‘Born Yesterday’ or — More Relevant Today?
You know, I’ve often wondered why neither Bette Davis or Gloria Swanson won the best actress Oscar in 1951. Surely something must have gone wrong?
In George Cukor’s ‘Born Yesterday’ (1950) a wealthy, corrupt, self-made businessman, Brock, rents an entire floor of a Washington hotel and moves in along with his girlfriend, Billie (Judy Holliday), and his legal team. The plan is to “befriend” some politicians on Capitol Hill and, hopefully, these friendships will prove beneficial to both businessman and Congressmen alike. The only problem is Billie is, shall we say, not terribly refined and a potential embarrassment to be introduced into such powerful circles. So Brock hires erudite Washington journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach Billie about culture and politics; Brock does want to make a good impression in this town after all. However, in the course of “educating” Billie not only do Billie and Paul become close but it also seems that Billie might be getting all the smarts she needs to realise that her thuggish boyfriend’s business might not be as above board as she has been lead to believe or, for that matter, the entire U.S. political system either!
So, essentially, this is a spin on Pygmalion which must have been a particular topic of interest for Cukor as he then went on to direct ‘My Fair Lady’ (1964), except ‘Born Yesterday’ is also completely different from either and, more importantly, neither of the former starred Judy Holliday. Quite simply, Judy as Billie is one of the great performances of a great character in a great movie. She is brash, coarse and stroppy but the overwhelming sensation from her is one of vulnerability (wouldn’t you have put up some defences if you had to live with a monster like Brock?). And despite all her energy and noise she could execute an almost unnoticeable move or look that almost had me in tears it contained such potential frangibility and sympathy. It is a technically remarkable performance with a vast amount happening, but we never see or feel the acting wheels turning or that anything is other than spontaneous, natural and honest. It is genuinely stunning to behold.
For example, there is wonderful moment when, after consulting a large dictionary to fill in any language gaps, Billie is asked by a corrupt Congressman if she is one of his constituents. After looking at him with a slightly bemused look for a second she (and the camera in unison), and without saying a word, leans over and takes a quick, longing look in the direction of the dictionary before she pulls her (and our) attention back to the Congressman. It is one of the finest examples of non-verbal comedy I’ve seen outside of a silent movie and it is funny as hell.
Or the Gin Rummy scene! Look at the way Holliday not only arranges her cards with such perfectly practised precision but, after every time doing so, the way she sits back and that intense look of concentration on her face that’s so focused we can almost hear the whirring of her mind. The more the film goes on the more we love her.
And William Holden loves Holliday — we can tell by the way he looks at her. Billie has no class, yet why does she look so spectacular? She dresses without taste, yet she positively glitters. What draws us to her? It could be her bravery and honesty. She upholds traditional America values (whatever they actually are) although has she just implied that America is a Fascist state?! She certainly seems to have suggested that if corrupt big business and politics get in bed together then that’s the case, but more on that later.
There’s more to the film than Judy Holliday though and this is a film packed with clever touches and moments that help sell the dynamics both personal and political. Near the beginning, the men are talking, discussing the vagaries of business and politics… yet we are looking at the women, the wife and the girlfriend. Neither are speaking but both of their enforced silences and their looks of exasperation and resignation speak volumes.
Also, despite the danger of lapsing into condescension regarding an “uneducated” woman the film never fully tips over into that territory (okay, maybe just a little). Billie is always treated with respect by Cukor and Holliday and, especially, Holden. Indeed, Holden’s character might seem a little shallow but there’s also more here than an initial glance would reveal. It seems he is also from a humble background who has educated himself to rise up in life even if it is not explicit in the text — listen to the way he says ‘Nutthin’’, not unlike the way she does except not quite so obvious. His linguistic mask has briefly slipped helping us buy the connection these two seemingly different people have.
Except ‘Born Yesterday’ isn’t really a love film. Holden and Holliday practically consummate their romance in the first third so we know they’re going to end up together leaving us wondering when and how or if something will trip up the inevitability. This frees the movie up to gradually move into other areas namely, and most interestingly, the afore mentioned notion that the United States might be, or is going to become, a fascist state. If the definition of a fascist state is, according to the movie, the merging of corrupt businessmen with the world of politics then that is what America is right now. Brock, that women abusing, petty, venal, angry force of narcissistic corruption has made it to the White House… and that is a terrifying thought. What would Billie have to say to that?!
‘Born Yesterday’ is a really great film. It’s not quite perfect (what film is?) but it is charming, funny, touching and carries a powerful warning that might seem quaint but only because it is now our reality. It is also very nicely directed by Cukor with some cool compositions, refined mirror-work and, despite the mainly hotel setting, a wonderful sense of space and openness.
But it is Holliday’s performance that is the gravitational centre of this film which holds everything together and captivates our gaze and attention so completely. And if you think I’ve spoken at length about her physical acting I haven’t even touched on her vocal acrobatics that can drop from the shrillest of squeals to the gruffest contralto in a heartbeat, and that’s not even including all the inflections and grace-notes.
So if you’ve ever wondered why Bette and Gloria didn’t win best actress Oscar that year, just watch ‘Born Yesterday’ and you’ll see that nothing had gone wrong in the slightest and the right person had won after all.