Exactly one week after the death of Ernest Borgnine, we’ve lost another 95-year-old Oscar winner: Celeste Holm, who passed away on July 15th. In her mid-twenties, Holm had already claimed theatrical immortality when she created the role of Ado Annie in the landmark original Broadway production of Oklahoma! (1943). She made her Hollywood debut in 1946, easily stealing the show from June Haver, Vivian Blaine, and Vera-Ellen as the Three Little Girls in Blue, an impossibly wholesome and much too frilly musical set in 1902, all too cute for words. As a funny and outrageous Southern belle with a dripping accent, Holm elevates this movie with sheer personality and deft comic timing. Her one song, “Always a Lady,” partly in French, is sort of a Gallic-inflected Ado Annie number. Holm suddenly makes you realize just how bland everyone else in this movie really is, at least by comparison.
Her next picture, another Technicolor musical, is hard to sit through. Carnival in Costa Rica (1947), again with Vera-Ellen, also stars Dick Haymes and Cesar Romero. Cast as Romero’s girl, Holm has, essentially, the Carmen Miranda role! (She even wears a fruity headdress in a parade.) This is a terrible waste and misuse of Holm’s charms. And the film makes Three Little Girls in Blue look like Meet Me in St. Louis.
Everything changed with Holm’s third picture for Fox, the one that got her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) is a well-intentioned and earnest drama about anti-Semitism, but it’s also a frustratingly obvious, naive, and condescending work, with everyone talking in speeches. Gregory Peck is the righteous stiff who pretends to be Jewish for a magazine article (“I Was Jewish for 8 Weeks”), to blow the lid off of prejudice. Acting hard, as if he always has a toothache, Peck engages in repetitive confrontations with girlfriend Dorothy McGuire who isn’t as liberal as she thinks she is. Moss Hart’s screenplay is smug and self-congratulatory while being unconvincing, unchallenging, and timidly reassuring. And Kazan was far from being the filmmaker he would soon become, resulting in a visually inert drama. Gentleman’s Agreement won the Best Picture Oscar, naturally, but it’s just not very good. Its one bright light is Holm as the magazine’s fashion editor who is quietly pining for Peck. She brings some much-needed humor and grace to the picture, and she plays her unrequited love with elegant restraint. Her smarts and sophistication are thoroughly welcome, though hardly deserving of an Oscar. The Oscar that Holm deserved was the one she lost for All About Eve (1950), her greatest movie, her greatest performance, hands down.
You may also want to thank Holm for bringing class to two negligible Frank Sinatra hits directed by Charles Walters: The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956). She made it her business to bring her expert light-comic skills to vehicles that didn’t quite deserve her. Perhaps if Holm had shown up in Hollywood in the screwball era she might have gotten the kinds of roles that Irene Dunne or Claudette Colbert played so beautifully. Holm certainly had the wit and the sparkle to have been an accomplished star comedienne. But let’s just thank the heavens that All About Eve exists as eternal proof of the singular talent of Celeste Holm, a case of considerable acting depths matched to an effortless light touch.