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Judy Holliday

Judy Holliday

Singing actress Judy Holliday (b. New York City, June 21, 1921; d. New York City, June 7, 1965), beloved of stage and screen audiences for her portrayal of dumb blondes in Born Yesterday, It Should Happen to You, and Bells Are Ringing, appeared in only six Broadway shows and eight feature films in her short lifetime. Nonetheless she won an Oscar® and a Golden Globe® for her first hit film, Born Yesterday, and received three more Golden Globe® nominations and two Tony Awards®.

Judith Tuvim (as she was named at birth) had an early start in show business. Her mother, a piano instructor, went into labor while sitting in the audience in a theatre. At four years of age, Judy, an only child, was in ballet school. Her parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia, divorced when she was six. In high school she was an A-plus student and participated in many plays, but did not go to college. Turned down by the Yale School of Drama, she got a job at the Mercury Theatre run by Orson Welles and John Houseman – but as an assistant switchboard operator, not as an actress.

At the depths of the depression, around 1938, she joined a small group of stagestruck but jobless actors and musicians called The Revuers, and finally got a chance to perform. Two of them were Betty Comden and Adolph Green; their frequent piano accompanist was a Curtis Institute student, Leonard Bernstein. They established a niche at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, packing in the clientele with sketch comedy (“The Banshi Sisters,” “The Baroness Bazuka”), even though the proprietor had no liquor license. The Revuers’ fame reached the ears of Hollywood producers, and they were offered a spot in a Carmen Miranda-Don Ameche movie called Greenwich Village (1944), but in the end their parts were so negligible – some were dropped altogether – that most of them straggled back to New York.

Judy stayed a few months in Hollywood, changing her name to Holliday (“holiday” is a translation from the Hebrew “Tuvim”) and snagging two bit parts in the movies, but by March 1945 she was making a Broadway debut in Kiss Them for Me. This was to win her the first Clarence Derwent Award for the most promising new female supporting actress on Broadway. The next year she was chosen by author Garson Kanin to replace the indisposed Jean Arthur in his new play Born Yesterday (1946), as the scatterbrained Billie Dawn.

Even though Holliday’s performance was a critical sensation, the studio boss of Columbia Pictures, which had bought film rights to Born Yesterday, refused to consider casting her for the screen version. Kanin reports in his book on Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn that the two stars of Adam’s Rib (1949) conspired with him and George Cukor to boost Judy Holliday by giving her a key part in their film. The reviews praised the performance so highly and the gossip columns (thanks to Hepburn) shone so much limelight on Holliday that the Columbia boss surrendered and gave her the Born Yesterday (1950) role. She won the Academy Award® for Best Actress and the Golden Globe®, beating out nominees Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard) and Bette Davis (All About Eve).

In the early 1950s the now high-profile Holliday was investigated by the FBI for possible connections to the Communist party. No real evidence turned up, but she was blacklisted from performing on radio and television for nearly three years. The Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security summoned her to testify in 1952, claiming that her name had been linked to “Un-American” organizations. It is widely believed that by adopting her Billie Dawn persona on the stand and befuddling her inquisitors, she escaped the destruction of her acting career. (She would often observe that it took a lot of smarts to convince an audience that she was really stupid.)

Holliday made two hit films in 1954 with the young Jack Lemmon, It Should Happen to You and Phffft! The Solid Gold Cadillac followed in 1956, after which she returned east to Broadway to star in the Comden and Green musical Bells Are Ringing. Her role as Ella Peterson won her the 1957 Tony Award® as Best Actress in a Musical.

In 1958 Judy Holliday’s ten-year marriage to clarinetist and conductor David Oppenheim ended in divorce, perhaps precipitated by the short-lived fling she was having with her Bells Are Ringing co-star Sydney Chaplin. Her only son Jonathan was just five at the time. She later had a long-term but problematic relationship with jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

In 1960 she was back in Hollywood making the screen adaptation of Bells Are Ringing, but at about this time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The few plays in which she appeared subsequently were flops. She recorded some songs she had written with Mulligan (Holliday With Mulligan) in 1961 but the album was not released until 1980. 

Holliday died of cancer at the age of forty-three and was buried in the Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. Her son Jonathan is now a documentary film editor. Her star is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.