Judy Holliday

Active - 1938 - 1976  |   Born - Jun 21, 1921 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Jun 7, 1965   |   Genres - Comedy, Musical, Comedy Drama, Romance

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Although her film career rested on portraying dumb blondes, American actress Judy Holliday scored 172 on her early IQ tests. A voracious reader and theater devotee, Holliday was determined to become a classical actress even though she was rejected for admission to Yale Drama School. She worked as a switchboard operator and a stage manager for Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, then took a job in a comedy revue at a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1938. In the company of her friends Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Alvin Hammer and John Frank, Holliday was a member of the Revuers, an aggregation specializing in wildly satirical songs and sketches. Working their way up the club date grapevine, the Revuers caught the attention of a 20th Century-Fox talent scout, who wanted to hire only Holliday. She loyally refused to enter movies without her co-workers -- to little avail, since the group's premiere performance in Greenwich Village (1944) was trimmed down to near-nonexistence. Holliday stayed at Fox for a bit in Something for the Boys (1944) and a good supporting role in Winged Victory (1944), but was dropped by the studio as having limited potential. The seriocomic role of a prostitute in the 1945 stage play Kiss Them for Me revitalized her career somewhat, but her biggest break came when Jean Arthur dropped out of the Garson Kanin play Born Yesterday. With less than three days' rehearsal, Judy stepped into the role of Billie Dawn, the dimwitted "kept girl" of crooked junk dealer Paul Douglas, and overnight became the hottest new "find" on Broadway. Columbia Pictures bought the film rights for Born Yesterday, but Columbia president Harry Cohn didn't care for Holliday, so her chances at being hired for the movie were slim. She took an excellent part as a would-be husband killer in Adam's Rib (1949), and it was this performance that convinced Columbia to allow Holliday to recreate Billie Dawn for the screen version of Born Yesterday (1950). The result was an Academy Award for Holliday and a lucrative Columbia contract. Some of her Columbia pictures tended to recast Holliday as Billie Dawn (under different names) over and over again. Though this dumb-dumb characterization was irritating to the star, it came in handy when she was called to testify for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. By playing "stupid", Holliday managed to survive accusations of Communist activity that would have killed her career. Tired of Hollywood by 1956, she signed to star in a musical comedy written by her old Revuers companions Comden and Green. Bells Are Ringing, which cast Holliday as a "Miss Fixit" telephone operator, ran several seasons, and was ultimately adapted as a film in 1960; this time there was no question that she would repeat her stage role for the movie. Unhappily, Bells Are Ringing was Holliday's last film. Domestic problems and the debilitating failures of her 1960 play based on the life of Laurette Taylor and the bedeviled Broadway musical Hot Spot were only part of the problem; an earlier bout with cancer had recurred, and this time proved fatal. Holliday died at the age of 43 -- a brilliant, singular talent allowed to perform at only half steam in most of her Hollywood films.

Movie Highlights

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  • First job was switchboard operator at Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre.
  • Developed her comedic talent in a group called the Revuers, working with future musical partners Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
  • Changed last name from Tuvim, the Hebrew word for holiday.
  • Made her big-screen debut with a bit part in the Don Ameche musical Greenwich Village (1944).
  • Reprised the role of Billie Dawn in the 1950 movie version of the Broadway comedy Born Yesterday, winning the first Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture---Musical or Comedy.
  • Was the subject of an investigation by a Senate subcommittee for links to Communism; it was ultimately dropped.