Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Holm and her Range: Celeste Holm 1917-2012

I first encountered Celeste Holm when my parents let me stay up to watch Gentleman’s Agreement on the late show. The film had ignited much controversy in 1947, because it dared to expose the covert anti-Semitism entrenched in American life. No, the United States in the 1940s didn’t legally bar Jews from schools and jobs, nor did it ship Jews to extermination camps. But there were college admissions quotas as well as rampant discrimination in housing (“No Jews or dogs allowed”), and white-shoe business firms were quietly clear about not wanting Jews to darken their doors, even as secretaries. Gentleman’s Agreement tackled some of that ugliness with its story about a WASP journalist named Philip Schuyler Green who goes undercover as “Philip Greenberg” to experience anti-Semitism in NYC and in the notoriously restricted suburb of Darien, Connecticut.

I’ve heard that Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox decided to film Laura Z. Hobson’s novel after being refused membership in the L.A. Country Club because its honchos assumed that Zanuck (like most Hollywood studio moguls of that era ) was Jewish. I’ve also heard that Jewish film execs were wary of the project, fearing it would stir up trouble. Zanuck found his reward when Gentleman’s Agreement became one of the highest grossing films of 1947. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director (Elia Kazan), as well as a Best Supporting Actress statuette for Celeste Holm, whose earlier movie roles had been in vapid musicals. (She started out as the original Ado Annie in the Broadway smash, Oklahoma!)

I barely remember the plot of Gentleman’s Agreement, but I’ll never forget Holm’s big scene. She plays a pal of Gregory Peck, a stylish fashion editor who’s both smart and good-hearted. No fan of bigotry, she describes to Peck how appalled she was at a gathering where someone got a laugh by telling an anti-Semitic joke. Peck asks how she handled the situation. She answers with great passion, “I just sat there.” The gist of the scene, of course, was that just sitting there, inwardly fuming, is hardly good enough. When rampant bigotry rears its head, you can’t be afraid to raise your voice in protest. It’s a message that has stuck with me ever since.

Holm’s blend of sweetness and smarts (she resembles a slightly less acidic Eve Arden) is also on display in a romantic comedy from 1955, The Tender Trap. She’s featured as a transplanted midwesterner who’s now the only female violinist in Manhattan’s prestigious NBC Symphony. Unfortunately, career success hasn’t brought happiness: “One fine day we look around, and we’re thirty-three years old and we haven’t got a man.” She’s frank with a potential suitor: “Do you have any idea what's available to a woman of thirty-three? Married men, drunks, pretty boys looking for someone to support them, lunatics looking for their fifth divorce -– quite a list, isn’t it?” This being a romantic comedy, someone appropriate turns up for her in the end. But naturally Holm is the sidekick, not the female lead. That honor goes to Debbie Reynolds, as the conventionally cute twenty-two-year-old who snags and domesticates the swinging bachelor twice her age played by Frank Sinatra.

I’ve read Celeste Holm’s obits, and it’s clear that she, like her character, never quite figured out how to make her domestic longings come true. She was married five times (divorced thrice, widowed once), and suffered through a protracted legal battle that ate up her savings while pitting her two sons against husband #5, forty-five years her junior, whom she married at age eighty-seven. I have a feeling she deserved better.


  1. I've enjoyed her work in several films, Gentleman's Agreement among them. She was a fine actress, and I'm sorry to hear about the troubles she had in her last few years. I also enjoyed your shot at Hollywood's eternal penchant for casting leading ladies half the age of their leading men. There are vociferous complaints about that in recent years (Entrapment is a prime example) but it's certainly nothing new.

    Rest in Peace, Ms. Holm. I think you deserved better too.

  2. Ugh, sounds like quite a tumultuous personal life!

  3. Sounds as though you didn't quite finish your thought, Tayyub. Many thanks for writing, but I'd love to know exactly what you mean to say.