1921 - 1965
A baker's dozen of film performances and two bona-fide Broadway hits out of five shows does not seem the stuff of legend. When those film performances include one of the Academy's rare Best Actress Oscars for a comedic performance and the Broadway hit was a Tony winner for its leading lady, you know you are dealing with someone very special. Today I celebrate the sadly brief, but joyously creative life of Judy Holliday.
Judy Tuvim was an only child whose sense of self worth was compromised by the divorce of her parents. The bright girl, who tested with an IQ of 172, loved crosswords and made her mark in school as a writer. Like many imaginative, creative people Judy was intrigued by the theatre and saw herself as a writer/director. While still a teen a family friend found her job as switchboard operator with the Mercury Theater. She unsuccessfully auditioned for a small role in one of the productions, but took advantage of the opportunity afforded to pour over manuscripts.
Prone to illness, 17-year-old Judy took a leave of absence from her work and she and her mother attended a summer camp for adults in the Catskills. The entertainment director at the camp was an energetic 24-year old Adolph Green. The future writing partner of Betty Comden and Oscar nominee (The Band Wagon, It's Always Fair Weather) was taken with the bright girl with the dazzling smile and sharp mind. A fast friendship was formed that would impact both their lives. Back in New York City, Judy found an offbeat nightclub ran by a man named Max Gordon. The Vanguard featured poets and other bohemian entertainers looking for a place to ply their wares. Judy wrangled a spot for her friend Adolph and his group. She planned to help out with backstage duties. After a few unpromising weeks at the venue the troupe of comic performers now known as The Revuers was solidified with Adolph, Betty, Alvin Hammer, John Frank and Judy.
Over the next six years the young people wrote and performed skits lampooning the arts and their beloved NYC. They learned what worked with different audiences as they moved from cozy venues to massive halls developing their following. A cross country tour took them to Hollywood in 1944 with hope in their hearts and a scene in the film Greenwich Village which ended on the cutting room floor. Judy was given a contract at 20th Century Fox which she was loath to accept as it didn't include her friends. At this point, The Revuers had run its course so Judy and her mother remained in California while Betty and Adolph returned to New York. At 20th Century Fox Judy had a bit as a defense plant worker in Something for the Boys and a lovely turn as a military wife in Winged Victory, but was then dropped by the studio. Too much of a character actress to be a perky leading lady and too much of a leading lady to be a movie character actress, she left Hollywood disappointed but with a new name.
A showy role in a wartime romance Kiss Them for Me on Broadway in 1945 brought a lot of attention to the young actress. Judy's name was mentioned as a possibility to Garson Kanin and producer Max Gordon (not her earlier benefactor) as a possible replacement for Jean Arthur in their upcoming production, Born Yesterday. Kanin had written Born Yesterday thinking specifically of Jean Arthur for the lead, but for whatever reason - her well-known shyness, lack of confidence in the material - Miss Arthur contacted cold feet and opted out of the show. On three days notice for an out-of-town tryout, Judy Holliday flung herself into the role of Billie Dawn. Billie is the showgirl companion of industrialist and top-level political manipulator Harry Brock (Paul Douglas). Harry feels Billie is holding him back in society and hires a tutor (Gary Merrill) to smooth off her rough edges. Billie is a girl who isn't quite as dumb as she acts. A girl has to do what a girl as to do to get along. She's ready for a new attitude and a new man as she becomes a more confident woman who turns the tables on Harry to get what she wants. Judy Holliday as a hit playing the role for almost 1000 performances. Replacement and touring Billie's included Jan Sterling, Jean Parker, Jean Hagen and Cara Williams. Marie Wilson, Gloria Grahame, Barbara Hale and Celeste Holm were all touted for the film version although Harry Cohn of Columbia had purchased the property with Rita Hayworth planned for the lead. Romance (Hayworth married Aly Khan) and a bit of skullduggery by Garson Kanin and George Cukor helped Judy return to Hollywood in style.
