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Judy Holliday Acted Like A Dumb Blonde To Beat Communist Allegations And It Worked

Photo Credit: John Springer Collection / CORBIS / Corbis / Getty Images
Photo Credit: John Springer Collection / CORBIS / Corbis / Getty Images

During the 1950s, Hollywood was a scary place to be. A major government body was going around accusing influential actors of being Communists and Community sympathizers, and those accusations proved extremely difficult to shake. Unfortunately, a lot of people were unable to clear their names, but one actor did so with remarkable skill–Judy Holliday. By reprising the role that skyrocketed her to fame, she was able to come out unscathed. However, it cost her elsewhere.

She had several socialist influences growing up

Headshot of Judy Holliday.
American actress Judy Holliday, circa 1952. (Photo Credit: FPG / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Born Judith Tuvim in New York City, Judy Holliday was raised in a family rife with deep socialist ties. Not only was her father a respected civic leader of the Socialist Party of New York, but her mother was involved in the labor movement while also working as a piano teacher. They were of Russian-Jewish descent and were active members of the socialist community in the city.

Naturally, this exposure to socialism influenced her growing up. In some of her earliest experiences in show business, “she worked the switchboard at Orson Welles‘s left-wing Mercury Theatre.” As she got older, she presented herself as an extremely intelligent woman and had the brainpower to back it up. When it came to acting, she enjoyed pieces with comedic political commentary, joining a comedy troupe known as the Revuers in 1939. Working with them eventually got her noticed by Hollywood scouts, and she eventually made the move to make her Hollywood debut, changing her name to Judy Holliday in the process.

Playing the part of a ‘dumb blonde’

Judy Holliday sitting on a couch with two men around her in "Born Yesterday."
Actress Judy Holliday, Broderick Holiday, and William Holden in a scene from the movie Born Yesterday. (Photo Credit: Donaldson Collection / Getty Images)

Despite having had a rough start in the industry, Holliday would eventually land the role that would change her life–playing Billie Dawn, a gangster‘s girlfriend who is taught etiquette and manners in order to rub shoulders with influential politicians, in the film Born Yesterday (1950). She showcased her incredibly skilled ability to portray a woman who is at once happy to keep her intellect diminished while also providing telling clues that intellect has always been there, it just needed to be brought out. Her performance was so well-received that it won her the Oscar for Best Actress in 1951.

When the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) started pointing fingers during their paranoid Communist witch-hunt during the 1950s, Holliday’s name inevitably came up. Such an accusation had blacklisted several actors before her, and coming out on the other side with a clean name was nearly impossible to do. However, when she was put on trial in front of a government body, she expertly maneuvered herself out of interrogation light by reprising her role as the dumb blonde she played so well in Born Yesterday.

The Committee had no idea what had hit them, and she sold the act perfectly. Some notable parts of her testimony include her asking why anyone would go to a Committee meeting when they could just be a Communist, professing that she would only say yes to “cancer, polio, and cerebral palsy” causes from there on out, and wrapping it up with the confessions that she realized she was “irresponsible…and slightly—more than slightly—stupid.” In the end, the Committee truly believed she was a dumb blonde incapable of understanding the political world.

Holliday survived the trial, but at what cost

Judy Holliday laying in bed with a man on sitting on it as well.
William Holden chatting with Judy Holliday in a scene from the film Born Yesterday. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Holliday was able to evade the Communist accusations, but her portrayal of a dumb blonde while on trial would haunt her for the rest of her career. After publicly proclaiming herself as “stupid” in front of a government body, the public began to really believe her. Forget about the fact that she was a literal genius, having scored 172 on an IQ test, people saw her as one thing and one thing only: a dumb blonde.

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From then on, her acting career was plagued with watered-down versions of Billie Dawn from Born Yesterday. She would continue to act in these roles for about a decade or so until she tragically died at the young age of 44 from breast cancer. Sadly, she had never been able to shake her reputation as a dumb blonde from her career.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!