Judy Holliday

Feature | Born Yesterday Flashed RED in the McCarthy Era

By Sarah Corridon

In the opening scene of Born Yesterday, cynical reporter Paul Verrall reflects on the stagnant political reality of Capitol Hill in the wake of WWII. He says, ‘I could stand a little more change. The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.’
Garson Kanin’s play – written towards the end of 1945 and first produced on Broadway the following year – explores the corruptions which governed mid-century America, with a healthy dose of glamour and comedy. Verrall’s quip about ‘change’ demonstrates his character’s leftist ideology, which underpins much of Kanin’s narrative.

Corrupt business tycoon Harry Brock comes to represent the thuggery and ferociousness Kanin sees in free-market capitalism, while Verrall laments about a ‘yellowing’ government. The likeable Verrall sees the ideals of democracy – the cornerstone of American freedom – as decaying in the wake of the war. He says, ‘The whole damn history of the world is the struggle between the selfish and unselfish,’ referring to the capitalist greed he loathes in Brock.

It was this sentiment that saw playwright Kanin and lead actress Judy Holliday under investigation during Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare; America’s second wave of popularised communist fear.

Along with Arthur Miller, Orson Welles and scores of other big-name Hollywood artists, Kanin was put on the infamous Hollywood blacklist; denied of work and accused of committing “Un-American Activities” as a communist sympathiser. The official blacklist was never verified or made overtly clear, rather a pamphlet entitled ‘Red Channels’ started circulating in June 1950 with a list 151 names. Those on the list were more or less barred from working with major motion picture studios for the next ten years, destroying several promising careers in the process.

In 1952, one year after Holliday won the Academy Award for Best Actress in Born Yesterday, she was under investigation; interrogated by the Senate Judiciary Committee for her left-leaning political ideals. Holliday’s career was immediately put on hold as she was forced to face accusations of a communist allegiance.

Holliday upheld a particularly intelligent public image having received a ‘genius’ IQ test score of 172 as a child at age 10. As the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she was said to be raised in a socialist home and was continually recognised by the media as a strong and independent woman, unafraid to subvert gender norms in her personal and public life.

In Born Yesterday, the character Billie Dawn epitomised post-war American feminism, whilst still relying on patriarchal conventions to express those ideals. In Holliday’s case, unlike her role in Born Yesterday, she was forced to submerge her intellect and play ‘dumb’ to avoid persecution during the Red Scare.

It’s recorded that Holliday escaped her contempt charges by playing her character Billie Dawn (pre intellectual transformation) before the Senate. It was this performance that saved the young actress’ career. Holliday narrowly avoided Hollywood’s blacklist and instead went on to play seven more leading roles with Columbia Pictures. Despite Holliday’s continued success, she never resumed her outspoken, feminist persona again. In 1965 Holliday succumbed to cancer at age 43.

Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday plays at Southbank Theatre from 14 January.

Published on 6 January 2017

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