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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Born Yesterday serves as an anti-Trump escapist screwball civics lesson

Superficially a late-screwball about a smarter-than-she-sounds former chorus girl getting the Henry Higgins treatment from a more-everyman-than-he-seems journalist, and using her new-found self-awareness to turn the tables on her blusteringly misogynistic super-capitalist ignoramus fiance, Born Yesterday is actually Hollywood's greatest civics lesson. Unburdened by Capraesque curdled self-righteousness, it far surpasses Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as something to awaken the well-informed thoughtful patriot in us all. And goodness knows we could use some awakening at the dawning of the Age of Trump.

George Cukor, by never seeming to place the emphasis anywhere in particular, places the emphasis exactly where it needs to be and proves himself a far greater champion of right than that old fraud Capra. Plot-wise, Born Yesterday is basically It Happened One Night: Cool hunky guy helps clueless woman find and thereby free herself, making her into an acceptable mate (this also happens to be the plot of Titanic, except Gable and Bill Holden were both far more effective as hunks than Fetfusface DiCaprio). BY tweaks the Capra formula in two important ways: the broad-chested Working Class Hero is now a glasses-wearing reporter with a decidedly Marxist bent (who still knows about baseball because No Homo) and the clueless high-society dame is now a brassy-sassy low-rent chick whose innate, beaten-down intelligence is allowed to manifest only when she's opening up a can of whup-ass on her brayingly sexist Tony Soprano-cum-Donald Trump junkyard magnate future husband at gin rummy.

The movie's shining glory is the idea that, just by learning some vocabulary words and reading a little Tom Paine, even the ditziest most materialistic piece-of-mere-tail can become woke-as-fuck. In my weakly allegorical reading, Billie (Judy Holliday, utterly wonderful) is America circa 2016 and her slappy would-be-husband, junkyard dog Harry (Broderick Crawford, in full unloveable lunk mode), is Trumpism. At one point Billie, awakened to the power of big words, shrieks at Harry that he's a Fascist. "She knows I'm from New Jersey," Harry later complains. Trump is from Queens but it comes to the same thing.

Harry wears his self-made-man status on his sleeve, as does Trump, though Harry's is at least passingly authentic. Both are utter crooks who will do anything to turn a dollar, including lean on spineless sell-out Congressmen, screw over people they allegedly love and threaten at the drop of a hat to unleash thuggish violence. Harry falls short of deserving the Fascist label only because he's not yet bought his way into that sphere, but shows he's ready for that league by going Charles Foster Kane on Billie's new library (Cukor stops short of having him literally burn the books).

Harry is Trump before he figured out how to cut out the middle man by actually becoming president. Would if there had been a Billie to stop Trump in his tracks. Trump is smarter than Harry in at least one way: he never made the (plot-convenient) mistake of tricking his woman into owning his crimes, creating cover for himself and, unwittingly, leverage for her in the event she ever woke up and became empowered by Good Words and Big Ideas. And The Donald has thus far had the good luck/sense never to fall in love with someone who had the potential to shake awake and view him for what he is: a bully and a creep and a lowlife criminal. Not that narcissist Trump is capable of really loving anyone.

They don't teach civics in school anymore, and God knows no Hollywood comedy of today would dare be as unabashedly, stridently, necessarily teachy as Born Yesterday. And that's too bad because we could all use the lesson. Yes it's cheesy when Billie reads the words off the walls of the Jefferson Memorial and turns into a wide-eyed child seeing the world for the first time...it's amazingly, brilliantly, restoratively cheesy. Because the movie isn't sentimentalizing the dumb shit that patriots usually sentimentalize, isn't resorting to emotional chicanery like that asshole Capra. It's simply reminding us that, holy fuck, those old words were pretty good words and it might help to remember them now-and-then.

Born Yesterday invites us to get down on our knees in front of the Founding Fathers, and even if that's problematic for us in our more-enlightened era where we can't see past their baggage...well, maybe do it for a second anyway, and then think about the guy we just elected king and wonder how in the shit it got to this point. And then watch Billie wake all the way up and, having endured one-too-many slaps in the face, awesomely tell Harry-Trump-FascismItself to "drop dead." How many slaps will it take to wake Trump-era America up? And when we do wake up will we possess the same tactical shrewdness as gin rummy champ Billie?

Maybe Judy Holliday's performance is a tad too studied - she played Billie for four years on Broadway ahead of this performance, so it would be a miracle if she didn't seem studied - but it remains marvelous, expertly modulated, deft and legitimately affecting. For a clinic in how to drive home a great line, watch Holliday in the scene when she comes down to give Harry the brush-off, the way she inches toward pathetic before dropping her "drop dead." Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci...name a tough-guy actor; none of them ever delivered a better "fuck off." William Holden need only be handsome and breezily smart, Broderick Crawford coarsely pathetic, while Holliday does all the real work. Forget Hillary, Billie Dawn (as in the first light of day, the glow that vanquishes the darkness) is the heroine we need.

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