Born Yesterday (1950): How Hepburn and Cukor Plotted to Cast Holliday

Of all the performers in Adam’s Rib, Cukor’s comedy of 1949, it was Judy Holliday who lifted the picture to a more spontaneous level of wit.

In the first scene, the desperate Doris waits outside her husband’s office, with a candy bar and a gun in her purse. The opening scene, with a distracted Holliday trailing her husband through the streets to his rendezvous, was beautifully shot in a cinema verite style.

Holliday, however, proved to beinept on the first shooting day.  She couldn’t hit the mark, and they had to do the scene over and over again. Once done, she offered the crew tickets to see her in the play Born Yesterday, which was then on stage, so that they won’t think she was “a complete idiot.”

Under Cukor’s guidance, Holliday’s work turned out to be absolutely dazzling. The public was “prepared” for Holliday as during the shoot stories in the press stated she was stealing the picture from her two old pros. Curious to know who was planting the notices, Cukor found out that Hepburn had gone to MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling, and suggested this strategy. It was Hepburn’s personal campaign to get Holliday the Billie Dawn role in the upcoming production of Born Yesterday.

Cukor, the Kanins, and Hepburn all “plotted” to enhance Holliday’s part so as to persuade Harry Cohn to cast her in Born Yesterday, which she had played with great success on the stage. “The woman is a frump,” Holliday told Cukor when he approached her for Adam’s Rib, “when Harry Cohn sees it, he won’t let me do Billie Dawn.” But Cukor reassured her that she would look right as the picture progresses. Cukor helped Holliday score a huge triumph in this part. When Adam’s Rib opened, and Holliday got all the press, the critics claimed she stole the film, failing to realize the maneuvered orchestrations of her “willing accomplices.”

There were more subtle ways in which Hepburn helped Holliday. The scene in which Hepburn visits her in the detention house was long, but Cukor shot it in one take. Amanda’s interview of Doris, the most famous sequence in Adam’s Rib, runs over five minutes, but Cukor presents it without any cut or camera movement. In a medium shot, the center is empty, Amanda is at the left, and Doris at the right, describing her unhappy marriage and absurd crime. This sequence works largely because of Holliday’s stunning portrait of a wacky woman who is smart enough to know she is abused. By maintaining the shot’s spatial unity, Cukor gave Holliday the opportunity to create something special–and uninterrupted; Cukor used no action-reaction shots, as most dialogues scenes were filmed in Hollywood.

Not only there was no reason to cut, they couldn’t move the camera in any case; the whole scene took place in a cell. It was Holliday’s first talking scene in the picture. In those days, there was a lot of chatter about “scene stealing,” but Cukor never knew what exactly was meant by that. “You can’t steal a scene in a movie,” he maintained, “because it’s all controlled by the camera and the editing. The most an actor can do was use little tricks, which he basically didn’t approve of.

Cukor held that Hepburn was not generous and that Holliday didn’t steal the scene.  For him, it was Holliday’s scene and there was only one way to shoot it: the full camera had to be on her.  Cukor always believed that in most films, there was one “perfect” place to shoot a scene from–“where the scene falls into place”–and that it was the text, not the director that determined how a scene should be shot.  There was no need to cut to Hepburn, as the audience already knew her face.  Hepburn, in fact, played the scene in profile, facing away from the camera.  With her authority, she directed the audience to look at Holliday.