A Consideration of Actor Judy Holliday
By Devorah Tarrow
Here’s an important article by my colleague Devorah Tarrow on a beloved American actor, Judy Holliday, including her radiantly comic performance in Born Yesterday. — Anne Fielding
In the 1950 movie Born Yesterday, Billie Dawn [Judy Holliday], the ex-chorus girl and mistress of millionaire junk dealer and swindler Harry Brock [Broderick Crawford], says to Paul Verrall [William Holden], a writer who has been hired by Brock to “educate” her:
Billie. Sure, I’m happy. I got everything I want. Two mink coats. And if there’s sump’n I want, I ask. And if he don’t come across, I don’t come across, if you know what I mean.
Paul. Yes, I do!
Billie. So as long as I know how to get what I want, that’s all I want to know!
Paul. As long as you know what you want.
Billie. What? You trying to mix me up?
Women have tried to tell ourselves that our freedom is getting what we want, having our way. But as we’ve gone after “our way,” women have been unhappy, confused, and felt love was a disaster.
What Aesthetic Realism explains is honest and liberating! I learned that truly to have our way is bigger, wider, and kinder than I ever thought. In his definition of freedom, Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, gave this clear logic, which I love:
If to be free means to be able to do what you want, you have to know what you want. To know what you want means to know the things you want. Now the world consists of the things you want and the things you don’t want. So you have to know the world to be free.
Crucial in whether a woman can have both freedom and love are the opposites of assertion and yielding, and by yielding I mean the ability to be truly affected by things outside of ourselves, including a man we may care for. Every woman’s life is an epic about these opposites, and Judy Holliday’s was very much in the field of love.
I associated love (as many if not most women do) with having a man devoted to me rather exclusively, and allowing me to manage him—all for his good, of course! On one occasion, early in our marriage, Jeffrey Carduner, who worked with his father, felt that he needed to go with him to an out-of-town electronics show. I felt Jeff should stay home with me and said so in no uncertain terms. We had a huge argument. He left and I was very angry, but I also felt ashamed and didn’t understand why. Fortunately, in an Aesthetic Realism class I was able to tell Eli Siegel about what happened, and he asked me: “How do you see yielding and dominating?”
DT. I don’t think too well.
ES. Is there anything, the yielding to which is the same as freedom?
DT. Well, I’m not sure.
ES. Freedom can be defined as the ability to manage and to yield well. For instance, anytime you see a chair, you yield to something: to a fact.
DT. I never seem to like to yield a point to Jeff!
Mr. Siegel explained that that was why I had become so angry and couldn’t be useful to my husband in this particular situation. I had not been interested at all in why Jeffrey felt so strongly that he should be with his father. In fact, I resented the fact that my husband had relations with people who were not me! This was not love, and it was really against my mind being free to see what the facts were, and to have a good effect.
1. The Fight about Freedom: Managing vs. Yielding.
When Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn said in Born Yesterday, “As long as I know how to get what I want, that’s all I want to know!” she was expressing something she herself felt. From early in her life, she had a strong feeling that she wanted to be an educated, useful, expressed human being. At the same time she went after something very different with men. Like most women, she saw her freedom too much as having her way, and didn’t see caring for a man as going along with her desire to know.
She was born Judith Tuvim, in 1921, in New York. Her parents, Helen and Abe Tuvim, were progressive in terms of politics and economics, yet couldn’t get along, and divorced when Judy was 6. She had felt she was the apple of her father’s eye, and was furious with him, for, as she saw it, abandoning her and her mother. And as the only child in a large family, she was doted on by everyone–grandparents, aunts and uncles, all who praised her as brilliant and destined for the great writing career she planned to have.
In Aesthetic Realism consultations, the teaching trio The Three Persons [Devorah Tarrow, Margot Carpenter, Carol Driscoll] has asked a woman something Ms. Holiday would have benefited hearing:
Do you think you’ve used your family’s praise of you to think love means people giving you your own way, while inwardly you felt they were excessive and, in fact, a little silly?
I think Judy Holliday would have said, with relief, Yes, I have!
Meanwhile, there was growing in her a large desire to express herself in a very good way through acting and singing. In her teens, at a camp in the Catskills, she made friends with Adolf Green, an actor who encouraged her to take part in theatrical sketches. Later, Green, Betty Comden, Judy, and others formed a group The Revuers who performed at the Village Vanguard.
There was something deep about her on stage that affected people; a reviewer said that she could be “exquisitely tender and humorous at the same time.”
In 1945, after a stint in Hollywood, she landed a role on Broadway in a show called, Kiss Them for Me. In 1946 she was tapped to play Billie Dawn on Broadway, in Born Yesterday.
