Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Easy Steps to Democracy.


"I think it's the best thing I ever read. I didn't understand a word of it."
- Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) to Paul Verrall (William Holden) after reading a piece he wrote about politics.

Watching "Born Yesterday" is a meta experience in more than one way.
For those fascinated with the Oscars and film history it's the film featuring the actress who beat both Bette Davis in "All About Eve" and Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd." for the Best Actress award in 1950 (She also beat Anne Baxter from "All About Eve", but what she was doing there for starters, instead of being in the Supporting race- is a mystery of its own).
Judy Holliday plays Billie Dawn, a former showgirl who comes to Washington D.C. with her lover, corrupt tycoon, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford).
Brock, conscious that he, and consequently Billie, will be mingling with senators and important people decides his mistress needs an education.
He hires journalist Paul Varrell (William Holden) to help him out and before long Billie turns into an American revolution of her own.
Holliday, turns in the ultimate ditsy blonde performance. The, sexy/cute, high pitched voice and lovable dumbness, one that inspired Jayne Mansfield, Jean Hagen, Reese Witherspoon, Dyan Cannon, Lisa Kudrow and even Madonna since. It is rumored that Marilyn Monroe- the queen of the blondes- auditioned for the role and was brilliant, but Columbia boss Harry Cohn didn't even see her reel.
Holliday makes her entire performance something of an enigma. Thos on the Swanson/Davis team will argue that she stole the award without trying too hard, but perhaps playing dumb isn't as easy as one might think.
Holliday herself said "You have to be smart to play a dumb blonde over and over and keep the audience's attention without extraordinary physical equipment."
The actress had a very high IQ and watching her Billie onscreen is delightful because she shows absolutely no sign of this. The vagueness in her eyes is remarkable and in her one big dramatic scene she breaks your heart.
Holliday gives a performance of a woman giving a performance (which goes in the vein of what Davis and Swanson did in their respective movies playing actresses). With Billie we come to wonder if her dumbness isn't part of a role to help her achieve survival.
It may not be as grandiose and legendary a performance, but by all means it's a great part. I don't agree with her win, but there's not much we can do now.
Besides Oscars are given out through votes right? So in a way it's a democracy and we can't change history so moving on...
Then there's the whole issue of democratic history embedded in the structure of the film. By Hollywood standards Frank Capra is the master of political films, especially because his movies don't scream "politics!" even if they deal with social issues.
It's odd that he didn't get asked to direct this movie which contains some of the elements he was legendary for.
George Cukor however, whose specialty were stylized comedies and female roles, does marvellous work with the material and "Born Yesterday" feels a bit like "Miss Dawn Goes to Washington".
Cukor, like Capra, abstains from delivering an educational movie (who the hell goes to the movies to learn...on purpose?).
In the end however the film might as well comprise a crash course od modern politics and democracy. More than that the plot structure is almost a metaphor for the rise of American democracy.
Let's look at the facts.
Harry Brock would be equivalent to England during the colonies. Billie starts as the colonies; where people would soemtimes be shipped off as ways of punishment.
Harry has his way with Billie whenever he wants and she's subject to something she at first enjoys but then begins to question.
Paul Varrell in this case would be the founding fathers or some abstract spirit of education that enlightens them.
Billie eventually seeks her independence and establishes democracy as her way of living, even if she doesn't really understand it "If there's a fire and I call the engine, who am I double crossing? The fire?!?" she asks.
One of the movie's greatest scenes features the following dialogue:
Harry: "Who are you the government?"
Paul: "Yeah"
Harry:"Since when?"
Billie:"Since 1779! Right?"
From the film's light tone and interest in the law it's possible to guess that people back in 1950 were just as uninterested in politics as they are in 2009.
Therefore "Born Yesterday" is both a history and a lesson of democracy. It's fascinating to realize that even if democracy is a part of our every day language, it's not a concept we all grasp so easily.
Paul teaches Billie easy ways to understand different political views, "selfishness=fascism" in his view, even when some of his concepts are a bit too American and idealized for worldwide audiences Cukor's effort with the film is nothing but admirable.
Teach them something withou them knowing because as Paul says in the film "a world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in."

1 comment:

woodstock said...

you finally watched it!! and i knew youd love it... i even knew that youd love holliday, shes not davis or swanson, but shes marvelous in this movie [the onl ive seen with her though] but we gotta discuss it more later after i re-buy it cos i lent it and the person lost it. u.u