While it’s not clear that any film really cries out to be remade, “Born Yesterday” (citywide) needed a second version less than most. And not because the original is such a sainted relic that redoing it is next door to sacrilege. On the contrary, despite its elevated reputation, the 1950 “Born Yesterday” had as many pitfalls as pleasures, all of which the current version dutifully stumbles into.
A romantic triangle between a crude millionaire, a handsome, sophisticated journalist (remember, it’s just a movie) and the former Vegas showgirl who turns both their heads, “Born Yesterday” is in reality little more than an elaborate showcase for the actress who plays the redoubtable Billie Dawn.
The part made Judy Holliday (who originated the role in Garson Kanin’s Broadway play) a star and won her an Oscar as the quintessential dumb blonde who turns out to know a thing or two. Though it’s not going to do the same for Melanie Griffith this time around, she is, once again, the best reason to spend any time with this muddled production.
Billie arrives on the scene as the blase companion of gruff workaholic capitalist Harry Brock (John Goodman), who blusters into Washington on his private plane, screaming “OK, let’s do some business” before the engines have even cut off. Billie, whom we first view in a languid shot that emphasizes the state of her legs, has other things in mind. Like finding out what TV stations her soaps are on. “So I don’t like new towns,” she says in her breathy way. “You have to learn all new channels.”
Advised by an aide that favorable press coverage will help the business he has with Congress, Brock agrees to be interviewed by Paul Verrall (Don Johnson), a journalist as powerful as he is cute. “If Paul gives you the thumbs-up,” we are solemnly told, “it’s a big deal in this town.”
Brock, however, soon has other things to worry about. Billie, it seems, is not only so out to lunch she thinks the collapsing Eastern Bloc is some crumbling masonry structure, her lack of savvy is hurting her boyfriend’s plans. And when Brock decides to hire someone to smarten Billie up, and teach her how to talk right, guess who gets the job.
Everyone, however, gets more than they bargained for in this little arrangement. Billie not only cleans up her double negatives, she so raises her ethical and moral standards it’s amazing Bill Moyers doesn’t build a series around her. And both Verrall and Brock find that their professional and love lives get a lot more complicated when Billie gets a few new ideas in her head.
With her little-girl voice and low-cut outfits, Griffith could play Billie in her sleep, and, for all the help she gets from writer Douglas McGrath and director Luis Mandoki, she just about has to.
McGrath’s script, based on Kanin’s play, has an inert quality to it that leaving in period slang such as “egghead” and “lowdown” doesn’t help. And Mandoki, whose last project was “White Palace,” seems to resent the fact that “Born Yesterday” (rated PG) is basically a farce. Any chance he gets, the director emphasizes the film’s dramatic moments, giving the action a heaviness that becomes increasingly wearying.
But while Griffith has the advantage of playing “Born Yesterday’s” only fully drawn part, Goodman and Johnson have to deal with the same character weaknesses that sabotaged their predecessors, Broderick Crawford and William Holden, all those decades ago.
The very able Goodman is trapped as a big lug who may or may not have a heart of gold, and the indecision about whether he is a comic character or a sadistic monster is as frustrating here as it was in the original. Johnson, for his part, looks uncomfortable in his horn-rimmed glasses and has trouble getting a handle on a colorless role, little more than a walking civics lesson, that baffled Holden as well.
As much as Griffith is right for Billie, times have changed enough to make this birth of the not-so-dumb blonde feel tedious. And the actress, who at any rate played basically the same part to much greater effect in “Working Girl,” would be better served if screenwriters thought of new ways to use her considerable talents instead of trying to shoehorn her into someone else’s golden slippers.
Melanie Griffith: Billie Dawn
John Goodman: Harry Brock
Don Johnson: Paul Verrall
Edward Herrmann: Ed Devery
Max Perlich: JJ
A D. Constantine Conte production, in association with Touchwood Pacific Partners I, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Luis Mandoki. Producer D. Constantine Conte. Executive producer Stratton Leopold. Screenplay Douglas McGrath, based on the play by Garson Kanin. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editor Lesley Walker. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music George Fenton. Production design Lawrence G. Paull. Art director Bruce Crone. Set decorator Rick Simpson. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.