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‘Born Yesterday’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 26, 1993


Luis Mandoki
Melanie Griffith;
John Goodman;
Don Johnson;
Edward Herrmann;
Max Perlich;
Fred Dalton Thompson;
Nora Dunn
Parental guidance suggested

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When they asked Judy Holliday to replay her successful Broadway role in "Born Yesterday" for the movie version, she took shrill and funny command. Costars William Holden and Broderick Crawford didn't know what hit them.

At the Oscars in 1951, Holliday beat out Bette Davis in "All About Eve" and Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" for Best Actress. Slip that George Cukor classic into the VCR sometime. Holliday's brassy New York brogue will not only make you laugh, it'll clear out blocked sinus passages in distant neighborhoods.

Don't expect an experience this pleasurable in the Touchstone Pictures remake, unless watching Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson exchange flat nothings sends you into a swoon.

Reconditioned as a romantic vehicle for the husband-and-wife team, the new "Born Yesterday" updates and replays elements from the original Garson Kanin play. But it merely reinforces the cliche that they don't make 'em like they used to. It adds its own corollary too: When they try to make 'em like they used to, see the old version instead.

With a small coterie in tow (including legal advisor Edward Herrmann), bullying gangster John Goodman bursts into Washington with influence peddling on his mind. Hopelessly in love with daffy moll Griffith, he drapes her in furs and drags her to parties as his beautiful companion. There's one problem: She's such a birdbrain, she embarrasses even Goodman.

Before a couture-laden, savvy gathering of "Washington insiders," Griffith mistakes the collapse of the Eastern Bloc for a building disaster. Later, when National Public Radio journalist Nora Dunn asks if she's heard of NPR, Griffith says, "They're the gun people, right?"

Goodman immediately asks investigative reporter Johnson to teach his girl a thing or two -- fast. After some ethical quibbling (about 30 seconds' worth), Johnson agrees to play Henry Higgins for $500 a day. What follows is Griffith's Learning Time -- an endlessly didactic chore for the viewer that also plagued the 1950 version.

Griffith -- dictionary in hand -- struggles with Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" and the amendments to the Constitution. She learns about double negatives and how to small-talk her way through packs of pseudo intellectuals. She picks up on other things too: Goodman, on legal advice from Herrmann, has made her the dummy owner of his various shady businesses. More important, she and her handsome, bespectacled teacher have fallen in love. But Goodman's too busy buying senators -- including Fred Dalton Thompson -- to notice.

There's no sense of screwball mayhem in the picture, no topsy-turvy brightness. Comedy, at least the old Hollywood kind, had a pace to it. Performers spoke their lines with as much timing as interpretation. A movie was a show then, a stylized choreography of smart rejoinders and unwasted moves. You spoke snappy, even if your character was halting and shy. You buffed everything up.

Director Luis Mandoki, whose track record ("Gaby -- A True Story" and "White Palace") doesn't exactly suggest "comic expert," wouldn't know snap if it introduced itself to him at a party. As for screenwriter John McGrath, he comes up with some funny gems, but they're diamonds in the rough.

"This is the worst time of day," sighs Griffith disconsolately before her television. "After the soaps but before 'Entertainment Tonight.' "

In the original movie, Holliday's perky energy was the movie's engine. Griffith, whose nitrous-oxide performances of the past have always suggested this role, falls asleep at the wheel. She's too subdued to be funny. Her best effort comes at a lunchtime gathering of senators, when she reveals her mnemonic device for remembering the amendments to the Constitution. Moments later she has elected officials and others singing along to her own version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Even Goodman is forced to sing; appropriately, he gets the Fifth Amendment. If the scene's only moderately amusing, at least it aims for brightness.

Goodman is always good for a laugh or two. In this movie, that's his grand total. He seems to have picked up the script yesterday and just winged it. He barely outdoes Max Perlich (the weaselly addict in "Drugstore Cowboy"), who makes much of a tiny role as Goodman's peculiar nephew and valet. In one precious moment, a bored Perlich walks on his hands, then topples over, loose change spilling out of his pockets. It's funny and instantly over. One has to make time for the real stars, you see.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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