Billie Dawn has come to Washington. She’s landed in Suite 67D, a large part of the best hotel in town and a masterpiece of offensive good taste. She’s brought along a couple of minks and some hot lingerie. According to the tycoon who brought her there, she’s “a good kid. Only to tell you the truth, a little on the stupid side.” She doesn’t mind being stupid since she knows enough to get what she wants from her thuggish sugar daddy: “If he don’t come across, then I don’t come across.” Billie may be a dim bulb but she can play the game and keep the score. She can also kick his ass in gin rummy, as you will see in one of the play’s great comic scenes.
There’s some boorish charm but not a lot of sugar in her big daddy. Harry Brock started out twelve years old with a paper route. On his way home he picked up stuff in the alleys and then sold it, making seven, eight bucks a week, more than from the papers, and he figured out right away which is the right racket. He’s been in junk since, making all kinds of money with muscle and hustle. Now he’s ready to exercise some heavy influence. Junk is drying up, but there’s endless amounts of scrap iron all over the world left over from the recent war, and Harry wants to corner the market on all of it. He’s got a senator in his pocket pushing a bill that will blow by any pestiferous regulations and tariffs. And he’s got his own lawyer too, Ed Devery, a guy who was once a contender for the Supreme Court but then lost his way, found the bottle, and worked his way down to his one remaining client, Harry Brock, “the monarch of all he surveys.” Ed numbs his own bitterness with booze and sarcasm, while still managing to serve the boss that pushes him around—even after a fifth of bourbon he can still “spot a loophole at twenty paces.”
Corrupt lawyers, bought politicians, manipulating millionaires—who would have ever thought such creatures could exist in our nation’s capital? Not Billie Dawn, because she was born yesterday. She doesn’t read, she doesn’t care, and she thinks the Supreme Court might be a nice place to visit. About the only stuff she remembers are the five lines she had as a chorus girl in Anything Goes, one of which is, “Take off, buster!” If the truth be told, and the truth is there for all to see, Billie Dawn is a dumb blond. And not just any dumb blond, the definitive dumb blond of all time. She’s so clueless she’s a liability in the circles of power Harry is swimming in, so at the end of the first act he hires a newspaper reporter to teach her some smarts.
By the start of the second act Billie is reading Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times and David Copperfield. She’s listening to the Sibelius violin concerto. She’s spent two hours in the National Gallery and wants to go back with Paul, her tutor. As she says, “there are some things there that need explaining.” She thought the place was wonderful. “Quiet and peaceful and interesting, and did you ever notice? It smells nice.” Billie seems to have picked up quite a lot during intermission. She’s a quick study, and she’s got quite an appetite. She’s also fallen in love with her teacher.
Do you think anything might come of all this? You’d have to be born yesterday to doubt that for one second. Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy is the kind of story we all heard when we are very young. A poor kid with a good heart gets shoved around and learns to stand up to a bully. A peasant lad learns from a master and becomes a warrior. A cockney flower girl learns to say how the rain falls in Spain. The head of the Boy Rangers in a western state goes to Washington to teach truth to power. It’s the classic fable we tell ourselves over and over; it’s a story we want to hear. As we all know all too well the establishment is easily corrupted, and when money and power team up, as they are naturally inclined to do, lots of bad things can happen. So it’s a very good thing a girl like Billie can get a clue, and a crusading reporter can give her one. We need a whole lot more like her.
We certainly are very grateful to have her on stage. She may be no more plausible than Mr. Smith in Washington, but she’s at least as winning and twice as funny. She’s one of the great comic roles in American drama. She’s street smart and globally clueless, she’s tough as nails and innocent as a baby. She’s refreshingly direct (“I got a yen for you right off,” she tells her four-eyed tutor), she’s wonderfully sexy, and suddenly galvanized by the wide world of learning she has just begun to discover; “You know last night I went to bed and I started thinking, and I couldn’t get to sleep for ten minutes.” As Billie learns, she is utterly transformed and transformation is a gift for a great actress.
This was Judy Holliday’s defining role. Madeline Kahn and Melanie Griffith have also taken shots at it, and it was a triumph for Nina Arianda four years ago in the Broadway revival. We think we’ve got our Billie too, right up there with the best of them. You will remember Carley Cornelius, the femme fatale of Venus and Fur, another woman who seemed to be a brainless wannabe actress but then revealed herself as one hell of a goddess. She may not be quite as omnipotent in this play, but she too can turn the tables, and we think you will find her at least as enchanting and far more endearing than in her previous incarnation.
The post war civic lessons of Born Yesterday may seem tame, rosy and clichéd 70 years after the play was written. We like to think the little guy, or little girl, can win out over money and power, but in these days of big money and rampant corruption that outcome seems even less plausible a real fairy tale. But wait a minute. I have story to tell you.
When I graduated from the 9th grade at the American School of London, our headmaster noticed a limo arriving in Grosvenor Square. He found out it carried a distinguished guest, and he walked over to the embassy to ask if the former President would have time to speak to the graduates of his school. And so it came to pass that Harry Truman walked into our ceremony and reached up to shake my hand (I was valedictorian in a class of 9). Then he gave a short extempore speech on the value of clichés. He told us clichés were maxims and truths that had been thrown into the wastebasket because they had been so overused they had lost their value. But he told us that next time we met a cliché we should remember it had been overused because at its core there was some real value, and that before we tossed it away we should dust it off and see if there was still gold underneath.
Is there still gold in Born Yesterday? I like to think so, and maybe need to think so, since the alternative is cynicism, anger and defeat. In any event I think you will find it heartwarming and refreshing to discover the pleasures and virtues of democracy again, and learn, as Billie Dawn tells us, that this country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhibit it. Wait a minute—the people who inhabit it! Billie finally gets that right, and we do too—at least in our theatre. This is the fairy tale we should keep telling ourselves until it comes true. In the meantime, happy holidays to Billie Dawn and to all our fellow Americans!