Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Worth Watching: Born Yesterday (1950)

Title: Born Yesterday
Director: George Cukor
Language: English
Rating: PG

In Born Yesterday, Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) slowly emerges from the 'dumb blonde' persona she's buried herself under for years in order to get by in life. At the start of the movie, she's arrived in Washington, D.C. with her boyfriend, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), a crooked businessman who's trying to bribe his way to greater political influence. Brock was born in Jersey and is in the junk business, sort of a 1950s Tony Soprano.

Billie drifts through life with her mind turned off. She gets furs and jewels and verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse from Brock, who also uses her as an unwitting stooge for some of his deals. However, he finds that when they try to mingle in D.C. society, she comes across as too crass and ignorant. (So does he, but he thinks she's the only one who needs more polish.) His solution is to hire a journalist, Paul Verrall (William Holden), to teach her about culture and proper speech.

Paul gives Billie a lot of books, shows her historic sites in D.C., and talks to her like one human being to another. She starts to think for herself, and they fall in love.

Billie (Judy Holliday) and Paul (William Holden) in Born Yesterday

I like that Billie isn't dumb; she just acts dumb. Once she becomes less ignorant and naive and learns to think for herself, she's a force to contend with. She's also still recognizably Billie, not some polished socialite (this isn't My Fair Lady). I also like that Paul isn't her 'white knight.' He doesn't charge in and rescue her or tell her what to do, other than to keep reading and thinking. She figures out what Brock is up to on her own and decides to leave on her own terms, while thinking of a plan for how to stop him; only then does she recruit Paul to be her accomplice.

Holden is a sweetheart as Paul, and Crawford plays Brock both as a comical ignoramus and as a genuine menace who only understands two kinds of power: money and physical force. But it's Holliday's performance that the movie rests on, and she holds it together. Like the movie as a whole, her performance is a skillful blend of comedy and drama, as seen in the way she can toss off a funny line and then, in a heartbeat, look lost and vulnerable. Not all performers, or movies, would handle these transitions well.

*The image links back to its source (Flixster Community).