More than a half-century after the tragic death of Oscar- and Tony-winning movie and Broadway star Judy Holliday, the high-definition Blu-ray release of her final film, “Bells Are Ringing,” has come just in time.
Holliday — a singing actress equally adept at comedy and drama — was one of America’s biggest stars when diagnosed with cancer in her late 30s. She died at 43 in 1965.
“She had a very special quality,” says Holliday’s only child, documentary film editor Jonathan Oppenheim. “She had a vulnerability and she also played characters who were in some way discovering themselves. She embodied that very beautifully. She had soul. The material in “Bells Are Ringing” — it’s not a great musical, I don’t think — but you can make anything soulful if you have soul.”
The public’s memory of Holliday has grown hazy. Her canon is relatively small, including five Broadway shows. She is best known for playing not-so-dumb blonde Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” (1946), and meddling telephone answering service attendant Ella Peterson in “Bells Are Ringing,” the Jerome Robbins-Bob Fosse smash for which Holliday won the 1957 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. In that show, she introduced two standards by Jule Styne and lifetime friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green: “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over.”
In Hollywood, Holliday had fewer than 10 starring film roles, including her Oscar-winning turn in 1950’s adaptation of “Born Yesterday,” directed by George Cukor.
“The film is actually very political,” says Oppenheim, who recently stumbled upon “Born Yesterday” while flipping cable channels. “The script is very political. It’s about integrity and corruption and sticking to the Constitution. Actually, it was amazingly resonant in a way that it hasn’t been for me ever, ever, in this period. I was actually quite taken with the film in a way that I hadn’t been before because of what’s going on in our country.”
Holliday’s Academy Award win at age 29 is legendary: She beat Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in “All About Eve,” Eleanor Parker in “Caged,” and Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”
Oppenheim still keeps his mother’s Oscar and Tony on a hallway shelf in his Manhattan apartment. “They’re very important to me, but I don’t display them prominently,” he says.
Holliday’s final movie, the 1960 film version of “Bells Are Ringing,” directed by Vincente Minnelli and co-starring Dean Martin, has just been released on Blu-ray (Warner Archive, $22).
She was born Judith Tuvim on June 21, 1921, in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens, New York. Her earliest work included a stint with The Revuers, an early ’40s Manhattan troupe including composer-performers Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green.
Holliday’s stage name was a derivation of her birth name: Yamim Tovim is Hebrew for Jewish holidays. She didn’t come from an observant household, though. “Absolutely not,” her son says. “Socialist all the way.”
About the time Holliday won the Oscar, the FBI investigated her as a suspected communist. Pregnant with Oppenheim in 1952, she testified before a Senate Internal Security Subcommittee probing subversives.
“She had problems because she signed petitions in the ’40s and ’30s. She was brought before a committee, but I think that she was like a Stevenson Democrat. She loved Stevenson and suffered through Eisenhower,” Oppenheim says. “Her politics were sort of ‘humane and humanitarian,’ not extreme, and definitely in a liberal vein. The socialist thing was her father, that world. She came out of the socialist world and she came out of the Roosevelt ’30s.”
After the Senate investigation, Holliday — who reportedly had a genius IQ of 172 —resumed her film and stage career.
Her greatest Broadway success came in 1956 with “Bells Are Ringing,” starring opposite actor Sydney Chaplin, son of Charles.
“I spent a lot of time backstage. It was my greatest pleasure just to hang out backstage,” Oppenheim recalls. “It was something around a three-year run. I would hang out with the stagehands and the actors. I enjoyed it.”
Holliday was married about nine years to clarinetist and TV director David Oppenheim. They separated when Jonathan was 1 and divorced a few years later while she starred in the stage version of “Bells Are Ringing.”
Jonathan Oppenheim recalls the personal conflict watching his mother perform nightly at the packed Shubert Theatre on Broadway:
“I wanted her to myself,” he says. “There was a bit of a push-pull in my feelings. I was proud of her, but there was also a feeling that she was being taken away from me every night. It was a two-way street. That sort of sums up a lot of complex feelings.”
In the late ’50s, Holliday became involved with jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who appears with her as a comic blind date early in the film version of “Bells Are Ringing.”
The “Bells Are Ringing” original cast recording, still available, was Columbia Records’ first Broadway album recorded in stereo. Holliday also made two solo albums, “Trouble is a Man” in 1958 and “Holliday With Mulligan,” recorded in 1961 but not released by the saxophonist until 1980.
“She loved to sing. She and Gerry had a musical relationship. It was very tied to music. She doesn’t have a trained voice. She doesn’t have like a Streisand [voice] — she’s not that kind of singer. She’s another note. She’s expressing something closer to speech, but is surrounded by melody,” says Oppenheim, whose film credits include “Paris Is Burning” (1990) and “Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner” (2013).
“She loved songwriting. That was where her voice went and I think that she was able to use it. It’s a very appealing singing voice. I think of her as a kind of introverted singer, that she was expressing certain kinds of feelings that were part of her thought process, in a way.”
The movie version of “Bells Are Ringing” would be Holliday’s final professional success.
“I have memories of her filming “Bells Are Ringing,” Oppenheim says. “I was on set. She had a real hard time with the transition of that from the musical to the screen. She and Minnelli had some disagreements and that sort of depressed her. My memory of the filming was that there was a battle. Maybe not a huge battle, but a bit of a battle. It wasn’t smooth sailing.”
Disaster struck shortly after. As she prepared the drama “Laurette,” based on the life of original “Glass Menagerie” star Laurette Taylor, Holliday learned she had cancer. She was treated in the early ‘60s, her condition improved and she managed to briefly return to Broadway in Mary Rodgers’ 1963 musical, “Hot Spot.”
Few of today’s theater personalities have been around long enough to have seen Holliday perform live. “A Chorus Line” legend Donna McKechnie danced in her first Broadway show, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” while Holliday starred in “Hot Spot.”
“I knew people who knew her and had only praise for her as a talent and person, as well,” McKechnie says. “Very much in love with Gerry Mulligan, right?”
“Hot Spot” closed after 43 performances and Holliday’s cancer recurred shortly after. No one spoke about it, not even at home.
“It was a primitive world. I don’t think they ever told her precisely what was wrong with her the second time she was sick,” Oppenheim says. “I think she was aware she was dying, but I don’t think she knew precisely what she was dying from.”
Holliday stayed home with her son until about a month before she died of breast cancer in a New York City hospital on June 7, 1965. At age 12, Jonathan went to live with his father’s second family.
Now married to psychoanalyst Josie Oppenheim, a member of the Stella Adler acting family, and the father of a 25-year-old daughter, Netalia, Oppenheim would like the public to remember this about Judy Holliday:
“My mother carved her own path. She had this sort of faith in her own talent and its uniqueness. In a certain sense, that’s what I would want to convey to my daughter. The talent is very, very specific and unique. Everyone has their own very unique, very specific thing, but it’s easy to overlook it,” says Oppenheim, who is rarely asked for interviews about his mother. “She was able to be herself. Find herself. Find her talent.”