She began her career as part of a nightclub act before working in Broadway plays and musicals. Her success in the 1946 stage production of Born Yesterday as “Billie Dawn” led to her being cast in the 1950 film version for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. She appeared in several films during the 1950s. She was noted for her performance on Broadway in the musical Bells Are Ringing, winning a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical and reprising her role in the 1960 film.
Holliday was born Judith Tuvim (Hebrew: tovim means good, Yiddish: yomtoyvim means holidays, lit. “good days“) in New York City, she was the only child of Abe Tuvim and Helen (ne Gollomb) Tuvim, a piano teacher, who were both of Russian Jewish descent. Her father was the Executive Director of the Foundation for the Jewish National Fund of America (1951-1958, his death from cancer).
Holliday began her show business career in 1938, under her original name, as part of a nightclub act called The Revuers. The other members of the group were Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alvin Hammer, John Frank and Esther Cohen. The Revuers played engagements in New York night clubs including the Village Vanguard, Spivy’s Roof, Blue Angel, Rainbow Room, and Trocadero in Hollywood, California. The group disbanded in early 1944.
Her first film role was a small, but noticeable role as an airman’s wife in the Twentieth Century Fox film version of the U.S. Army Air Forces‘ play Winged Victory (1944). She did not appear in the stage version, which toured the U.S. both before and after production of the film. Holliday made her Broadway debut on March 20, 1945 at the Belasco Theatre in Kiss Them for Me and was one of the recipients that year of the Clarence Derwent Award.
In 1946, she returned to Broadway as the scatterbrained Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. Author Garson Kanin wrote the play for Jean Arthur, who played the role of Billie out-of-town but left the role for personal reasons. Kanin then selected Holliday, two decades Arthur’s junior, as her replacement. In his book Tracy and Hepburn (1971), Kanin mentions that when Columbia bought the rights to the film Born Yesterday, studio boss Harry Cohn would not consider casting the Hollywood-unknown. Kanin, along with George Cukor, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn conspired to promote Holliday by offering her a key part in the film Adam’s Rib (1949).
She received rave reviews for her performance in Born Yesterday on Broadway, and Cohn offered her the chance to repeat her role for the film version, but only after she did a screen test (which at first was used only as a “benchmark against which to evaluate” other actresses being considered for the role). She won the first Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and at the 23rd Academy Awards, Holliday won the Academy Award for Best Actress, defeating Gloria Swanson, nominated for Sunset Boulevard, Eleanor Parker, for Caged, and Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, both for All About Eve.
Bernard Dick summed up Holliday’s acting: “Perhaps the most important aspect of the Judy Holliday persona, both in variations of Billie Dawn and in her roles as housewife, is her vulnerability…her ability to shift her mood quickly from comic to serious is one of her greatest technical gifts”.
George Cukor said Holliday had, “In common with the great comedians …that depth of emotion, that unexpectedly touching emotion, that thing which would unexpectedly touch your heart.”
Investigated for Communism
In 1950, Holliday was the subject of an FBI investigation looking into allegations she was a Communist. The investigation “did not reveal positive evidence of any membership in the Communist Party” and was concluded after three months, unlike many others tainted by the Communist investigation. In 1952, she was called to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee to “explain” why her name had been linked to Communist front organizations. She was advised to play dumb (like some of her film characters), which she did very well.
She starred in the film version of The Solid Gold Cadillac, which was released in August 1956.
In November 1956, Holliday returned to Broadway starring in the musical Bells Are Ringing with book and lyrics by her Revuers friends, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and directed by Jerome Robbins. In 1957, she won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Of her performance in the stage musical Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times;
Nothing has happened to the shrill little moll whom the town loved in Born Yesterday. The squeaky voice, the embarrassed giggle, the brassy naivete, the dimples, the teeter-totter walk fortunately remain unimpaired … Miss Holliday now adds a trunk-full of song-and-dance routines…Without losing any of that doll-like personality, she is now singing music by Jule Styne and dancing numbers composed by Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. She has gusto enough to triumph in every kind of music hall antic.
Returning to her film career after a gap of several years, she starred in the film version of Bells Are Ringing (1960), her last film.
In October 1960, Holliday started out-of-town tryouts on the play Laurette based on the life of Laurette Taylor. The show was directed by Jos Quintero with background music by Elmer Bernstein and produced by Alan Pakula. When Holliday became ill and had to leave the show it closed in Philadelphia without opening on Broadway.
She had throat surgery shortly after leaving the production in October 1960.
In 1948, Holliday married clarinetist, and later classical music and television producer and academic David Oppenheim, with whom she had a son, film editor Jonathan Oppenheim, before the couple divorced in 1958. She had a long-term relationship with jazz musician Gerry Mulligan, but the couple never married. She supplied lyrics to Mulligan’s theme song for the movie A Thousand Clowns (1965), her final film credit.
Holliday has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6901 Hollywood Blvd, awarded on February 8, 1960.
|1942||My Dear Public||with The Revuers|
|1945||Kiss Them for Me||Alice|
|1946||Born Yesterday||Billie Dawn|
|1951||Dream Girl||Georgina Allerton|
|1956||Bells Are Ringing||Ella Peterson||Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical|
|1960||Laurette||Laurette Taylor||Closed out-of-town|
|1963||Hot Spot||Sally Hopwinder|