Judy Holliday: Hollywood’s Greatest Comedic Actress

In praise of the brilliant actress and entertainer, who would have turned 92 this week

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Judy Holliday
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“Dying is easy,” the old saying goes. “Comedy is hard.”

Be that as it may, when it comes to the movies, comedy rarely gets its due. After all, only two comedies — Shakespeare in Love and The Artist — have taken the top prize at the Academy Awards in the past 30 years. However you slice it, that’s a pretty dismal record.

Comic actors and actresses, meanwhile, generally fare as poorly at the Oscars as do comic movies — unless, of course, the actors and actresses in question have ditched the funny stuff for serious fare, i.e., biopics, dramas, tear jerkers. (See: Jamie Foxx, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, et al.)

Hollywood, it seems, is happy to make money off of comedy; it’s just not very interested in showing it any respect.

But once upon a time, some seven decades ago, the Academy not only honored a legitimately hilarious performance with a Best Actress Oscar, but also immortalized the woman many film fans (including this writer) consider the greatest American comedic actress of all time: the one and only Judy Holliday.

Holliday won her Oscar in 1951 for her indelible characterization of the showgirl-savant Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday — and with all due respect to Diane Keaton, Cher, Gwyneth Paltrow and the handful of other actresses who have won Oscars for comic portrayals, no honor was ever more deserved than Holliday’s.

After all, it might not have taken a great comedian to make Billie Dawn funny; the screenwriters had an awful lot to do with that. But it took a supremely sensitive, nuanced performance to turn a near-cartoon like Billie into a consummately realized, sympathetic character — to bring her to full, engaged (and engaging) life.

Born Judith Tuvim in New York City on June 21, 1921, Holliday was blessed with a number of acting gifts, any one of which would likely have made her memorable: masterful timing; an acutely expressive face (especially those enormous, soulful eyes); an earthy, playful sex appeal; and an evident inability to speak her lines and not make them funny. Even the fact that she won her Oscar for playing one of the screen’s definitive “dumb blondes” is more than a little amusing, in light of the fact that Holliday reportedly owned a genius-level IQ, somewhere in the 170 range.

But what truly set her apart from most of the women stars of her own era — and what sets her apart from so many of the admittedly marvelous actresses (Anna Faris, Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Melissa McCarthy and the rest) making us laugh today — is the raw vulnerability that so often pierces through her humor. In It Should Happen to You, The Solid Gold Cadillac, Born Yesterday and even in later, dramatic films (the uneven but affecting Full of Life, for example), Holliday’s tough banter invariably gives way at some point to a tenderness that is all the more heart-stopping because it’s almost always so utterly unexpected.

Above all, Holliday somehow manages to make this intense vulnerability feel not at all like weakness. Instead, she invests it with so much sweetness and pathos — in short, with so much humanity — that in those astonishing scenes when it appears, her openness shines out as a kind of rare courage. She’s emotionally naked, and her fearlessness is hair-raising, every single time.

And then, a moment later, she has us laughing again. And we love her for it.

She starred in only eight (eight!) movies — she appeared in a few others, uncredited — during her far-too-short career, which included work on Broadway. Besides her Oscar for Born Yesterday, she won three Best Actress Golden Globes in the space of just 10 years, as well as a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her work in 1956’s Bells Are Ringing. She recorded several albums, including one as a fine singer and interpreter of American torch songs, and charmed audiences on the small screen when TV was still young.

As a performer, she could do it all, and like all the greatest entertainers, she made it look effortless.

Judy Holliday died of breast cancer in 1965. She was just 43 years old. We will not see her like again — but we have her movies, her music and even some of her television appearances to remind us of just how unique, and how uniquely entrancing, she really was.

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