Thursday, July 19, 2012

Meeting Celeste Holm

She won her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the 1947 movie Gentlemen's Agreement.  That film, which starred Gregory Peck as a newspaperman delving into the issue of anti-Semitism, was not the only 20th Century Fox to bring Celeste Holm a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.  The other was the one that probably came to most fans' minds when we heard that she died recently at age 95.  That film is the sophisticated showbiz tale, All About Eve.  In the 1950 classic, she was sweet Karen Richards, the wife of a successful Broadway playwright and the tolerant best friend to 40-year-old Broadway diva, Margo Channing played by real-life Hollywood diva Bette Davis.
WPIX TV/Channel 11 invited me to leave the ABC TV affiliate in Milwaukee and start an on-camera career in Manhattan.  This was in 1985.  I did celebrity interviews on a weekday show called Best Talk in Town.  One of my first in-studio guests was Oscar-winner and Broadway veteran Celeste Holm.  Our show was pre-taped.  After we'd moved from the make-up room to the set, Ms. Holm sat across from me and we were chatting as the crew attached microphones to us, checked the audio and checked the lights.  The camera guy was in his 20s, maybe early 30s.  I noticed him smiling and mouthing "Wow" as he looked up at a monitor.  In his headset, he was talking to the director in the control room.  In my earpiece, the director said "You gotta look at her on the monitor.  The camera loves her."  He wasn't kidding.  Age didn't matter.  Celeste Holm had an inner beam, a certain light that romanced the camera. People on the set who weren't even alive when All About Eve won Oscars were captivated by her camera charisma.
There was a wit, intelligence and sparkle in her eyes that didn't diminish with age.
Our interview was lovely.  She was involved with a New York City charity event.  In the make-up room, that's where I discovered Celeste Holm could be crusty, candid and wickedly funny.  I dug it.  I brought up one of her first Fox films, a 1947 musical called Carnival in Costa Rica.  She hated that movie.  The cast didn't know where the movie was going story-wise.  It was a mess.  She said that co-star Cesar Romero confided to her during production, "How are they gonna cut this thing?"  Holm's answer was "Hopefully right up the middle."  Carnival in Costa Rica also co-starred Vera-Ellen and was directed by Gregory Ratoff.  Ratoff would work with Holm again.  He played Broadway producer Max Fabian in All About Eve.  Before that musical, Vera-Ellen and Celeste Holm were two of the Three Little Girls in Blue, another musical comedy with what became a standard Fox plot:  three lovable girls seeking romance and rich husbands.  This was the Holm girl's first film.  She'd scored on Broadway as the original Ado Annie in Rodgers & Hammerstein's acclaimed Oklahoma!, but her face wasn't on this movie's posters.
A song was written for this 1946 Fox musical.  It was introduced in a Vera-Ellen dance number.  "You Make Me Feel So Young" wouldn't really click with the public and become a hit until the following decade when it would be recorded by a Celeste Holm co-star:  Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra made "You Make Me Feel So Young" his own.  He and she had terrific chemistry in two of my favorite feel-good classic films -- the MGM releases The Tender Trap (1955) and Cole Porter's musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, 1956's High Society with Holm and Sinatra taking on the Ruth Hussey and Jimmy Stewart roles.
On All About Eve, she revealed that Bette Davis didn't like her and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck didn't like her.  She loved Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve screenplay -- except for one line she had to say in a voiceover.  Right before Lloyd and Karen get a late night distress call regarding the ambitious and duplicitous new actress, Eve Harrington, a worried Karen remarks "How could I compete?  Everything Lloyd loved about me, he'd gotten used to long ago."  Holm told me that she never believed that last line and felt that a husband who really loved his wife would not "get used" to her.  She also let her hair down and commented that she was better friends with one of her husbands after they divorced.  Friendship was tough when they were married during her Hollywood years and he was constantly trying "to screw some extra."  A movie that she absolutely, positively loved making was the 1973 musical Tom Sawyer.  Not a widely talked about Celeste Holm picture or movie musical but we saw that one during a Rivers Family night at the drive-in when I was a kid in Los Angeles.  We loved it.  Celeste Holm was Aunt Polly.  Little Jodie Foster played Becky Thatcher.  Holm said the whole experience of making Tom Sawyer was one of the happiest of her film career.

Celeste Holm was the first Oscar winner with whom I disagreed in person.  We started chatting about recent hit movies and actors.  I told her how much I loved Terms of Endearment and had paid to see it more than once.  She almost loved it, adding "I couldn't buy Debra Winger as the daughter."  "Why?!?," I asked.  She said, "With Shirley MacLaine as the mother?  The daughter looked too Jewish."
Movie nerd that I am, I didn't hold back on giving her my opinion on why Debra Winger worked.  You never see Aurora Greenway's late husband and Emma's father, but you hear his voice in the first five minutes of the movie as young Aurora (MacLaine) goes to check on her baby girl.  Read the end credits.  The voice of Rudyard Greenway is done by Albert Brooks -- comic actor star of Modern Romance...
...and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for his performance as the skilled-but-not-handsome-enough TV journalist in Broadcast News, another James L. Brooks film that followed his Terms of Endearment.
I could totally buy that Albert Brooks and Shirley MacLaine could marry and make a baby that grew up to look like Debra Winger.  Soon it was time to go on camera.  In the make-up room, Celeste Holm was a bit of a tough-talkin' dame.  On the set in our interview, she was a duchess.  The last time I saw her, I was seated directly behind her for Chita Rivera's opening night on Broadway in her autobiographical musical showcase, A Dancer's Life.  This was late 2005.  Holm still had that inner light as she made her way into the row to take her seat.  The much-younger man holding her hand looked like he could've been a contender to play Bill Sampson opposite Bette Davis' Margo Channing in All About Eve.  During intermission, I learned that the handsome brawny man in a tuxedo with her was not a personal assistant or a bodyguard/escort.
Frank Basile was her new husband.  How'd they meet?  I'm not really sure.  But when I saw how affectionately he stroked the back of her neck during the second act, I was so jealous that I just wanted to get on a computer and write "Kiss my entire black ass, Match.com, and cancel my ad immediately."  I've been solo since 1995.  She and Frank married a year before that Broadway show opening.  To him, I send my condolences.  Celeste Holm -- what a luminous talent.  She was Broadway and Hollywood royalty.  She acted in two films that won the Best Picture Academy Award -- Gentlemen's Agreement and All About Eve.  She lent her talents to two others that were Best Picture Oscar nominees -- The Snake Pit and A Letter to Three Wives.  She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress three times.  Besides the two films highlighted in the first paragraph, she earned a nomination for the playing the French nun who chose religion over a top professional sports career in Come to the Stable.  All are worth watching.

1 comment:

  1. In 1963 I think it was Celeste brought an intimate show she was touring to St. Louis and performed it at Shaare Emeth, a Jewish temple! She performed where the Rabbi usually spoke on stage. It was fascinating to see how she got a packed house right into the palm of her hands and how clever, fast-moving and surprising the show was. Afterward, a reception followed and as I was a journalist covering the event I struck up a conversation with her at the buffet. To my total surprise she was stand-offish and cold. At first. Then she began chatting charmingly. She was, also, absolutely beautiful. We talked about Ado Annie and "Oklahoma." In her show she sang "I'm Just A Girl Who Can't So No" and a boffo version of "I've Told Every Star" ala a hit record by Linda Scott. She performed with Wesley Addy, her husband at the time and a gem of a guy. They were married more than 30 years, right up to his death Classy people.

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