``Born Yesterday': The education of Melanie Griffith fTC

March 26, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Born Yesterday" isn't to be confused with an actual comedy, but it's nevertheless an amusingly cynical romp through the byways of the glossy town 40 miles to the south. Derived from a 1950 movie that starred Broderick Crawford, Judy Holliday and William Holden, this version offers, respectively, John Goodman, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. Of the three, two are net plusses and one is a slight minus.

As far back as the '50s -- probably the 1850s, come to think of it -- writers had seen through the hoax of D.C. and realized that behind those marble statues and Doric pillars stood sleazebags, hucksters, peddlers, racketeers and bullyboys, and that the loudest and the slickest of them usually ended up with the most toys. Garson Kanin worked that line to a T in his original script: It's about a bullyboy Chicago millionaire who comes to D.C. to spread some loot around, to get a decision reversed that will cost him his pile.

He quickly realizes that his showgirl sweetheart is a real drawback in a town that values pretentious manners and a glib tongue over heart and feeling, so he hires a scribe to smooth out her rough edges and teach her just enough patois to get through party chitchat. But the writer goes further: He actually unlocks her frustrated mind, liberates her intellectually as well as ethically, and together the two of them take on the big guy, defeat the scam and live happily ever after.

Kanin was a solid craftsman and the solid bones of the structure he built sustains Douglas McGrath's rewrite job. The situations continue to generate heat and humor, even when updated neatly. And, as it turns out, in Washington, the updating needed isn't major: The town still works pretty much as it always has.

Most of the good news in this version of "Born Yesterday" revolves around Melanie Griffith. She probably won't win an Oscar, as did Judy Holliday, but she's extremely confident and vivid in the part of Billie Dawn, dumb blond extraordinaire and ultimately the champion civics student of all time. Griffith is so much better in comedy than in drama it's stunning; in her last two films, "Shining Through" and "Among Strangers," she was simply an embarrassment, with that breathy little voice and those little-girl mannerisms. Those deficits, however, become strengths here; her girl-woman is powerfully erotic while being funny as all get-out; more importantly, Griffith gives the real weight of poignancy to Billie's transformation as, under tutelage, she developes intellectually and morally.

And Goodman, as usual, is excellent. He makes us see Harry Brock's primal hunger and crudeness, and yet he doesn't make him entirely a beast. In one scene, he takes Griffith dancing and his pure animal joy in moving to the music -- he's amazingly nimble for such a big man -- does a lot to explain his character.

Johnson, however, isn't quite right for the part of the liberal writer who educates and then falls in love with Billie. First, he doesn't look right: too smooth, too tan, too tropical, somehow, his clothes a bit flashy (does any Washington writer really walk around with his shirt open to his sternum?). He seems to lack the incisiveness of a Fred Barnes or a Michael Kinsley; this guy would be eaten alive on the McLaughlin Group and Robert Novak would probably make him cry by teasing him about his hairless chest. He's not a natural comic actor either; his timing seems wrong and he's never sparkly, or witty, in the way all us writing guys are, heh heh.

A minor note: Ben Bradlee and wife Sally Quinn, Washington news legends, have minor early roles and they're really quite good, particularly Bradlee. I can only guess Jason Robards wasn't available for the part.

"Born Yesterday" Starring Melanie Griffith, John Goodman and Don Johnson.

Directed by Luis Mendoki.

Released by Hollywood.

Rated PG-13.

***

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