Billie Dawn, the central character in Born Yesterday, may go down in history as the greatest bimbo of all time. I’ve watched the movie version of Born Yesterday over and over and there’s a small, sunlit temple in the inner reaches of my heart that’s dedicated to the worship of Judy Holliday, who won an Academy Award in 1950 for her performance as Billie.
I used to feel guilty about loving bimbos; I thought that adoring apparently dumb blondes made me a bad feminist. Those days are gone. Bimbos are innocent clowns and their innocence gives them powerful insight.
The thing that has always made Born Yesterday thrilling — and that makes it urgent right now — is the way that it combines feminism with a stirring defence of democracy and democratic institutions.
The movie version is based on Garson Kanin’s theatrical script, which premiered on Broadway in 1946. Billie, who’s a former showgirl, arrives at a luxury hotel in Washington D.C with her boyfriend Harry Brock, a multimillionaire junk dealer. Harry’s in the capital to bribe lawmakers into passing legislation that will allow him to corner the world market in scrap metal and make himself even richer.
Harry is a bully and a sexist. He hits Billie and insults her: “Listen cutie, don’t get nervous just ‘cause you read a book. You’re as dumb as you ever were”; “Cheap? I don’t own nothin’ cheap except you.”
Harry sees the political system as a game to be manipulated for his personal gain.
The parallels to Donald Trump are glaring.
The twist that drives the plot is that Harry sees Billie’s lack of social polish as a vulnerability in Washington so he hires a reporter named Paul Verral to smooth out her rough edges. Billie and Paul fall for one another right away, of course, and Billie delivers one of the script’s best lines: “Are you one of those talkers or would you be interested in a little action?”
Paul gets Billie reading the newspaper — and Thomas Payne — which frees her native intelligence and compassion.
The script is thematically substantial and tonally bright.
Unfortunately, Act 1 of this Ensemble Theatre Company production is mostly dull. The pace is slack, the performances inconsistent, and the stylistic tone skewed.
Throughout the evening, Paul Herbert nails it as Harry, realizing the character’s potential as an energetic vulgarian who’s charming in his own freewheeling way, despite his flaws. And, playing Jim, Harry’s smart but morally compromised lawyer, David Wallace gets the fatigue of self-loathing just right.
But Tariq Leslie brings virtually no charisma to Paul Verral in the early going. As written, Paul embodies post-war optimism, but Leslie makes him a pinched, judgmental energy vacuum. And, for most of Act 1, there’s no effervescence in Alexis Kellum-Creer’s Billie. Directors Shelby Bushell and Michael Scholar Jr. have taken a darker and more emotionally naturalistic approach than the material calls for and their decision leaves Kellum-Creer’s Billie suspended in a murky stylistic netherworld.
Speaking of stylistic weirdness, the directors also layer in bizarre cues: every time there’s a threat of physical violence, for instance, the action goes into slow motion and Celeste English’s lighting slides into lurid green.
But Act 2 gets a whole lot better.
Kellum-Creer is a skilled actor and the directors finally let her have fun in the second half — possibly with the justification that Billie’s intellectual awakening has energized her.
Billie lights up and this Born Yesterday comes to life.
Leslie also starts to have fun as Paul. And the overall pace improves massively, which means that the script’s wit can finally flow. It’s a pleasure to watch Billie use her new vocabulary — “Cartel! … Fascist! … Vice versa!” — to bring Harry to heel.
2019 is not 1946, of course. Born Yesterday has faith in the fundamental decency of the American people, which is harder to conjure now. And Paul Verral, a journalist, is respected — and deserving of respect. Trump may be Harry, but Ivanka is no Billie Dawn.
“The whole damn history of the world is a struggle between the selfish and the unselfish,” Paul says at one point. The struggle for fairness — including fairness for women and the economically oppressed — continues.
BORN YESTERDAY By Garson Kanin. Directed by Shelby Bushell and Michael Scholar Jr. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Wednesday, July 17. Continues as part of Ensemble Theatre Company’s 7thAnnual Repertory Festival until August 15.Tickets.
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