Celeste Holm first turned heads at the age of 26 as the gaily promiscuous Ado Annie in the first run of the Rogers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! In some ways, this role would set the tone for her career, which spanned 60 years in film, television and theatre. Her vocal muscularity and comedic talent attracted 20th Century Fox, who signed her in 1946, and would beckon some of Hollywood’s most influential directors, including Elia Kazan, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Henry Koster.
Holm had an illustrious start in the movie business, winning an Oscar in 1947 for her performance in Kazan’s exposé of anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement. She is excellent as the fashionable Ann Dettrey who falls for “pretty straight” journalist Joe (Gregory Peck), her soul-mate in principles. Though a supporting role, it’s one worth re-remembering, as perhaps the only glamorous part she ever played. With her hair drawn back from her face in the 40s style – not built high on her forehead as she’d later wear it – she is the main attraction, cat-eyed and a with noir-ish sensuality that future film roles didn’t call for.
Holm would go on to play the girl-not-chosen in high-budget Technicolor comedies The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956). In the former, her “honest-to-goodness” Sylvia and David Wayne’s Joe outshine the star couple with a sallying chemistry so natural it looks ad-libbed. Holm was believable as the modern career-woman with snap, who regrets not making provision for wedded life but whose dignity cushions the fall. It befitted her public image: formally trained and clearly intelligent, she was highly respected: so much so that critics couldn’t stand to see her demeaned by inferior material.
Such was Holm’s versatility, her most famous role is of an altogether different type: the “non-professional” playwright’s wife Karen Richards and partial-narrator of All About Eve. It’s testament to her innate stardom that, even in competition with Bette Davis’ sublime bluster, her’s are some of the most memorable scenes. Burying her chin in mink after an act of vehicular sabotage, we pity her, and her fit of laughter at the Cub Room – pealing her clear conscience – is the film’s rival ending and just the ticket to remember her by.
Also in the March 2013 issue of Sight & Sound
Bob Mastrangelo’s survey of the film greats and lesser-knowns who left us during 2012, with new obituaries of Herbert Lom, Sylvia Kristel, Yamada Isuzu, Seyfi Teoman and child actors of the silent era.