“You have to be smart to play dumb blondes over and over and keep the audience’s attention without extraordinary physical equipment.”
On the 50th anniversary of Judy Holliday’s death June 7, 1965, we look back on some of the best movies featuring the Academy Award winning actress.
Born Judith Tuvim to New York immigrants of Russian Jewish descent, Holliday’s first exposure to showbiz came when she was an assistant switchboard operator at the Mercury Theater, home of John Houseman and the mercurial young Orson Welles. Beginning in 1938, she would enjoy a career that saw its share of ups and downs before her premature death in 1965, but despite her limited filmography, she’ll always be remembered for what she brought to the screen.
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Holliday began performing at 17 as part of night club act called “The Revuers” that also featured Betty Comden and Adolph Green. She made her Broadway debut in 1946 with Born Yesterday. When Columbia Pictures acquired the film rights for the play, studio chief Harry Cohn was reluctant to cast the unproven 28-year-old and wanted to first test her in a smaller role. Adam’s Rib proved to be quite the test vehicle: it’s now considered one of the classic screwball comedies. Director George Cukor, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn all graciously conspired to help Holliday make the best of her role as Doris, with Hepburn leaking to the press reports that the stars feared they’d been upstaged by the newcomer. The gambit worked and Cohn agreed to let Holliday reprise her Broadway role.
Born Yesterday (1950)
Teaming up again with Cukor, Holliday starred as Emma “Billie” Dawn, ditzy showgirl mistress to a corrupt business tycoon visiting Washington in hopes of buying a Congressman or two. The tycoon hires journalist Paul Verrall, played by William Holden, to teach Billie Dawn manners and decorum, but the plot backfires when she proves smarter and more independent than anybody thought. The film earned Holliday, in her first starring role, an Academy Award for best actress, and remains the movie with which she is most associated. Holliday herself reportedly had an IQ of 172 but didn’t seem to mind playing bubbleheads. “You have to be smart to play dumb blondes over and over and keep the audience’s attention without extraordinary physical equipment,” she said.
The Marrying Kind (1952)
In 1952 she took her airhead act to an entirely new stage – the Senate floor. Following an F.B.I. investigation, she was called before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security (the Senate equivalent of the infamous red-baiting HUAC), to face questions about her alleged Communist ties. Advised by her lawyers to play dumb, she essentially reprised her role as Billie Dawn. Though Holliday didn’t name names, she escaped being blacklisted in Hollywood but was banned for three years from radio and television. The stigma of being called before the committee was enough to keep her from getting the plum roles befitting an Academy Award winner though, and The Marrying Kind was both an attempt to show her range and get her career back on track. It failed to ignite at the box office, though it did receive positive notices and earned Holliday a BAFTA nomination.
It Should Happen to You (1954)
The Red Scare played a different behind-the-scenes role during pre-production of It Should Happen to You, which marked the big screen debut of Jack Lemmon. Studio head Harry Cohn worried Lemmon’s last name would prove overly tempting to headline writers should the film receive bad reviews, and wanted him to change his name to “Lennon.” Lemmon kept his real name onscreen by convincing the studio head that “Lennon” might too easily be confused with “Lenin” and give the film a whiff of Communism. Written by Garson Kanin (screenwriter of Adam’s Rib), It Should Happen to You tells the story of a documentary filmmaker Pete who falls for unemployed model Gladys and the complications that develop when a publicity stunt earns her sudden notoriety. Critics liked the film and it did moderately well at the box office, leading to the studio casting Lemmon and Holliday together again that year.
Bells Are Ringing (1960)
Holliday starred opposite Lemmon in Phffft!, a film that earned her another BAFTA nomination, and then appeared in two Richard Quine directed comedies before returning to Broadway. There she was reunited with the people she started working in showbiz with nearly 20 years ago, starring in the musical Bells Are Ringing whose book and lyrics were written by Comden and Green. She won a Tony Award for playing Ella Peterson and agreed to reprise the role for the film — even though she was by then experiencing the ill-effects of breast cancer. She won her second Golden Globe award for the film, which would prove to be the last she ever made.
Holliday died June 7, 1965, of breast cancer. She was 43.