Judy and Maureen
Today’s Birthday Honorees are undisputed stage and screen treasures who each made relatively few movies but made an indelible impression when going before the camera, earthy, warn, genuine and thereby relatable. It was a plum stage role – in fact a personal triumph – that brought Judy Holliday (1921-1965), who would have turned 96 today, as a quite unique yet recognizable “dumb-like-a-fox blonde” in the film version of Garson Kanin’s hit comedy Born Yesterday (1950), directed by George Cukor. She was the top choice to repeat her role of Billie Dawn, the girlfriend of a blustery junkyard tycoon seeking political patronage among corruptible Congressmen in Washington, DC, of everyone except Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, but, as the legend goes, a trial run for Holliday playing a delicious supporting role in the Kanin co-scripted, Cukor-directed Adam’s Rib (1949) supposedly persuaded him to cave in. It’s now hard to imagine that memorable movie, nominated for five Academy Awards® including Best Picture and Director and a Best Actress Oscar® winner for Holliday, without her. Her palpable growth from naïve insouciance to alert self-awareness never fails to charm, and her appealing byplay with co-stars Broderick Crawford (as Billie’s bulldog-like sugar daddy), William Holden (as the smitten reporter who wises Billie up) and Howard St. John (as a shady attorney who is ultimately won over by Billie’s transformation) provides the movie with a dramatic gravity that buttresses the comic flow. Holliday’s personal triumph would propel her to more movies, including two more touching and tender collaborations with Cukor (The Marrying Kind and It Should Happen to You), that would unfurl more of her considerable talents and affirm her own self-worth as an actress and entertainer, culminating in the musical Bells Are Ringing (Broadway 1956, Hollywood 1960, her final film).
Sharing this natal day (her 92nd), fellow Broadway alumna Maureen Stapleton (1925-2006) took a few more years to work her way into films, appearing in 10 Main Stem productions (including Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, for which she won her first Tony® Award, and Orpheus Descending) and a dozen TV dramas, before capturing an Oscar® nomination for her movie debut as a lonely, love-starved housewife in Lonelyhearts (1958). But her cinematic stock rose throughout the 1960s and 1970s in such films as A View from the Bridge (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Airport (1970, her second Oscar® nomination), Plaza Suite (1972, recreating one of her signature Neil Simon stage roles) and the acclaimed telefilms Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1975) and The Gathering (1977). When writer/director Woody Allen required an invigorating presence with a common, no-nonsense, down-to-earth quality to play an openly warm, robust woman who invades the rigid lives of a buttoned-down, emotionally troubled family in his expectation-challenging dramatic venture Interiors (1978), he cast Stapleton. She joined an estimable ensemble that included Kristin Griffith, Mary Beth Hurt, Diane Keaton, Richard Jordan, E.G. Marshall, Sam Waterston and another accomplished stage/screen legend, Geraldine Page. Vincent Canby of The New York Times considered her take on the earthy and vibrant Pearl entirely on point, as she “beautifully projects the tone and feelings of a sweet, robust, coarse woman who is never, never ridiculous.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times also keyed in on the balance struck: “Maureen Stapleton is wonderful as the ‘vulgarian,’ sweeping in with her red gown and finding [co-star Geraldine] Page's rooms ‘so gray....’ The dinner table conversation this time allows Allen to regard the Stapleton character with a mixture of tenderness and satire so delicately balanced, it's virtuoso.” She would score Los Angeles and New York Film Critics Awards – along with one of Interiors’ five Academy Award® nominations – as that year’s Best Supporting Actress. (She would finally claim her own Oscar® three years later as the defiantly common-clay, plain-spoken anarchist/activist Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty’s 1981 Reds.) Interestingly, as Interiors played in theaters in the late summer and fall of 1978, she was dealing the deck with her celluloid Interiors husband Marshall in the Broadway production of The Gin Game, playing a card-playing retiree couple weathering a much flintier relationship, also including bric-a-brac breakage akin to Interiors’ vase-shattering scene. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of Born Yesterday (available here: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/27345/BORN-YESTERDAY-1950/) and Interiors are nifty reminders of the skill and sparkle with which these two lively, lovely ladies gifted us all.