Yesterday, when writing about Ruth Gordon, I mentioned that she was married to screenwriter-director Garson Kanin, and together they wrote two classic movie comedies, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. I realized that that lets me tell one of the great Hollywood stories about kindness and subterfuge all rolled into one.
Garson Kanin wrote the 1946 Broadway play, Born Yesterday, which made a big star of Judy Holliday, playing the role for 1,200 performances, which is three years. When the movie was in the planning stages, to be directed by George Cukor, both wanted the actress to repeat her brilliant performance as ‘Billie Dawn.’ The problem was that she hadn’t starred in a movie before, in fact she only had three tiny roles in movies (two of them so small they were uncredited). So, the studio balked and refused to hire her.
That’s where the kindness and subterfuge kicked in. All helped by the kismet of timing. In 1949, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon wrote the screenplay for Adam’s Rib, which was going to be directed by the same George Cukor. He – like Kanin and Gordon – knew Judy Holliday and wanted her for Born Yesterday, which was to be make into a film the next year. So, the three of them hatched a plan, and took it to Katharine Hepburn – who was the female lead in Adam’s Rib, getting ready to be made.
The plot of Adam’s Rib is about husband and wife lawyers (to be played by Spencer Tracy as the D.A. and Hepburn as defense attorney) on opposite sides of a case where a woman shoots and wounds her husband having an affair. The character of the woman under arrest only has one scene in the movie, in a prison conference room where Hepburn meets with her before deciding to take the case. Kanin, Gordon and Cukor came up with the idea of hiring Judy Holliday for the very small (though important) role, and not shooting the scene as normal -- with close-ups, wide shots, two-shots and such, with lots of editing, cutting back and forth between characters -- but instead to have only a single, stationary shot for five, full minutes with Judy Holliday in the main focus, no cuts, just one take, the sole point being to make this a screen test for Holliday, something the studio wouldn’t give her for Born Yesterday. And show the studio that she could be compelling and hold the screen on her own, be a star. The only thing, though, was that they needed Katharine Hepburn’s approval. But since Hepburn also knew Judy Holliday and knew, too, that Holliday deserved to repeat her classic performance as ‘Billie Dawn,’ she agreed.
And so, when the film comedy Adam’s Rib would be released, the unsuspecting studio and audience would watch the interview scene with the camera focused only on Judy Holliday in the center, despite Big Hollywood Star Katherine Hepburn in the scene, and not a single cut.
George Cukor, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon took that scene to studio heads to show it to them as Judy Holliday’s screen test. It convinced the studio. She got hired to star in Born Yesterday. And won the Academy Award as Best Actress.
Here’s the scene. You can see for yourself:
Judy Holliday in the center -- full-on, the camera doesn't move, no cuts, Katharine Hepburn off to the side only in profile, for five minutes.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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