Holliday is ex-showgirl Emma “Billie” Dawn, a young woman who may be slightly uneducated, and a little brassy, yet is hardly offensive or stupid. While Billie is actually very charming and sweet, her partner Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is quite the opposite. Very loud and ignorant, the millionaire tycoon who likes to think himself above the law has brought them to Washington for some “business” deals (basically bribing influential politicians and planning an illegal cartel). In spite of his own appalling behaviour, Harry becomes overly paranoid that Billie’s lack of etiquette and refinement will prevent his Washington success story and so, with the mission of “smoothing out her rough edges,” he pays journalist Paul Verrell (a dashing William Holden) two hundred dollars to educate Billie. However, it soon transpires that schooling Billie was not Harry’s brightest idea.
Yes, she may be a tad uncouth at times but Billie is far from dumb; she just requires encouragement and intelligent conversation rather than they screaming matches that have become part of her routine. As a result she begins to thrive under Paul’s tutelage. She begins to read – she had previously never read a newspaper – and soon she has a better grasp of literature, history, art and law than Harry. She begins to wear glasses – she never previously had the need to correct her appalling eyesight – and even begins to dress smarter – her tailored suits replacing her previous uniforms of tight gowns and furs. When previously she used to sign any document that Harry thrust under her nose (basically to transfer his assets into her name and thus clear him from being implicated in any criminal activity) she begins to question and finally understand them. The moment she yells “Cartel!” I know what that means!” is joyous.
Holliday won a rightly deserved Academy Award for her role of Billie and the part has a huge amount of complexity. She sways from incredible humour to pathos in an instant and has the ability to generate much hilarity at the slightest facial expression or hip wiggle as she does sympathy when Harry becomes violent. Her dialogue is simply exquisite, especially when she tells Paul: “He thinks I’m stupid! I know I am! I’m stupid and I like it. I don’t care, I’m happy. I’ve got everything I want – two mink coats! If I want something I ask” and the chemistry between her and Verrell is lovely: an initial first attraction that deepens into something very tender.
Born Yesterday is a pleasure from start to finish. Holliday is fantastic – funny, sweet, endearing – and excels in a role that proves there is no such thing as a dumb blonde.