The great Judy Holliday died in 1965 just a few weeks shy of her 44th birthday. With only nine films to her credit (11 if you count two unbilled appearances), she endeared herself to audiences as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday and became a major star. Many of her roles were variations on the Billie persona but the real Judy Holliday was nothing like her screen image. “I know I’m stupid,” she gurgles in Born Yesterday,“ and I like it.” Holliday herself had a near genius IQ. She read voraciously and aspired to be a writer and director rather than a performer. But as the Noel Coward song goes, she found she had “the talent to amuse.” The dumb blonde formula was not new — some variation of it was always a staple of Hollywood comedy — from Lucille Ball to Marie Wilson to Goldie Hawn. But no actress had perfected and refined it with more subtlety than Judy Holliday. Sly and witty, she made dumb desirable. How did this nice Jewish girl from Sunnyside, Queens, manage to make audiences instantly fall in love with her when she appeared on the screen?
Apart from being a stage-struck kid who answered the phone for wunderkind Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and performed in comedy sketches in clubs with friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Judy had no formal acting training. But she was gifted and tenacious. Miraculously and on very short notice she replaced an ailing Jean Arthur in Born Yesterday in Philadelphia and gave a performance that had the critics enthralled. The show was a smash and ran for nearly four years. Re-creating her Billie Dawn role in the film, she received an Oscar, trumping veterans Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson. While Hollywood rarely offered her the range of opportunities she craved, Judy did have a chance to show her dramatic potential in two underrated films — The Marrying Kind and Full of Life, both of which will be shown in new 35mm prints, along with her better-known work. This complete retrospective also features some of Judy’s television appearances.
Grateful thanks to the following: Ron de Cook of Max Liebman Productions for excerpts from the TV specials; John Cocchi; Jane Klain of the Museum of TV and Radio; Joan Micklin Silver, Jonathan Oppenheim, Elliott Stein and Lee Israel. Portions of Jonathan Oppenheim interview courtesy Jewish Women’s Archive.