Directed by George Cukor
Screenplay by Albert Mannheimer, from the play by Garson Kanin
Starring Judy Holiday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford
It was only a few short weeks ago I mentioned the sorta-coincidence of doing back-to-back entries in this series on Best Picture losers starring William Holden. I also speculated it was likely we’d soon see another, given Holden starred in a good number of Best Picture losers in the 1950s. Well, whaddaya know – my prediction came true! Meaning we’ve now gone three-out-of-four with Best Picture losers starring William Holden.
So here, I give you Born Yesterday.
Coming out in 1950, Born Yesterday was at the leading edge of William Holden’s golden years, right there with Sunset Boulevard. One of those films is an all-time classic and if it had won Best Picture, it would have been one of the five best Best Pictures. Unfortunately, Sunset Boulevard is just sour enough to get it in the race, but will never win. As for the other, Born Yesterday? While enjoyable it’s just too slight to actually have a shot at winning.
Either way, those two films would kick off the 1950s well for Holden and by the end of the decade he’d win an Oscar for Best Actor in Stalag 17, star in Best Picture 1957, Bridge on the River Kwai, and go on a hot-streak almost unrivaled.
Yes, the 1950s were a heady time to be William Holden.
But, just as every man has his golden years, every man must also endure a fall. Once the 1950s became the 1960s, Holden’s relevancy waned. Sure, he could occasionally find his way into something great – The Wild Bunch and Network in particular – and would win other awards – an Emmy in 1974 – but he’d still end up the man who’d slip on a rug while drinking, hit his head on a bedside table, and bleed to death, his body undiscovered for four days.
An undignified way to go out if there ever was one for somebody of his stature.
Of course, his undignified death was sapped of some of its indignity when it was immortalized in Suzanne Vega’s song, Tom’s Diner, which would then become the ‘Mother of the MP3.’ So, in one way William Holden’s death was undignified, but in another way it was historic.
What’s It About
Harry (Broderick Crawford) is a crass, blustery, but often brutal junkyard impresario. His best, only gal is Billie (Judy Holliday), a former chorus girl who’s also a bit crass, and dim. On an extended stay in Washington D.C., where Harry has come to buy a congressman, he pays a journalist, Paul (William Holden), to tutor Billie and make her more palatable to D.C. society. Inevitably, Billie proves intellectually curious, and smarter than she lets on. Also inevitably, Billie realized she has no need for Harry, falls for Paul, and follows her bliss.
In short, Born Yesterday is a romantic-comedy about a battered woman who betters herself and finds the courage to leave her abuser.
This is not a plot-heavy film – crass asshole buys education for his dim-bulb gal, only to have her wise up and run off with the teacher – and is more about the characters than anything else. And none of the three leads are really supporting players, given each gets roughly-equal screen time, and have similar coverage of their backstories, which is minimal. Just enough to give you the idea of where they’re from, and maybe why they do what they do. Given it’s basically a three-hander, the film lives and dies on the three leads, and on their chemistry.
Despite the equality of screen time, Holden is the de facto star, by virtue of not playing the villains role, and by virtue of being young, handsome and charming. And in his part his acquits himself well. He’s got timing, he’s got comic instincts, and he’s just enough of a smart-ass to appeal to the kids. He does his William Holden thing and does it well and that’s all we really need to say.
Despite Holden being the star, the film is really about Holliday. After all, the arc of the film is her arc, it’s she who changes, and it’s around her story that the other guys orbit. Fortunately, she is delightful. Yes, she’s got a voice in the film like Lena Lamont from Singing In The Rain, which my wife absolutely hated – hated the voice, not Singing in the Rain – but if there’s anything you can complain about, that’s it. And it’s not as if the voice is intrusive. Holliday is not big and blowsy with it, rather she’s small and modulated, almost internal. She basically goes big by being small. Using it gentle comic effect, not as a bludgeon. Better, if you’re familiar with her actual speaking voice you know that her voice in the movie was part of the whole performance.
