In the mid-20th century, burgeoning television programming was often live, newscasters smoked on set, hosts had strange sidekicks (a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs, for example), and dramatic programs featured scripts by Rod Serling, Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayevsky, and Gore Vidal, to name just a few. By the 1960s, classic series from I Dream of Jeannie to Bonanza governed the nightly airwaves, followed by the socially conscious comedies of the 1970s; the diva catfights and conspicuous consumption of the 1980s; and the snarky, ironic, and self-awareness of Seinfeld and The X-Files in the 1990s. Within those 40 years or so, television productions had one common thread: writers! With the arrival of the 21st century, it seemed as if the scribes had decided to go on hiatus, hang up their laptops, stow their pencils, and shelve their notebooks. As the Writer’s Guild of America wrestled over residuals from DVD sales and new media, society’s exploding interest in the “real” lives of others gave us Survivor contestant Richard Hatch, American Idol Kelly Clarkson, and a passel of Kardashians. It was a new phenomenon…or was it?
The 1954 film It Should Happen to You, directed by George Cukor and starring Judy Holliday, is all about fame for the sake of desiring fame. Sound familiar? Holliday’s Gladys Glover is a none-too-successful model who has descended upon Manhattan from Binghamton, NY. In the 1954 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther writes, “Again Miss Holliday is playing a daffy American miss whose air of confusion and self-delusion conceals her gumption and native honesty. And this time she’s racing toward disaster because of a normal aspiration for fame.” One day while walking in Central Park, Gladys is being filmed by a kindhearted documentary filmmaker named Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon). It is on that innocuous walk through the park that Gladys notices a bare billboard atop a building in Columbus Circle. Whether through recklessness, ambition, or pure insanity, she rents the billboard and has her name painted across the expanse. All of sudden, the name Gladys Glover is known by most of Manhattan, and everyone is wondering: Who is this woman?
Again, Crowther sums up Gladys’s folly perfectly: “From this ridiculous ostentation there develops a train of events that soon has poor Gladys spinning—and dodging—like a squirrel in a cage.” The billboard catches the attention of the affluent playboy Evan Adams, III (Peter Lawford), who tries to seduce the tentative Gladys. While she might be a bit eccentric, Gladys knows a pick-up line when she hears it and is wary of Evan’s smooth talking; when Evan leans in dramatically close, Gladys instinctively pulls back. Fame continues to build for Gladys and she is pursued by celebrity promoter/agent Michael O’Shea (Brod Clinton), who promises even brighter lights and notoriety. Gladys is soon on TV, where her slightly off-kilter witticisms make her a charming guest.
Rapidly tiring of the constant pursuit by journalists, television reporters, and autograph seekers, Gladys is ready to return to anonymity. In the end, the flash of the camera bulbs and relentless recognition is intolerable for the unpretentious girl from Binghamton. The superficial playboy is insincere and the public will throw her over for the next sensation, but Gladys knows the understated Pete Sheppard is a keeper, fame or not.
If It Should Happen to You foresaw the reality TV fuss and the fame-for-the-sake-of-fame quandary, the credit goes to the Garson Kanin screenplay that brings the fictional story to life. There is no doubt in my mind that the talented actress Judy Holliday will last a lot longer in the hearts and minds of the public (and cultural history) than most of our so-called “reality stars.” Holliday didn’t have a “K” in her name or the inclination to give a red rose to a bachelor suitor, but she did create a fascinating character who learned that fame is nice to dream about, but an awful lot of effort once you have it.