Celeste Holm dies at 95; actress won Oscar for role in ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’
By Adam Bernstein,
Celeste Holm, a musical comedy star who also showed a flair for dramatic work and won an Academy Award for her sympathetic role in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Elia Kazan’s landmark 1947 film exploring anti-Semitism, died July 15 at her home in New York City. She was 95.
Her death was confirmed by a great-niece, Amy Phillips, who said Ms. Holm had suffered in recent weeks from dehydration. Her illness did not appear to be related to a fire that broke out in her apartment building last month, Phillips said.
Ms. Holm came to wide attention in 1943 as the lusty Ado Annie Carnes in the original 1943 Broadway staging of “Oklahoma!” She sang the show-stopping number “I Cain't Say No,” which led critic Burton Rascoe to write at the time that she “simply tucks the show under her arm and lets the others touch it.”
She almost did not get the part, having auditioned for composer Richard Rodgers by singing Franz Schubert’s “Who Is Sylvia?” Rodgers said he wanted a little less polish, so she did a hog call — “Soooieeeeeeeeeeesoooie” — and won the role.
Ms. Holm was summoned to Hollywood in 1946 as a musical comedy performer and landed roles in “Carnival in Costa Rica” and “Three Little Girls in Blue,” films that did not sustain her interest.
She had a hard time persuading Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, to let her play in “Gentleman’s Agreement” until screenwriter Moss Hart came to her defense.
Within a four-year period, she received three supporting Oscar nominations, including her win, for “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “Come to the Stable” (1949) and “All About Eve” (1950).
In “Gentleman’s Agreement,” she was the glamorous but long-suffering fashion editor with a yen for the investigative reporter played by Gregory Peck. The film was one of the first major pictures to expose anti-Semitism in everyday society and won Oscars for best picture and best director.
“Come to the Stable” featured Ms. Holm and Loretta Young as French nuns visiting America to raise funds for a children’s hospital.
“All About Eve,” a highly literate drama about ambition, featured Ms. Holm as the sincere best friend of an aging actress played by Bette Davis. The film won best picture and director Oscars.
The director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, previously worked with Ms. Holm on “A Letter to Three Wives” (1949), in which she did a silky voice-over narration as an adulteress.
She also was an insane asylum inmate in “The Snake Pit” (1948) and a seductress named Flame O’Neill in the comedy “Champagne for Caesar” (1950) with Ronald Colman.
Ms. Holm often described a tense relationship with Zanuck, who was displeased with her choosiness in film roles. “When I won the Academy Award, he was furious,” she told the Associated Press in 1997. “He felt threatened. He thought I was going to get difficult. Not at all. It never occurred to me.”
Her rows with Zanuck earned her unflattering comparisons in Hollywood to the independent-minded Davis. MGM, fearing similar troubles with Ms. Holm, almost didn’t cast her in such mid-1950s musicals as “The Tender Trap” and “High Society” until co-star Frank Sinatra intervened.
Sinatra knew that Ms. Holm’s reputation for quality work elevated those around her, film historian Jeanine Basinger said.
“She’s the classic example of a Broadway actress who, when she did do film, her impact was huge,” Basinger said.
Ms. Holm appeared in a few more films and television shows, including the movie musical “Tom Sawyer” (1973) as Aunt Polly.
Celeste Holm was born in New York on April 29, 1917, to an insurance executive and a portrait painter. As a toddler, she saw the legendary Russian dancer Anna Pavlova and was smitten.
“When you’re two and a half, everything is stumbling and tripping and there she was, being tossed in midair, caught, no mistakes, no falls,” she told a reporter in 1991. “She never knew what an impression she made.”
A few months after the Pavlova concert, she was at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York and began dancing to the music of the hotel pianist. She was startled when she heard people applaud, and ran under the piano. Her mother assured her that clapping meant approval.
After ballet and voice training, she worked in summer stock and received a significant part on Broadway in “The Time of Your Life” (1939), William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.
She left the long-running “Oklahoma!” to star in “Bloomer Girl” (1944), a hit musical by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg about an undergarment craze.
Despite her critical success in Hollywood, she asked for a release from her studio contract in 1950 to return to Broadway. In a space of a few years, she played a contemporary Washingtonian in Louis Verneuil’s comedy “Affairs of State”; Anna, an English governess, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I”; and the title tramp in Eugene O'Neill’s “Anna Christie.”
She often appeared opposite her fourth husband, the actor Wesley Addy. They toured together in “Mame” and were in the Broadway revival of “Candida” (1970), she in the title role.
Among her last shows was Paul Rudnick’s comedy “I Hate Hamlet” (1991), in which she played an actor’s chain-smoking agent. The next year, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.
A regular presence on television since the 1950s, Ms. Holm was nominated for an Emmy for her supporting role as first lady Florence Harding in the 1979 NBC miniseries “Backstairs at the White House.”
She donated time and money to causes such as mental health services and arts education. In the 1980s, she served on the National Council on the Arts.
Her marriages to Ralph Nelson, Francis Davies and A. Schuyler Dunning ended in divorce. Addy died in 1996.
In 2004, she married her fifth husband, opera singer Frank Basile. In addition to her husband, survivors include a son from her first marriage, Ted Nelson; a son from her third marriage, Daniel Dunning; and three grandchildren.
In recent years, Ms. Holm’s savings became entangled in a legal battle between her sons and Basile, who is more than four decades her junior. By the end of her life, as she suffered from memory loss, she was reportedly dependent on Social Security and estranged from her children.
When she was in her early 70s, she was asked whether she had considered retiring. “No. What for?” she said. “If people retired, we wouldn’t have had Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud. . . . I think it’s very important to hang on as long as we can.”