Holliday, Judy (1921-1965)

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Holliday, Judy (1921-1965)

Judy Holliday, in her relatively limited career, elevated the stock character of the dumb blonde from a movie stereotype to a complex combination of naiveté, common sense, intelligence, and vulnerability in a handful of memorable roles on stage and screen.

Born Judith Tuvim in New York City on June 21, 1921, Judy Holliday began her career in 1938 as a telephone operator for Orson Welles's Mercury theater company. This led to friendships with Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and others, who formed a cabaret act, called "The Revuers." From Greenwich Village night clubs, the act moved to posh New York clubs and, eventually, to a 16-week radio show on NBC and an extended run at Radio City Music Hall. "The Revuers" headed for Hollywood in 1944, but failed to gain important notice.

Holliday, however, performed supporting roles in three films at Fox, but her contract was not renewed. She headed back to New York, where she was cast in the 1945 play, Kiss Them for Me, playing the part of Alice, a dumb blonde. Judy was praised for rendering her character's sensitivity and vulnerability. Audiences loved her, but the play lasted only 14 weeks.

In 1946, Holliday replaced Jean Arthur in Born Yesterday when Arthur left the play in Philadelphia. She learned the part of Billie Dawn in three days, and the play was a sensation when it opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theater on February 4, 1946. This led to the part of Doris Attinger in the film Adam's Rib (1949) with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn at MGM. According to Hollywood legend, this role was really Holliday's screen test for Harry Cohn, the tyrannical boss at Columbia Pictures. Following this first success, Holliday starred as Billie Dawn in the film version of Born Yesterday (1950), which was released in December 1950. Holliday won an Academy Award as best actress for the role, beating out Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson, Celeste Holm, and Anne Bancroft.

In 1952 Holliday was accused of communist leanings by the McCarran Committee. The accusation kept her out of films briefly, but she performed in a series of roles in The Marrying Kind (1952), It Should Happen to You (1954), Phffft (1954), and Solid Gold Cadillac (1956). In 1956 she was back on Broadway, cast as the lonely telephone operator in Bells Are Ringing, a Comden and Green, Jule Styne musical. The show had a three-year run, which led to her assignment by MGM to repeat the role in the 1960 film version opposite Dean Martin. It would be her last film. In 1963 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and following a valiant two-year struggle, she died on June 7, 1965, two weeks before her 44th birthday.

—James R. Belpedio

Further Reading:

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. 3rd edition. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

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