Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday)
The Nominees: Anne Baxter (All About Eve), Bette Davis (All About Eve), Eleanor Parker (Caged), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd.),
Bette Davis (All About Eve) and Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd.)
My Nominee: Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday)
I have seen Born Yesterday at least twenty times and I am always grateful for Judy Holliday's performance. As Billie Dawn (a role she played for three years on the stage), the dumb blonde girlfriend of a wealthy slob who hires a writer to smarten her up, it is wonderful to see her character blossom, not just under the book learning, but the flowering of her own worth. It is just lovely to see her evolve from "I'm stupid and I like it" to "I know there's a lot better life then the one I've got". Judy Holliday is one of those actresses you wanted to hug. She had such a lovely open face and a sweet baby doll voice and makes Billie a little girl who grows up over the course of her journey.
Born Yesterday is, of course, the film that would define Judy Holliday. Sadly, it forever stranded her in the image of the “quintessential dumb blonde” which I think is a little unfair. She was really very intelligent in real life and her previous and subsequent roles reveal an actress with a very nice range. I have given her a nomination for Born Yesterday and also for later performances in The Solid Gold Cadillac, It Should Happen to You and an Armchair Oscar for The Marrying Kind in 1952. It pains me not to select her as my Best Actress here. I tried my best to find a reason for not taking away her Oscar, but there were just two others that I couldn't ignore.
Yes, my selection is a tie and for a very specific reason: The two performances that I have selected are so close in theme that it is difficult for me to select one over the other. So for this year, I am selecting Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Blvd.
Both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson play characters whose circumstances were reasonably close to themselves. They were past 40 (Davis was 42, Swanson was 51) and dealing with the inevitability of age in an industry that prefers its female stars to float somewhere between 18 and 30. In the case of Margo Channing in All About Eve. Davis is a celebrated stage veteran who takes pity on a worshipful fan, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who arrives at the stage door one night in a battered coat and a silly hat.
The kid spins her unhappy story and admits that she idolizes Margo even to the point that she's seen her performance in "Aged in Wood" more than fifty times. Her ego properly stroked, Margo gives the kid a job as her personal assistant and eventually the kid works her way up to being her understudy.
As Eve begins to win the hearts of the theater community, a natural defensiveness begins to boil up in Margo. This young girl of youth and beauty represents something in Margo that is quickly slipping away. She becomes angry, childish, and her hatred for Eve becomes a kind of obsession. During Eve's birthday party (her best scene) she gets drunk and lays out bails of honest and brutal comments. She is adamant that this a night in which she intends to misbehave and famously warns her colleagues: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to a bumpy night."
It is all a scheme, of course - Margo doesn't know that Eve's hard-luck story is a fabrication, that she is using her hero worship to tunnel her way into the theater community in order to steal the spotlight and win Margo's circle of friends away from her. Strangely enough, it is in the middle of this competition that Margo has a moment of clarity. Her friend Kate (Celeste Holm) schemes for her car to run out of gas so that Margo will miss her performance and that Eve will go on as her understudy. In a startlingly honest moment, Margo comes to a moment of deep revelation when she realizes that within a decade, her name will become a relic. Once the spotlight has turned away to younger and sharper actresses, Margo Channing needs to be more than just a name on a billboard.
“Funny business, a woman's career,” she says “The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. There's one career all females have in common - whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed - and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a - a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman. Slow curtain. The End.”
What I have come to understand about Margo Channing and Eve Harrington is that Margo has come to a moment when she realizes that she needs something more than just the life in the lights. She needs to be a human being who isn't a star, and doesn't live off public adoration. I compare her with another character Davis would play, that of Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a film that she made 12 years after All About Eve. In that film (for which I also gave her my Armchair Oscar), she played a once-beloved child star who has long been forgotten once the luster of her fame faded away. The difference is that where Baby Jane foolishly believes that she is due for a comeback, Margo accepts the fact that when her fame is slipping away, she needs a fulfilling life off-stage.
Norma Desmond, on the other hand, actually has more in common with Baby Jane. She is a once-great silent movie star whose glimmer faded years ago and now lives out a pathetic existence surrounded by the relics of a long-forgotten time in the spotlight. Now past 50 and nursing her faded career, she is seemingly unaware that she has passed out of public knowledge. Either she isn't aware of her faded glory or refuses to admit it. Upon meeting hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), she is told, "I know you, you're Norma Desmond, you use to be in silent pictures, you use to be big." Peering at him wide-eyed down the end of her nose, she informs him, "I am big, it’s the pictures that got small"
There is something in Norma’s eyes that suggests that she has lost touch with reality. She rarely leaves her home and is fueled by fan mail that mysteriously arrives at her door. She revels in the fact that once her career is back on track, she will show this misguided industry what a real star looks like. The problem is, nobody cares. Norma never comes to this realization and lives on the unwavering believe that Cecil B. DeMille will show up at her front door and give her a close-up.
What is interesting about Norma is that, beyond her misguided fantasies, she isn't dull to be around. She regales Joe with stories from her career and her pictures. She shows him how to tango, a skill she supposedly picked up from Valentino. Joe allows her to live in her fantasies mostly because she's paying him and entertains her dellusions. However, it is only too late that he comes to understand that Norma's fantasies are far more dangerous than he realizes.
In an industry that - past and present - values youth and beauty over age and experience, these two performances are the best examples of a slipping-down image, of women who were once illuminated but now find themselves standing in the shadows. Channing ultimately and very touchingly begins to accept the inevitable while Desmond's delusion continues even unto a murderous end. While it is clear that Norma will end up in a madhouse, I'm not sure where Margo will end up. We don't want to believe that she will go peacefully into that good night (this is Bette Davis), but we are certain that whatever she does, she won't go without a fight.