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Arts & Culture

Judy Holliday

Audrey inspects a film
WAMC

It’s difficult to believe that Judy Holliday was born 100 years ago. Tony Award winner. Oscar winner. She isn’t talked about often these days. Still, every time I bring her name into a conversation, the reaction is a broad smile and words of praise.

Holliday was born Judith Tuvim to a Jewish family in New York City in June 2021. Tuvim is the Hebrew word for holidays. She is most well-remembered for her roles as the supposed “dumb” blonde on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood films. However, she should not be sold short. In mid-20th Century works, one-dimensional “dumb” blondes were popular and plentiful, but Judy Holliday never was the stereotypical pretty but stupid, guileless, fair-haired wench – in or out of make-up. In fact, in real life, she was quite intelligent, with a very high IQ, and never played a one-dimensional character.

Her career began in good company. She was a member of a musical/comedy club act called The Revuers which included Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Their friend Leonard Bernstein occasionally played piano for them.

Her success onstage as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday lead her to an Academy Award-winning performance in the 1950 film version. Billie Dawn, the moll of a powerful and brutish gangster, may start out as an absurdly stupid woman, but the character, even at the beginning, is incredibly charismatic and multi-faceted. During the film, she becomes cultured and educated in a quirky sort of way, and even wise.

Holliday’s other two most popular performances are in The Solid Gold Cadillac and Comden and Green’s musical Bells Are Ringing, a filmization of her Tony-winning stage role. As Laura Partridge in Cadillac, she plays a seemingly insignificant stockholder in a billion-dollar corporation. Laura looks like a “dumb” blonde but manages to take down the corrupt men who run the vast operation.

Bells Are Ringing is an appealing musical romcom Holliday plays Ella Peterson, a switchboard operator at Susanswerphone who cannot help herself being involved in the lives of her clients. Her boss, Jean Stapleton, tries to put a stop to Ella’s shenanigans, but there IS no way to stop her! In addition to the great musical numbers and comedy situations, there is a kind of romance with a client played by Dean Martin.

Holliday’s life and career were not easy and smooth. She was accused in Red Channels of Communist leanings during the loathesome McCarthy era. She refused to name names. She was constantly picked on for gaining weight. Sexism.

Google her filmography. Among the movies are wonderful, complex performances in Adam’s Rib, It Should Happen to You, and others, plus The Marrying Kind, a story with lots of drama, about a dysfunctional couple fighting and considering divorce.

In the silent film era, female comedy actresses were made to look silly and homely; Mabel Normand is an exception. For decades many film comedy actresses played pretty but mindless roles. Today we have a standout, versatile female comedy stars. Whoopi Goldberg is most like Judy Holliday. She can play funny and dramatic, always quirky and complicated characters, with a style unique to herself.

Judy Holliday died just short of her 44th birthday. Cancer. Tragic. She left behind a son. Aside from her films, she can be heard singing American standards and the blues on albums, including Trouble Is a Man and Holliday with Mulligan.

Holliday has a special place in entertainment history. At the time of her Centennial, she should be remembered and celebrated.

Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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