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[whitespace] Peter Lawford, Judy Holliday Close Encounter: Peter Lawford and Judy Holliday star in 'It Should Happen to You.'


Legally Blonde

Actress Judy Holliday had the hair--and the brains

By Richard von Busack

There were many authentic dumb blondes in the movies, but Judy Holliday wasn't one of them. The comedian, who can be seen in a four-film retrospective screening Dec. 21-30 at the Rafael Film Center, is possibly the brainiest of all actresses to put on the curls and negligee of the blonde clown.

The yellow hair was supposedly her own, as was the fluffy name--a translation of her birth name, Judith Tuvic (tuvic means "holiday" in Hebrew). When she died early of cancer at age 43, the New York Times pointed out that Holliday had an IQ of 172.

Holliday has a comic scene in 1950's Born Yesterday in which her character, Billie Dawn, tries to soak up some culture by listening to symphonies. In real life, Holliday was married to the head of the classical records division at Columbia.

She began as a cabaret performer. Her partners were Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the writers who later penned the script for Singin' in the Rain. Holliday stayed a New Yorker until the end, and she also stayed a sketch comedian.

The high, abrasive voice--the kind of squawk Lenny Bruce described as "Jewish seagull"--is much like an act that would start off on Saturday Night Live today. Holliday's vocal control is surprising. How did she project that bicycle-horn honk every night on Broadway?

Holliday wasn't famous just because of her pipes, though. In collaboration with writers Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and director George Cukor, she had opportunities for prime, almost free-associative comedy.

In a tipsy scene in It Should Happen to You (the 1954 film screens Dec. 22 and 27), Holliday's Gladys Glover is fending off a pass from Peter Lawford. To get him talking (and to stop him nibbling her ear), she asks him if he's lonely, living there in that bachelor apartment all by himself. Yes, he admits, lowering his eyes.

"You could get a parrot," she suggests. "You could be talking to it, and it could be talking to you. I mean, you wouldn't be talking to each other, but it would be talk."

The Rafael festival also includes 1956's The Solid Gold Cadillac (screening Dec. 23 and 28), in which Holliday plays a small-time stockholder who goes after a crooked corporation, and Adam's Rib (a 1949 film screening Dec. 25 and 30), which casts her as a batty housewife in the midst of a battle-of-the-sexes legal comedy featuring the Hepburn/Tracy team.

But the highlight of the festival is Born Yesterday (playing Dec. 21 and 26), the story of the wising-up of a kept woman. Billie Dawn has been towed to Washington, D.C., by Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), a vulgarian who has made a mint in the scrap business.

Billie's lack of refinement is enough to embarrass even Brock, so he hires Paul (William Holden), a reporter, to tutor the woman.

Since they're in D.C., Paul gives her a crash course in the history of the American Revolution. The Jefferson Memorial and the Capitol dome inspire Billie to rebel against her own tyrant.

At the end, Kanin drags in the soapbox to have Holden make some speeches about democracy triumphant--as if we hadn't already got the picture perfectly.

Born Yesterday is A Doll's House played for screwball comedy. No wonder Holliday skunked Bette Davis (for All About Eve) and Gloria Swanson (for Sunset Boulevard) at the Oscars that year.

The briskness and hopefulness of this classic should cheer seasoned divorcées and young riot grrrls alike--especially the moment Holliday pieces together the meaning of an Alexander Pope quote: " 'The proper study of mankind is man.' That means women, too."


"Happy Judy Hollidays" screens four Holliday films Dec. 21-30 at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. For details, call 415.454.1222.

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From the December 20-26, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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