Garson Kanin and his wife Ruth Gordon had written Adam's Rib for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and that film (one of my favourite talkies) was to be directed by George Cukor who was also tapped for Born Yesterday. Cukor had been convinced that Judy was the only one to play Billie Dawn on screen, but they had to overcome Cohn's objection. Kanin and Gordon convinced Judy to play Doris Attinger in Adam's Rib, the accused defended by Hepburn and prosecuted by Tracy. They would beef up the role and the talented actress would take care of the rest. Judy's first scene on the shoot was when she tells her tale of woe to attorney Amanda Bonner. Cukor placed the camera over Hepburn's shoulder and let Judy do her stuff. He was prepared to set up for reaction shots from Hepburn, but that star told him to forget it. It was Judy's scene. It certainly was. Harry Cohn bowed to the inevitable and Judy starred in Born Yesterday with Oscar winner (All the King's Men) Broderick Crawford as Harry and future Oscar winner (Stalag 17) William Holden as Paul.
Billie: Would ya' do me a favor, Harry?
Billie: Drop dead!
Judy knew Billie Dawn inside and out, but the screen version was different from the stage in that Hollywood liked to play up the dumb showgirl look for all it was worth. Judy gave us the tough dame, the good-hearted kid, the sly plotter, the woman in love. There is not a false note in the highs and lows of the script. The Oscar nomination was well deserved along with those for Bette Davis in All About Eve, Anne Baxter in All About Eve, Eleanor Parker in Caged and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. A line-up such as that makes one realize just how silly on an artistic level is the idea of the award, although no one can fault its value in promotion. Judy was in New York on Oscar night as were nominees Celeste Holm, Gloria Swanson and Jose Ferrer who arranged a party and radio hook-up should any of them win. Jose received the trophy for Cyrano de Bergerac and gave a speech. Judy's award was accepted for her in Hollywood by Ethel Barrymore before she could reach the microphone.
At the time of her Oscar win Judy was married to musician/recording executive David Oppenheim. The following year their son Jonathan would be born. A career which included long stints out of town was just one of the pressures which would end the marriage in 1958 after ten years.
Judy's follow-up to Born Yesterday had to be something that would take her out of the world of the dumb blonde. Directed again by George Cukor with a script by Kanin and Gordon, 1952s The Marrying Kind was a serio-comic look at the romance and marriage of a lower middle class couple played by Judy and, in his first leading role, Aldo Ray. The couple in this film are completely relateable with the humour springing from the characters and situations. The tragedy faced by the family comes suddenly and nothing feels forced. You root for the Keefers because of the sensitivity of the performances and the strangeness of seeing something that aims for reality on the screen. This isn't the scrubbed clean middle class nor the dust-free slums which movie viewers had become accustomed to through the years.
After the birth of her son in 1952, Judy would not be another film until 1954. Again it was a Cukor vehicle from the pen of Garson Kanin. Her leading man was Jack Lemmon and the movie the charming and insightful It Should Happen to You. Judy is Gladys Glover who came to NYC to make a name for herself. When the gods of fame seemed to be neglecting the untalented yet ambitious miss, Gladys put her savings into having her name plastered on a billboard. If this were contemporary time she would probably make a sex tape, but seeing as this was 60 years ago, all she had to do to get her name in lights was to put it there herself. Once people have heard of you, then you are a celebrity. Gladys soon found herself the spokeswoman for products and the object of amorous and financial attention from Peter Lawford as an executive who at first needed that billboard and then found ways to use Gladys. None of this goes over very well with Gladys' boyfriend. Jack Lemmon plays a documentary filmmaker who discovered Gladys in the park one day. He is of the old-fashioned opinion that fame should be merited and that a person should stand for something. Silly boy! Judy Holliday is wonderful and winning as Gladys. You can't be mad at her. She is so honest about what she wants, and her eventual come down is almost gut wrenching.
