BORN YESTERDAY (1993) **
Two movies by Mexicans in one week: Maria Novaro directs the Mexican "Danzon" and Luis Mandocki ("Gaby-a True Story" and "White Palace") directs "Born Yesterday."
In 1946, Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" was a Broadway hit. In 1950 it became a movie directed by George Cukor. Both works made a star of Judy Holliday. The current "Born Yesterday" claims to be based on the play, but it is closer to the movie.
I am getting tired of comparing originals and remakes, as I have done recently for "Sommersby,","The Vanishing" and "Point of No Return." This time, I will make only passing remarks.
The 1950 film is by far the better of the two. It is also good in itself, even though the comparison is, understandably, making some critics overpraise the original. The new version, though only fair, does make an unboring time-passer.
Crass and shady millionaire Harry Brock (John Goodman) goes to Washington in order, not to clean it up like Mr. Smith, but to push some crooked senators already on his payroll into saving a military base adjoining his mammoth development. He is accompanied by his mistress Billie Dawn (Melanie Griffith), a ditsy blonde ex-Vegas hoofer whom he loves but treats like dirt. Also with him are his "consigliere" Edward Herrmann and Harry's nephew Max Perlich.
In a world of luxury, name-dropping, phony chic and dachshund limos, and in a series of scenes -- some funny, others not -- Billie's unbelievable mega-stupidity and ignorance prove to be embarrassments. Harry hires smarty-pants journalist Paul Verrall (Don Johnson) to tutor her. At first Paul refuses, but then a $500 a day fee (plus expenses, I would imagine) overcomes his principles.
Even a pea-brain can guess what will happen, starting with Billie's "I don't want some stuffy old tutor." Guess whom the camera shows next? Right away, she makes blatant passes at Paul, and after some bits of business (funny and non-funny) Billie blooms instantly into wisdom, learning and Paul-crush.
She assimilates learning with the speed of a movie E.T., learns about the Constitution, reads Tocqueville, discusses him -- when in reality she might have learned, at the very most, to speak like tabloid headlines. Educating Eliza Doolittle or Rita was credible, but educating Billie?
The hors-d'oeuvre to this menu is in "Being There" mode, as Billie learns the eight responses for all occasions. Cued by Paul, she applies them. It's dumb, it's entertaining, and it includes the goof "That's about as funny as a Democrat being elected President. " The movie must have been made during the Bushian post-Desert Storm glow.
Among the howl-inducers is Billie's profundity. She contemplating a Van Gogh in a museum. "It's so small but it feels bigger than the whole room." Another is her mnemotechnical trick to remember Constitutional Amendments. At a posh Washington restaurant she sings them to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with band and co-eating celebrities obligato. Just recalling this can make one blush from embarrassment.
Meanwhile, back at a dude ranch, Paul has been falling for Billie faster than the "blitzkrieg, the lightning-fast initial German victories in World War II". This is infinitely less credible than in the 1950 edition. But then Paul himself is unbelievable, a pallid character with a deep tan that keeps reminding you that you are watching Don Johnson, a.k. a. Mr. Melanie Griffith, Hollywood Actor, here transferred from the streets of Miami to the power corridors of Washington Vice.
Everything is telegraphed and marked like runway lights in an airfield. It's no surprise that the pliant Billie (in whose name Harry has most of his properties) will rebel and show Harry and Washington a thing or two.
She also shows her legs. I had not intended to see this film until I saw an ad that showed, intriguingly, a pair of beautiful legs with a man's leg (contortionism?) draped over the gams (a word used in the original play's period). My curiosity was not libidinous but nostalgic and cine-referential: the photograph somehow brought memories of "The Graduate's" poster and Mrs. Robinson.
Lackaday! Even if Billie becomes a graduate of sorts, this movie is no "Graduate." But it does have some small surprises. Item. The legs in the photograph must be those of a body double. Item. Don Johnson is short, shorter even than Melanie. I bet that, as in Alan Ladd pictures, they used a lot of boxes and special camera angles to play down the differences in size. Item. Edward Herrmann is wasted. Item. In his microscopic role, the small Max Perlich is totally superfluous. Perhaps he was edited out in the final cut. Perhaps Perlich knew somebody.
Item. Goof or subtlety? Paul, a writer and savant who also teaches at Georgetown, tells Billie: "If I get involved with you I'm no different THAN Harry." Billie, seconds later: "You're no different FROM Harry." (Capitalization mine).
Item. Paul: "Hello, how have you been?" Billie: "Very GOOD. And you?" Paul: "Pretty GOOD." To think that in spelling bees, some kids age 11 to 13, in my town, can spell "sporran,""cerography, ""zaibatsu" or "wapentake."
Among the sins of "Born Yesterday." First, not any two characters ever connect or show rapport. Secondly, Johnson and Goodman are both miscast, the first being made into a phony intellectual, the second into a massive, crude ball of dumbness that lacks the nastiness of his predecessors, Paul Douglas on the stage, Broderick Crawford on the screen. This Harry is so ludicrous that his contorsions on a dance floor conjure up Barnum and Bailey's kneeling elephants.
The movie misses a major opportunity : to illustrate that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing by taking many of the Washington celebs who scoffed at Billie and expose them as mere possessors of tidbits and veneers, morsels handy for posing as smart, educated, literate or chic. In the kingdom of the blind, one-eyed people are kings. There's a whole comedic expose to be made on this subject.
"BY" has an ostentatious look of unbridled capitalism and profiteering. The hotel where much of the action takes place is the luxurious Willard, gutted in 1986 and restored as the Willard-Intercontinental. But Harry's imperially Presidential penthouse suite is an imaginary construct of 4,000 square feet where charges for a few days can be more than the average American's yearly salary. The skillful setup of this suite allowed a great deal of camera mobility and deep-focus shots.
The better news is that overall the picture does not bore and does entertain, even though there are no major laughs, because, perhaps of the underlying, mean-spirited mood of the picture.
The Golden Raspberry Foundation has awarded Melanie Griffith the prize for Worst Actress of the Year (for "Shining Through" and "A Stranger Among Us"). But now she redeems herself as the best of four choices to replace Judy Holliday. Melanie, a Black Belt among cerebrally-challenged stars, fits her part so effortlessly here that you are not even conscious of her notorious little-girl voice. But then again, Judy Holliday convinced us that inside her uncultured dumdum persona a smart, sharp "natural" was waiting to come out. With Melanie Griffith, this takes a leap of faith.
Written April 6, 1993