that nobody seemed to care about The Marrying Kind as a complete departure from that kind of role, made it seem like the type would stick forever. Not that Holliday ever needed to show her cards as anything but a fine comedienne, but for herself she wanted to prove dexterity, and to find something more human than the lot of scripts that were likely thrown her way. In 1953, Holliday announced in an interview with Bob Thomas of the Associated Press, “Oh, I get lots of comedies. But they were written for Billie Dawn. The writers of them think that all I have to do is talk in a funny voice and say dirty lines and that makes a hit comedy. They think I can go on playing the dumb blonde.” Reflecting on a career that was all too short, none of Holliday’s roles (not even Billie Dawn) read as replicating the “dumb blonde” stereotype in the way traditionally thought of, and this is all to Holliday’s credit; just the same, out of the films that she did make, not one of them stands out as an egregious misuse of her talent, all because Holliday could never let a movie sink her. Though there are notably weaker films compared to those made with her usual crowd—Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, and It Should Happen to You with Kanin and Cukor as well as Bells are Ringing with Comden and Green—Holliday was always the one who made the movie worth watching, even if it wasn’t a hit comedy.

Even in her comparably lesser vehicles Holliday is the definition of an artist elevating the text. Fluttered eyelids, taking her lines in unexpected places knowing the pay-off is seeing others catch up to her speed in real time, her full-speed-ahead stature, her arms carried slightly behind her shoulders when she really gets into a delivery, her reactions—though I’ve noticed all of these as staples in Holliday’s acting toolbox, they were never routine; character to character, film to film, there’s no telling how Holliday will choose to read a line, punch a syllable, storm a room. What pierces through each individual character, if not a comedic philosophy, is her loyalty to the thing she decides makes each character dynamic and, well, human. In Full of Life (1956), for example, she plays a woman navigating pregnancy and the anxieties of becoming a new mother with a script that’s as dry and unfeeling as the image of mid-century suburbia that it reflects on screen. Still, Holliday finds sentiment in this character, warming an impossible film up with her generous eyes, focused always on the person she’s maintaining a conversation with, and her incredibly earnest consistency in depicting the unpleasant lows and ecstatic highs of pregnancy. For her, the dynamic thing about this character is not just that she’s outwardly pregnant, but that she feels pregnant, she internalizes the pregnancy and all of its complications. There’s not much humor in the film, but somehow, Holliday finds the funny and the deeply relatable in moments like one where she decides on three slices of bologna instead of two. Quite simply, she gave everything to movies that didn’t deserve her, and she was consistently remarkable at transforming the text to find the humor and compassion in every film she starred in.

***

As Gladys Glover of It Should Happen to You (originally under the superior title A Name for Herself) Judy Holliday once again reinvents type she was best known for. It just so happened that It Should Happen to You was my introduction to Holliday, a great impression abiding; in the film, she presents her ditzy as an endearing quality, one an average American girl (says so on the soap ads!) might possess, and not be patronized for. In all of her films, Holliday pushes the type as far as she can go in order to assert herself in situations the average American girl doesn’t always have perfect access to. In It Should Happen to You it’s negotiating billboard space with advertising moguls to make herself famous; in The Solid Gold Cadillac it’s blowing up the conspiracies of corrupt stockholders; in Bells are Ringing it’s high society; in Born Yesterday it’s telling off an asshole boyfriend and sabotaging his business exploits; in all of her films, there’s that element of invading male-dominated spaces as if to invite the average American girl in, too.

***

In a small, down-to-earth scene in It Should Happen to You (a scene I’ve previously broken down at length as it captures the perfect dynamic between Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon), Pete (Lemmon) plays the piano while Gladys sporadically sings along, lamenting the expiration date on her billboard-inspired celebrity. “Three days more,” she sulks at him. “Then I’m nobody again.” Though busied by the piano, Pete responds in earnest, “Yeah, but I’ll show you how to enjoy that.” It takes her some time but Gladys does eventually come around to asking herself, “What’s the good of tryin’ to be above the crowd all the time? What’s the matter with being part of the crowd?” More than the smoke and mirrors of fame and fortune, it’s how we believe in our lives and what we do, who we share them with, that matters. Gladys might not have known that outright, but certainly Judy did. 

In all of her films, it was never really about being above the crowd. In life, it was never about championing a cause for status or praise. Judy Holliday’s leftist politics and strong convictions, like her natural intelligence and ardor for acting as a form of communication, ran through her veins. Though no one word is enough, that thing that tracks through all of her films might be described as truth. Her presentation of the average American girl as intelligent and capable, that graceful quality of finding the honesty in every character, instills a lasting beauty in being a part of the crowd. 100 years on, while Holliday might have insisted on being one of the crowd, it’s undeniable that she was special.

References:

Barranger, Milly S. “Broadway’s Women on Trial: The McCarthy Years,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre, vol. 15, no. 3, 2003, pp. 1-37.

Carey, Gary. Judy Holliday: An Intimate Life Story. Robson Books Ltd., 1983.

Thomas, Bob. “Oscar Winner’s Life No Cinch, Says Judy.” Mirror News, 16 June 1953, p. 49.

Featured Image: Judy Holliday by Michou Simon. Paris, 1955.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s