Oscar Vault Monday – Born Yesterday, 1950 (dir. George Cukor)

I absolutely adore this film. Since it was recently added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, I thought it would be a great time to explore this film. It’s one that is often overlooked and I think there’s some irrational anger aimed at it because of Judy Holliday’s win over both Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. and Bette Davis in All About Eve. But I think that is a load of baloney. This is a great film and while Holliday’s performance may not have reached the iconic status of those other two performances, it is most definitely a deserved win. Billie Dawn is a remarkable character and Holliday plays her to perfection. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one: Best B&W Costume Design, Best Screenplay, Best Actress Judy Holliday (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were Father of the Bride, King Solomon’s Mines, Sunset Blvd. and winner All About Eve.


I’ve written about several George Cukor films for Oscar Vault Monday over the years and I just can never get enough of his work. He was nominated for   Best Director five times, winning once: Little Women (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Double Life (1947), Born Yesterday (1950) and My Fair Lady (1964, won). I also recommend What Price Hollywood? (1932), Dinner At Eight (1933), Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Camille (1936), Holiday (1938), The Women (1939), Adam’s Rib (1949), The Marrying Kind (1952) and A Star is Born (1954). He’s a director whose love of cinema and respect for his actors really shines through time and again when watch his work. While he isn’t as famous for his “comic touch” like Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch, I think his contribution to the classical Hollywood comedic cannon is undeniable.


Judy Holliday originated the role of Billie Dawn on Broadway in the play written by Garson Ganin, which ran for nearly two years. In 1949 she appeared in a small, but pivotal role in Adam’s Rib, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Holliday also received three Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a Comedy: Born Yesterday (1950, won), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) and Bells Are Ringing (1960). She also received BAFTA nominations for The Marrying Kind (1952) and Phffft (1954). In Born Yesterday, Billie Dawn comes to Washington D.C. with her fiance of seven years, corrupt junk dealer Harry Brock.  Billie was a one-time Brooklyn showgirl – she claims she could have been a star, but Brock didn’t want to share her. During a business meeting with a senator (Brock has come to lobby his interests), Billie’s uncouth manner (not too much unlike his own), embarrasses him. He thinks of dumping her, but is reminded by his lawyer that for shady tax reasons, they put most of his business holdings in Billie’s name. Thus, Brock decides to hire  tutor for Billie to refine her before marrying her – since a wife can’t testify against a husband. This is the inciting incident of the film. Billie’s tutor, played by William Holden, teaches Billie not just about U.S. History, but he also about self-respect and love. Throughout the film, Billie goes through a real transformation of character and Holliday’s performance is both brassy and subtle throughout this transformation. There’s a delicacy and humor and warmth and a lust for life that pulses through Billie throughout the film and I think a lesser actress would not have been able to bring the layers to Billie that Holliday does. You like this character immediately and when she has her final realization about Brock, her triumph of spirit is infectious.


This same year, William Holden received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor for fellow-Best Picture nominee Sunset Blvd. He received two more during his career: Stalag 17 (1953, won) and Network (1976). He also received two BAFTA nominations: Picnic (1955) and Network (1976). Holden plays Paul Varrell, a reporter who after a failed attempt to try to interview Brock, is hired as Billie’s tutor. At first, Paul is wary of the assignment. He thinks Billie is just another gangster’s moll with no personality, but her enthusiasm and desire to learn slowly melt away Paul’s apprehension. They fall in love as only two people in an Old Hollywood romance can and the two find a way to get Brock his due comeuppance. While Holden’t role in Sunset Blvd., is most definitely the more challenging and iconic of his films from 1950, he brings a weight and realness to Paul that, coupled with its stellar dialogue, help the film rise above its run-of-the-mill trappings.


In 1949, Broderick Crawford won Best Actor at the both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes for his performance as conniving politician Willie Stark in Robert Rossen’s Best Picture winning All the King’s Men. While Crawford’s role as nefarious junk dealer Harry Brock is similar to the role for which he won his Oscar, this is most definitely a comedy and Crawford most definitely hits all the comic notes perfectly. He also creates in Brock a man who, while shady as a businessman and sometimes a downright awful boyfriend, is relatable. He’s more than just a caricature and that is part of why the film works as well as it does. All three of the film’s leads are at the top of their game and Garson Kanin’s witty dialogue provides them all with roles that display their talent perfectly.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on December 24, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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