II. The Freedom of Art
What was it that made her memorable? “All beauty,” stated Eli Siegel, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Judy Holliday, in her art, put opposites together in a big way, such as depth and lightness, the serious and the comic, something sweet and something raucous. Her voice had a kind of tremble in it which could also assert, was both plaintive and very funny.
In his biography of her, Will Holtzman wrote that as Billie Dawn, she had “a naive charm and ingenuousness that contrasted with the outward brassiness. Her attention to detail led to a rare blend of simplicity and density.” George Cukor, who directed her, wrote: “Judy showed you truth through comedy. She was a master of comedy and of subtlety and of understatement.”
As actress, she saw her freedom in trying to be fair to a character, yielding proudly to who the character is. This is exactly what she needed, and every woman needs, in thinking about a man. In his lecture on Acting, Eli Siegel described this process when he explained:
I’ve said to people: try to see what that person feels within….That’s acting…it’s sincere acting. Every person should be able to imagine the feelings of another.
In playing Billie, Judy Holliday thought deeply about the feelings of a woman who, on the one hand, was very different from her. Ms. Holliday was definitely intellectual; Billie Dawn’s life has been given to something else. Billie is pretty sure of her ability to affect men, but very unsure of her mind’s goodness. Meanwhile, Judy Holliday, it seems, while assertive and ambitious, could also be uncertain and doubt herself deeply.
III. Is Freedom Seeing Who a Man is, or Managing Him?
In 1950 she won an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Billie Dawn, who falls in love with the intellectual Paul Verrall, as he teaches her to have a wider mind, a bigger, more ethical view of things.
Billie’s eyes are opened to a whole, new, interesting world that she wants to learn about and take part in. But I’ve learned—and we talk about this a good deal in consultations–a woman can want a smaller world, one in which she feels she’ll reign supreme, and I’m afraid this afflicted Judy Holliday. In an interview in 1947, just as her acting career was succeeding, the thing she said she really wanted was to get married, and she did marry—in 1948—David Oppenheim, a fine musician, a clarinetist with the NY City Symphony. In 1952, they had a son.
But there was trouble. The actress who carefully studied a character—for example, writer Goodman Ace wrote, “she read each line with a keen and searching mind”—didn’t think she needed to do this with men. It seems that when she was close to a man, she wanted to run his life rather completely. Ruth Brooke, a friend of Ms. Holliday told how, at the time of Kiss them for Me, Judy was seeing the play’s married author, and how “often she wanted to take Judy aside and say, ‘What the hell are you doing with him?’ But there was no point. For whatever time Judy was with a man,…she supported his work, she tolerated his faults: it was dependence or devotion or both.”
We might have asked Ms. Holliday, “If you give your attentions to a man, do you think, in return, he should be totally devoted to you? And do you think this is a form of managing, not love?”
“Freedom can be used,” Mr. Siegel said to me: “to justify unfeeling managerial advantage” and I believe this happened with her husband David Oppenheim. Though they both loved music and theater, he said after their divorce that Judy, her mother and relatives were constantly trying to run him. Gary Carey wrote that David increasingly resented being called “Mr. Holliday,” without Judy’s objecting. They fought, and Carey writes:
The tensions underlying the marriage increased in Hollywood where everything revolved around Judy—Miss Holliday’s schedule, Miss Holliday’s makeup, Miss Holliday’s limousine ….But Judy was at a loss as to how to handle the situation.
She didn’t see that to be fair to her husband was exactly the fairness she passionately went for in her art: as Mr. Siegel wrote: “to know the universe become throbbingly specific.”
Meanwhile, there was a point in Judy Holliday’s life where she felt terrifically free through having a good effect. It was when in 1952 she was called to appear before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, part of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was tracking down so called “communists” who were thought to be “infiltrating” America. At that time, there were people–for example, director Elia Kazan—who, to save their careers, “named names.” She didn’t do this; instead played her famous role of the “dumb blonde” acting naive to defeat the committee. As a result, she was blacklisted from television, but, said playwright Garson Kanin: “Of all of those harassed in the ugly days of blacklisting, no one was more steadfast than Judy. Her behavior under pressure was a poem of grace.”
In the international journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss explained what I wish Judy Holliday could have read and which I’m grateful women are learning about in consultations:
Wanting to see what another person feels is one’s own freedom. It’s not a giving in; it’s not a sacrificing of freedom; it’s not a compromise; it’s freedom. That’s because our deepest desire is to be ourselves through seeing other things justly and beautifully; and to fulfill our deepest desire is to be free.