In 1954 Judy was cast in Phffft for Columbia. I know I saw the movie once, but it didn't leave much of an impression beyond that Judy always knew what she was doing. It is again Judy and Jack and their marriage is sidetracked by Jack Carson and Kim Novak. Judy left the studio feeling that all of the effort that should have been put into her career had been shifted to Miss Novak.
Judy's two 1956 releases were both directed by Richard Quine. I like Richard Quine's comedies. They give me a sense of wackiness and sweet melancholy that I find comforting. The first is an adaption of a Broadway hit The Solid Gold Cadillac by Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman. The play starred Josephine Hull (Arsenic and Old Lace) as Laura Partridge, a small stockholder in a large corporation who gums up the works for the big boys looking to make their profit on the backs of the little guy. Adapted for the younger Miss Holliday the movie isn't a world shaker, but a rather by-the-numbers good over evil story. It is Judy reaching out to the other stockholders and opening the heart of an executive, her Broadway co-star Paul Douglas, who makes things work. Of course, for us today it is also a look at the mid-century offices that has a certain appeal.
The other Quine feature is a charmer that is a personal favourite of mine. Full of Life is written by John Fante from his own story and experience. Italian-American writer (Richard Conte) and his wife (Judy) are expecting their first child. They have bought a little house in suburbia and he has set up his writing office in the garage. Judy gives us one of the screen's first real looks at pregnancy. The cravings, the jealousy when every woman in the neighbourhood who talks to her husband has a waistline, and the overwhelming need for nesting. When Emily Rocco falls through the kitchen floor, it is humiliating and no good to remind her it was termites. Repairs are beyond the couple at this point so they turn to Papa. Construction is his business. Also, mending fences with his son before the grandchild arrives is his business. Making his movie debut is opera bass Salvatore Baccaloni. Everyone is completely believable including the scene-stealing Baccaloni. Full of Life is a celebration of family that doesn't need to use sentimentality to make you good.
Meanwhile, back in New York, Adolph Green and Betty Comden have written a play that they feel is the perfect showcase for their old friend Judy Holliday. Bells Are Ringing is the story of Ella Peterson, who works for her cousin Susan at Susanswerphone. This telephone service provides extra perks as Ella becomes personally involved in the lives of the clients. She takes on different characters to help others with their problems, ignoring her own loneliness. To playwright Jeff Moss she is "Mom" over the phone. She becomes "Melisande Scott" in his real life, helping him to find the discipline to stick to his work. Typical in its romantic complications, amusing in its subplots and brimming with good humour and music, Bells Are Ringing was a major hit. Judy and her leading man Sidney Chaplin had begun a romance and that must have added to the good feelings. Judy won the Tony Award for Distinguished Musical Actress over Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and Ethel Merman in Happy Hunting.
We are fortunate to have Judy Holliday on screen as Ella in the Vincente Minnelli production of Bells Are Ringing. Dean Martin is the leading man and look quick for Broadway lead understudy Hal Linden as a nightclub singer. (Keep on pitching, Hal. Barney Miller is 14 years in your future.) The movie gives us a glimpse of what theatre audiences kept returning to again and again. Any night in the theatre is a night shared with the performers, but some nights are special. Audiences appreciated the talent of the actress and the spirit of the person that Judy/Ella brought to them.
Bells Are Ringing was not a box office success and it would be Judy's last screen appearance. Her love and professional lives would merge when she became involved with the great jazz artist Gerry Mulligan. They collaborated on songs as Judy had never stopped writing, but plans for a Broadway show never came to be. The public soon lost track of Judy as she became ill first with breast cancer and an unpublicized mastectomy. Later, throat cancer would claim her life shortly before her 44th birthday in 1965.
Judy's professional legacy is one of a creative soul striving for perfection and achieving greatness in her field. The awards are markers but perhaps mean less than the acclaim and admiration of her peers and co-stars, the love of her audience and the influence on generations of actresses who aren't afraid to show their comic hearts.
Movies, Silently is hosting a blogathon looking at the funny ladies of the silver screen. Let's enjoy all of the wonderful posts on these grand gals.