The depiction of Jewish women in American cinema is not something we can take for granted. These days, we see women of Jewish descent in front and behind the camera and Jewish characters who are fully realized beings with depth, humor and sexual desires — but this has only happened fairly recently. In fact, not until the mid-twentieth century did we see Jewish women in films at all, and at that time they were often only Jewish coded (rather than explicitly Jewish), and frequently portrayed as sexless yentes of a more mature age.
What changed this? Well, we should really ask, who changed this? This change occurred with the rise of a singular actress, singer and comedian. A native New Yorker who took Broadway by storm before revolutionizing proud Jewish femininity on screen. I think you know who I’m talking about. On the count of three let’s all say her name together. 1… 2… 3!
Oh? You said Barbra Streisand? I see why you’d think I was referring to Babs, but no — I’m talking about Judy Holliday! Judy Holliday may be a name you have never heard of, but we should change that because she’s sublime. In her short career she won an Oscar, a Tony and became the blueprint for modern Jewish femininity.
Judy, born Judith Tuvim to leftist Jewish parents in Manhattan in 1921, was nothing short of a genius (literally — her IQ was 172). She started her career out like many comics do today: She worked odd jobs, including a stint as a phone operator at Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, while performing in small nightclubs with The Revuers, a sketch comedy group.
She got her big break in 1947 when she originated the part of Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday.” The character, a former-showgirl-turned-kept-woman whose educational awakening opens her eyes to the world around her, made Judy a massive sensation and allowed her to showcase her unique comedic abilities. Judy would go on to star as Billie in the 1950 movie adaption of “Born Yesterday” and became a sensation all over again. The film captured the magic Judy exuded on stage, showing how she could turn both the biggest and most obvious moments to the littlest of body gestures into the most original and natural comedic moments you will ever see. Judy took home an Oscar for this performance, winning over heavy hitters like Bette Davis in “All About Eve” and Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” With this, her film career and persona was born.
Judy’s movie persona could be described as a “lovable kook.” She was zany and “out there,” the kind of person that no one really gets but finds too charming and endearing to not want to be near. Her beauty was never essential to her characters, but she was always seen as a desirable love interest. She essentially was a character actress with movie star magnetism. When you combine this persona with Judy’s Jewishness you have something as rare to see in classic cinema as a unicorn flying over Time Square.
Judy’s Jewishness was so woven into her personality that even when she is not playing an explicitly Jewish character, her embodiment of the role effectively made the character Jewish anyway. This was at a time when Jewish women like Hedy Lamarr, the Viennese bombshell of the late 1930s and 1940s, felt they had to essentially deny their Jewish roots once she entered the American film industry, so when Judy came along she probably did seem like a unicorn flying over Time Square, both to Jewish movie-goers who’d not been able to identify with a star up until then and non-Jewish audiences who were not familiar with a person like Judy — which is to say, a Jew.
Judy’s characters were also very modern. Actually, a lot of her characters feel like they could be women of 2023. In 1954’s “It Should Happen to You,” Judy plays Gladys Glover, a woman who buys a billboard advertising just her name. This turns her into a spokesmodel of sorts, and she basically becomes the 1950s equivalent of an influencer. In 1956’s “The Solid Gold Cadillac” she plays Laura Partridge, a small stockholder turned CEO. She has love interests in both these movies but love is never The Focus.
Even when the focus of one of her films is romance, she’s usually playing a career woman who has drive, ambition and more going on than just a man. In 1960’s “Bells Are Ringing” (which Judy starred in on Broadway — and won a Tony for lead actress in a musical) Judy plays a woman working for a telephone answering service who is in love with one of her clients. The focus is the build up of the romance between Judy’s Ella Peterson and the man on the other line, played by Dean Martin, but we also see how much Ella cares for all her clients and provides them with attention that only someone who has a passion for their career would be capable of pulling off. Even though “Bells Are Ringing” was such a flop upon initial release that this actually fully put a stop to Judy’s career in movies, I think the film captures her talent and persona better than anything she did before it.
But Judy never made another film after “Bells Are Ringing.” She tragically passed from cancer in 1966 at the age of 44.
Judy was like a shooting star. She rose as fast as she would disappear from the consciousness of the mainstream, but the effects of her career opened the door for many iconic Jewish women of stage and screen. I’m not saying Judy is the reason Barbra Streisand has a career, obviously — Babs was going to be Babs regardless — but Judy is part of the reason why someone like Barbra Streisand, who is as unapologetically Jewish as you can get, could be that way in film.
Jewish performers were not ever presented as the love interest leads unless they fully hid and suppressed their Jewish identities — until Judy. After you watch a Judy Holliday movie, you will see how her influence gave way to Madeline Kahn, Fran Drescher and Ilana Glazer. Judy Holliday never tried to dull her comedic talents and Jewish joie de vivre, which in truth may have held her back from opportunities that could’ve made her an even greater star during her time… but if she’d done that, she wouldn’t be the blueprint.