Friday, January 04, 2008

Born Yesterday

But I've been thinking a lot lately about something my dad used to say: "Without knowledge, you're less than everybody." And I don't want to be less. I mean, I don't want to be better than anybody neither and I don't want to go above myself. I just want- I want to not be less.
--Billie Dawn

After spending a good portion of today working on appealing my unemployment rejection and following up on some job leads, I finally settled down to watch Born Yesterday. My father-in-law loaned it to me weeks ago, and I felt it was high time I actually saw it.

I think David's thought was that I would enjoy the film, since I often rail against the lack of quality in the scripts for most modern movies. Also, I have a penchant for older films; my favorites include Singin' in the Rain, Now Voyager, and Pandora's Box.

But beyond basic entertainment, I found myself caught up in the thematic drama of the film. For those who haven't seen it, the story begins with Harry, a self-made and brutish millionaire who deals in corruption, and his fiancee Billie, the prototypical dumb blonde. They have just arrived in Washington DC, where Harry has plans, along with his crooked lawyer Jim, to buy a Congressman and work some vague "deal" involving cartels and basic Enron-like behavior. Worried that Billie's appearance and speech will drag him down, Harry hires an educated writer to give her a crash course in social graces and learning. As Billie learns to embrace education, wear glasses to read better, and speak properly, she comes to despise Harry's double dealings, and she and her tutor bring down Harry's plans and elope.

For a role in a film from 1950, Billie is a wonderfully strong female lead. Judy Holliday took home an Oscar for her work, and she definitely earned it. She is attractive, but looks don't come into play in the film. Once she begins to open her mind to civics, philosophy, art and classical music, she really develops a mind of her own. She refuses to be a "silent partner" in Harry's scheme any longer and demands to know that if property is being hidden under her name, what she actually controls. And most importantly, she doesn't necessarily rely on her tutor for her newly discovered intelligence. She stands up to Harry in the climax all on her own. When she tells Harry she isn't afraid of him anymore, I wanted to cheer. She didn't need a man to stand behind her and protect her. She even took a punch in the face and turned around and still stole the necessary paperwork to bring down her former master.

Feminism aside, the movie definitely flaunted the great American Ideals of the '50s. Situated in DC, Paul, the tutor, takes her to see all the monuments and fills her head with Jefferson, Washington, Paine, and Pope (leaving out de Tocqueville, bien sur), all the great leaders of the Enlightenment. He explains democracy and its greatness, how the government works. And Paul is the voice of the hoi polloi, acting as a citizen to save the government from Harry's corruption. When Jim tells Harry it's too difficult to buy a Senator because they are "honest men doing honest work, they can't simply be bought," I had to laugh, thinking of Abramoff and K Street. I would love to bring Paul to the present day and ask him his thoughts on the Bush Administration.

When I put in the disc, I was expecting a comedy, thinking back to vague memories of the trailer for the remake starring John Goodman and Melanie Griffith in the early '90s. It's not a comedy. It's about a woman finding herself, and though, as a requisite for the era, she ends by marrying Paul, Billie makes that choice consciously, because she wants to continue to explore the world of the mind, rather than being the trophy she started out as.

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