Judy Holliday was the most lovable comedienne of her generation. Her Kewpie doll voice and a heart as big as Yankee Stadium gave depth and poignancy to her archetypal “dumb blonde” roles, while her glowing personality refashioned the stereotype. Her career was launched and nurtured by George Cukor. In her first major role, in Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949), she plays an oppressed young wife who shoots her philandering husband. Early in the film, Holliday’s attorney (Katharine Hepburn) visits her in prison, and Cukor films this remarkable scene in one unbroken five-minute take, with Hepburn facing away from the motionless camera, favoring Holliday and her bravura performance. In Cukor’s Born Yesterday (1950), a clever reworking of the Pygmalion theme, her priceless work as the malaprop-mouthing mistress of a crooked junk tycoon who discovers that the Rights of Man also apply to women earned her a Best Actress Oscar (she beat out perhaps the toughest competition in history: Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis in All About Eve).
The most audacious of Holliday’s films with Cukor is The Marrying Kind (1952), which deals with the breakup of a blue-collar marriage; it starts off as a light romantic comedy, then veers into drama. The style was innovative, a sort of American neorealism, marked by graceful New York location shooting, and Holliday gave the finest, most rounded performance of her career. (This marvelous picture was widely picketed by the American Legion, who smeared Holliday as “pinko.”)
Holliday’s later movies with other directors are forgettable, except for Vincente Minnelli’s lively Bells Are Ringing (1960). She’s a force of nature here, indulging in her bent for unrelieved shtick as the answering-service operator who doubles as a good fairy. Though not a major Minnelli musical, it’s a work of expert craftsmanship. One of the highlights of the score is Holliday’s rendition of Jule Styne’s touching ballad “The Party’s Over.” The party was over for good for Judy Holliday—Bells was the last movie of her sadly abbreviated career. She died of cancer in 1965.