By Brad Laidman | November 14, 2001

“He’s right I’m stupid and I like it.”
I always sort of wondered exactly what the appeal of the dumb hot blonde was in the history of film and TV. I wonder if anyone really ever enjoyed it or if it was really just a terrorist action by all the successful crafty folk who hated them for being beautiful. Look what they did to poor Frances Farmer. Playing a dumb blonde seems pretty equivalent to the stereotypical roles played by blacks. It is all that is available and the better you do at it the more the world thinks you’re not acting.
There are I think two universal rules of the theater. One is if you show a gun it has to go off. Two is the main character’s true sanctified love is the frumpy brunette and not the red hot blonde. My favorite example of this is of course It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey picks Donna Reed over Gloria Grahame. Donna Reed is so much the believer in true love that had Jimmy Stewart never been born she would have turned out to be an old maid despite the fact that she seemed to have an open marriage proposal from the richest man in town. He never even marries Gloria Grahame but his life apparently narrowly saves her from becoming a crack w***e. If I were George Bailey I wouldn’t want to see my world minus me, I would want to see my world had I married Gloria Grahame’s Violet. Had he hung with Violet, he wouldn’t have wound up with twelve kids and a broken down home. He and Violet would have traveled the world and enjoyed themselves. When their money ran out he could have gotten a job with Mr. Potter. Worst case scenario is that he gets sick of Violet and is forced to then marry Donna Reed, who according to George’s alternate reality was dead set on either Jimmy Stewart or spinsterhood. Violet deserved a shot.
Suzanne Somers to me is the nadir of the dumb blonde. Her character on Three’s Company is there merely to scamper about in tightly cropped running shorts. She’s there completely as a sex object, her character is related to as a potential sex object by every male character on the show at all times, and yet she never gets to have sex with anyone. That just seems like a painful existence. I don’t want to watch that.
I enjoyed Justine Bateman as Mallory on Family Ties. She didn’t have blonde hair but her character was blonde in spirit. The guys that made that show were enlightened and liberal so they pulled the bait and switch and made the blonde the bright one and the brunette the dumb one. This didn’t really work because Justine Bateman was so cute and Tina Yothers just didn’t age as well as everyone had hoped she would. Essentially all Gary David Goldberg really achieved was the corollary that if the blonde seemed to be the right choice it was only because she was actually the one who was more drab.
I was amused by Mallory because she was dizzyingly stupid, didn’t particular care, and never saw any true repercussions of her stupidity. Christina Applegate took that to the next step on Married with Children. She was malevolently stupid, enjoyed it, and reaped the benefits of her stupidity.
Tori Spelling the first couple years of Beverly Hills 90210 was perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a truly dim blonde. She was just painfully blah, which to me is what I would imagine the non criminally stupid are really like. They are benign but who would really want to hang with them. The only thing ever remotely interesting about Spelling’s Donna Martin was her drama queen psycho mother who doomed her to years of pain, guilt and robotically programmed virginity. She should have won major awards for truly bringing that to the screen. The only similar performance I can think of is Shelly Winters in A Place in the Sun and they tossed awards at that woman left and right.
The only truly healthy presentation of the pretty blonde I ever was exposed to was Betty Cooper. She seemed bright, she was sort of willing, and pure of heart. She wanted Archie Andrews in the most romantically enlightened way possible. Veronica seemed like she could care less about Archie. Betty Cooper would have been a great example of the ideal American woman, but they made Veronica rich as a Getty and in the end that forever destroyed the likelihood of a healthy American view of the fairer haired members of the female population.
Of course the Christ of the dumb blondes was Marilyn Monroe. Now she was intriguing. There have been more books written about Marilyn Monroe than Leonardo Di Vinci. I haven’t done the actual count but I’d bet my life on it. My fascination with her is the sadness. To me Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday are the all time champs of the sadness genre with some small points to Julie London who caught the mood for a few minutes every time she sang Cry Me a River. Certainly Marilyn Monroe wasn’t the singer Billie Holiday was but she does get tons of points from me for her version of I’m Through With Love from Some Like It Hot. Don’t let the fact that you heard Carol Channing sing Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend eight million times make you forget that she was a really good singer.
My theory is that she was killed by the creators of the dumb blonde cliche. She was unfortunate enough to be just bright enough to know how stupid she was, which made her ultra vulnerable. Frank Sinatra, Robert Kennedy and John F Kennedy, they all slept with her but probably secretly hated her for the fact that she wasn’t on their level and yet they wanted her anyway. She was the number one film star in the world and someone talked her into the nonsense of high art and honing a craft. Someone should have let her enjoy herself.
For some reason though the depth of her sadness makes her character in Some Like It Hot endlessly fascinating. She’s almost a real life version of Dorothy Comingore’s Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Semi-talented beautiful dim blonde catches the eye of a rich intellect with a huge ego. Is embarrassed by his attraction to her so he tries to transform her into something respectable and in turn crushes her spirit. I find that character extremely engrossing. Her marriage to Arthur Miller has always seemed to me like a heroically optimistic deed. Someone should have let her know that being smart isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be.