Delightful as Holliday is, her performance is always going to be viewed poorly by some because of who she beat to win Best Actress for it. After all, she took the prize over iconic performances from Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve, and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, all three of whom are a murderer’s-row of toxic performances and justify 60+ years of clapping-back that followed. But while I genuinely prefer Swanson to Holliday, you can see why she might have won. After all, Davis and Baxter cancel one-another out, splitting the All About Eve vote, who cancel Swanson out in the Eve v. Boulevard vote. Leaving Judy Holliday standing alone, winning with what might have been the lowest vote totals ever received for a Best Actress win. All that said, I don’t begrudge her victory – I enjoyed her in the film, was genuinely tickled by her performance, and can’t make much of an argument as to how she didn’t give an award-worthy performance.
Interestingly, for being a film from the 1950s – or rather, the end of the 1940s – Born Yesterday is very much woke in terms of its gender politics. Well, relatively woke. After all, where the Crawford character seems to believe a woman can be hit to get her to behave, when you’re not buying her trinkets to control her, and where educating her is dangerous, the film explicitly demonstrates not only is he an uncouth asshole, it shows that a woman’s education is positive. It makes her alive to the notion that she is her own person, with her own choices, and agency, and not merely a trinket. Some men might find that a disgusting thought – I’m looking squarely at you, Men’s Rights Advocates – but the film sees it as a virtue. And given that all but the most backward among us have moved in that direction as well, I guess we all agree on that now.
In some ways I watched this film through the lens of current politics, with Crawford’s character the physical manifestation of Donald Trump – an uncouth bully – as well as the embodiment of the Republican Party. After all, both seem intent on limiting access to education, and limiting women’s rights, knowing full well that most educated people, and women, prefer the Democrat over a Republican. So, rather than be better for the people and actually win their vote, they’d rather just stop the people voting altogether.
What’s Not So Good?
Broderick Crawford is the not-so-good of the film. Rather than give a good performance, perfectly crafted for this film, he simply falls back on his persona of being the blustering, crass bully – in short, he Broderick-Crawford’s all over the place. The problem? While the others are starring in Born Yesterday, he’s in Willie Stark Goes To Washington. Sure, that shtick might’ve won him the Oscar the year before in All The King’s Men, but here it just clangs and is all the proof you need that the difference between a great performance from Crawford, and a lousy one, is more about the film than him. Match the film to his skillset – which is limited – and the film sings. Get that wrong and it’s a stinker. What he needed for Born Yesterday was a slight twist on what he’s good at. Sure, he can still go ahead and be crass and blustering, but he also needs to be the oaf. There’s simply too much danger in what he does, too much violence, and not enough buffoonery, that puts him completely at odds with the rest of the film.
Also not so good is the love story between Holden and Holliday. Yes, they have chemistry, and attraction – that is undeniable. When they are on screen together, looking at one another, you believe it. It doesn’t appear as performance at all, but genuine attraction. You see them actually succumbing to each other’s charms. But, while the attraction is undeniable, and you believe they are falling in love, the actual falling in love is rushed. That part doesn’t feel real at all.
Aside from that, the ending is ridiculously pat and sort of screams to an out-of-nowhere resolution, not because the story called for that resolution, but because the film seem had reached the 95 minute mark and decided it was long enough and just needed to end.
You Gotta See It
Despite taking the time to kick Broderick Crawford for what is at heart a lousy performance, I will give props to the best scene in the movie, in which he and Holliday just kill it. Tellingly, it’s a scene where Crawford doesn’t have a ton of dialog, nor does he have to stomp around and bluster and be a loudmouth. No, it’s a game of gin-rummy between just the two of them, shot basically as an unbroken medium shot between the two of them over the table.
What makes the scene lovely are various things:
- We’re told all along that Holliday’s character is a bit of a dim-bulb. And if the characters don’t outright say it – why else would she need a tutor if not for being a dim-bulb – then we get the gist from her voice, which is purposely low-class. However, the gin-rummy game, and the way she just whomps Crawford, quick and decisively, then stands up for herself in the quietest possible way at the end, shows that despite all the dim-bulb talk, she’s a whole helluva lot brighter than we gave her credit for.
