hail the dumb broad


A sexy, dolled-up blonde enters a fancy hotel suite with an oaf of a man. Her face is impassive and haughty, her posture erect. This dame is not easily impressed. She stands around as the hotel’s manager attempts to please the oaf, showing him around, but she hardly pays attention. The manager politely leads her to her room, which faces the one the big oaf is in. The oaf, seeing her across the courtyard, opens a window, and shouts, “Hey, Billie!” Taking her time, the blonde demurely saunters over and in her Tenement-best wails, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat??!!” Such are Judy Holliday’s surprising first moments in the 1950 film Born Yesterday. Three-and-a-half minutes in, that “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat??!!” marks the film’s real start like a steam trumpet. From then on, you’re hooked. Holliday steals every scene she’s in. As Billie Dawn, the ditzy former chorus girl turned fiancé of a well-to-do mobster, she is hilarious and mesmerizing, mainly because you’re never sure just what she’ll do next. She moves in a practiced shimmy, knowing she’s putting on a show but never making a big show about the fact that she’s putting on a show. The voice of Billie Dawn — which Holliday spent four years perfecting on Broadway before starring in the movie version — is the high-pitched, Damon Runyon-esque “Toity-toid and Toid” that audiences have come to expect of their dumb broads, but she slurs her lines a little and never leaves the moment. She’s a Marlon Brando of dingy dames. It’s an iconic performance, one that would win her the Academy Award for Best Leading Actress at the age of 29 and come to define her career.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.