When you think of the movie Adam’s Rib, odds are the first people who will come to mind are Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. But as delightful as Tracy and Hepburn are, I think Adam’s Rib has one of my favorite supporting casts ever. It’s got Jean Hagen in her film debut, Tom Ewell in what was a breakthrough role for him, and last, but certainly not least, there’s Judy Holliday as jilted wife Doris Attinger.
I always thought Judy shone the brightest out of all of Adam’s Rib’s supporting players. Doris Attinger isn’t ditzy like Billie in Born Yesterday, but what I love about Judy’s performance in Adam’s Rib is how she so perfectly conveys a mixture of nerves, anger, and vulnerability, with just a touch of comedy. And a lot of the time, she does this without actually saying much of anything.
Not only is her performance great, there’s also a good story behind how she got the part. At the time, Judy was mostly known for her stage work. Movie-wise, she had only done a few uncredited parts and one small role. She had been a great success playing Billie in Born Yesterday on Broadway, but when Columbia bought the movie rights to the play, Judy wasn’t a top contender for the film version because she wasn’t known as a movie actress. Knowing they couldn’t seriously make Born Yesterday without Judy Holliday, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, George Cukor, and playwright Garson Kanin teamed up to get Judy noticed in films. So they gave her the part of Doris Attinger and took every opportunity they could to put the spotlight on her. The first few minutes of the movie are virtually all Judy. For the scene where Amanda first interviews Doris, Katharine insisted that the camera stay on Judy the whole time and refused to do any reaction shots that could be used to cut away from Judy. Katharine was even planting stories in the gossip columns that Judy had been stealing the show from her and Spencer. Luckily, all their scheming paid off and when Judy got good reviews for her work in Adam’s Rib, she landed the lead in Born Yesterday and won an Oscar for it.
I’ve always thought it was too bad that Adam’s Rib wasn’t the beginning of a far more illustrious film career for Judy Holliday. Her comedic timing was brilliant and I’m curious about how she would have done in a drama. I really would have loved to have seen more from her. Unfortunately, she made only a handful of films before dying of cancer at the age of 43. But luckily the films she did make were all winners. There isn’t a movie of hers that I haven’t truly enjoyed.