It’s too bad no one ever gave her enough credit for her character in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Her Loralei Lee is a dumb blonde who is actually a pretty smart blonde, who understands what her looks can get for her, intends to enjoy it, and is willing to let people think whatever they want to think about her. You know Madonna had to have seen that movie a thousand times, and she is all the more better off for it. Oddly enough that character was better portrayed on the screen by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Sharon Stone is of course a very pretty blonde who is smart enough to hate the fact that the thing she is most famous for is uncrossing her legs during that famous interrogation sequence. The tragic cycle never ends. Sometimes I feel sorry for these women, but usually the feeling passes. It’s too bad Katherine Hepburn wasn’t a blonde they could have used her.
The most lauded hot dumb blonde role of all time is Judy Holliday’s Academy Award winning performance in Born Yesterday. It’s the Cinderella story of dumb blondes. Holliday’s Billie Dawn is initially pretty similar to Susan Alexander. A former show girl hooked up with a bullheaded multi-millionaire, Broderick Crawford’s Harry Brock, who’s just as unsophisticated and uncouth as she is. This was a disaster when Melanie Griffith and John Goodman did it. Social roles had changed. The dynamic probably still exists but the same details aren’t really around anymore, which makes aping them in something set in the present day fairly ridiculous, but in its own time I can completely relate to them. There were probably days where they could have filmed my father’s father and mother’s mother and there wouldn’t have been that much of a difference.
Harry says “I hire and fire geniuses every day” and so did my grandfather. It was a time where yelling angrily at each other from across the house in front of everyone was more acceptable. Of course, Harry’s money means that he can act as much like a boorish slob as he wants. He’s the guy everybody hates because their subordination to him makes them feel incredibly disappointed in what monetary needs have done to them.
Holliday’s Dawn is looked down upon for her chirping voice. She has probably been told how inadequate she is by someone every day of her life, but she has a sense of inner spirit that knows that she’s a decent person. She is completely without pretension. My Grandmother would scrawl out letters to me in college which were barely in complete sentences but after you got done reading them you knew that she was pretty aware of everything that was going on around her and Billie Dawn is a lot like that. She constantly says whatever she thinks without shame. If everyone wasn’t judging her she would probably be able to sit back listen to her tunes, drink a bit, and be perfectly satisfied with her life.
Unfortunately, as Crawford rises to prominence she becomes an embarrassment to him and he wants her educated. They probably had a few nights of happiness, but they’re doomed by Crawford’s embarrassment, violent temper, and crooked ambition. He’s Ralph Kramden if he really hit Alice every time he said he was going to.
Crawford hires a local reporter William Holden’s Peter Varall to smarten her up so that she can appear to be someone worth marrying. Crawford is probably willing to ditch her at this point but he’s running all of his shadier moneymaking ventures under her name so he’s stuck. Holden is one of those intellectual liberal types. He has seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington about a hundred times, and sympathizes, maybe even envies the innocent nature of the unwashed. He meets Billie Dawn right at the point where she is starting to realize that living with a violent bore with a lot of money isn’t quite all it is cracked up to be. They kiss about thirty seconds after they are alone for the first time, but he’s most likely just as unable to see himself with such a commoner as Crawford is. He’s a nicer version of a smarter guy, but he’s still a guy.
“Born Yesterday” is a lot like a Frank Capra film. It’s full of great ideas about the wonder of the common man. George Cukor just doesn’t take it as seriously and play it as straight as Capra does. It’s robustly anti fascist which was fine until Joe McCarthy started to realize that it sounded an awful lot like communism, and Holliday would soon unfortunately cross his path shortly after it came out.
In the end she winds up with the money if she wants it, the smart nice guy who loves her, and her self respect. Monroe probably married Miller fifteen minutes after seeing it. Holliday’s Billie Dawn is a great role model in that well meaning abstraction way, but who knows if it ever could work in real life. Her performance, which looked so silly with Griffith doing it was a detailed and nuanced performance. She’s playing dumb but she’s doing fifteen things as an actress while doing it. She does more acting playing three hands of gin rummy here than Pamela Anderson has done in her whole career. Her victory is a gifted and inspiring performance for common good hearted dishes the world over. The question in the end is how much the intellectual Holden believes his own propaganda. My hope is that he Billie Dawn lived happily ever after. I just doubt that it happened.
To see the same movie with some killer Rock and Roll check out Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It. Melanie Griffith did some nice things in the more modern version, Working Girl, which pushed the same hopeful buttons, albeit with a less hopeful final shot. She should have quit before she found herself singing the Bill of Rights to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas, which is something no one really deserves to have to sit through.

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