- The timing between Crawford and Holliday is impeccable. The way they move in unison, or in a perfect push and pull, is fantastic. There’s no telling how many times they had to rehearse it to get it right, but however many times it was, it was worth it. Despite being composed largely of one long, unbroken shot, from a static camera, the scene cooks because there’s so much going on. There’s the testing of the dynamic between them, there’s the humor, there’s the upending of our expectations. And it’s not just this scene where they show their timing with each other, as if the perfection in that scene was accidental, because later on when they’re having an argument, and a maid keeps walking through, they stop and start perfectly with each closing/opening of the door, the same way people would if they were actually having an argument.
- Finally, their reactions are what makes this scene work. The way annoyance on Crawford’s face every time Holliday goes into the lengthy adjustment of her cards. His reactions every time she declares gin. The way he…look, if he’s lousy in the rest of the film, he’s priceless here, and probably because it’s the only time he’s really reined in a bit, and his bigness is brought down to earth.
If you want proof of the magic of the scene, go see it for yourself – search Youtube for “Gin Rummy Born Yesterday” and it’ll be there.
One Trope to Rule Them All
It’s become a thing in Hollywood to have the smart, nerdy girl made over into a beauty by doing nothing more than removing her glasses and letting her hair down so the beautiful swan fly. See She’s All That, The Princess Diaries, etc.
Well, in Born Yesterday we got the demonstration of the obvious natural implication of that, which is when you have the beautiful girl turn smart simply by putting on her glasses.
Obviously there wasn’t really any way Born Yesterday could knowingly predict our political climate, unless somebody involved invented time travel. Which means it was entirely accidental that the movie would have all sorts of relevance to our current president. After all, like that guy, Broderick Crawford plays a crass rich guy who believes he can bully everybody around him to get what he wants. The only resistance? Get smart and say no.
Anyway, what’s real interesting to me is in a way the film presents Crawford’s character as the villain. The interesting part is the screenwriter Albert Mannheimer – he wrote the film, not the source material – was apparently a disciple of Ayn Rand and in that way, Crawford plays the perfect embodiment of acting in one’s own self-interest at every turn. Like Donald Trump. So rather than being the villain, he should have been the hero, perfectly putting into action that whole Randian philosophy. One can only assume the reason he is the villain is because some meddling liberals mucked it up.
Better Then Best?
All About Eve won Best Picture 1950 – a fine film that some find fantastic. There are certainly parts I enjoy, such as George Sanders, and parts I don’t, which is most of the stuff involved Ann Baxter. On the whole, it’s fine and that’s it. Is Born Yesterday better? I don’t know. And it really doesn’t matter because in the 1950 Best Picture race I actually prefer two other nominated films – Father of the Bride and Sunset Boulevard. And then I also prefer a film not nominated for Best Picture, The Third Man. And when you think about those five films being nominated in just that year, all of them being some level of all-time-great, it really makes you wonder if maybe we shouldn’t treat 1950 as being only a step down from the quality of films in the 1939 Best Picture race, which is widely thought the pinnacle of screen achievement in terms of top-to-bottom quality.
I was recently in DC at the National Gallery of Art, so when Holden and Holliday strolled through that I was on the lookout for things I’d just seen myself. It was actually pretty cool to see A Girl With A Watering Can by Renoir go by in the background at one point and thing, “I was just there looking at that same painting.” It’s funny how movies play different when you’ve been to where they take place. In point of fact, I watched All The President’s Men the day after my return from DC and, having now gotten familiar with the geography of the city, found it a much more fascinating movie experience.
Okay, not so much reading as listening. But check out the episode from the You Must Remember This series, Dead Blondes, on Judy Holiday. It’s fantastic.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 It wasn’t much of a prediction, knowing as I did that the Born Yesterday DVD was sitting on my coffee table as part of my to-do list for this project.
 Of course, slightness never really stopped musicals from winning, but that’s another post for another day.
 Despite being about her, and her journey from dumb to not-so-dumb, I’m not sure Born Yesterday would pass the Bechdel Test. After all, I’m not sure we can count her brief chats with maids and the eye-rolling of a congressman’s wife as being conversations between named female characters that are not about a man. But if it does pass, it’s only just barely.
 Obviously, we’ll never know the vote totals, as the Academy doesn’t release them.
 Even if she’s blonde, and I’m not into blondes, Holliday is certainly attractive.
 So says Wikipedia, which is always unassailable.