Sunday, 15 July 2012

“We live by encouragement and die without it - slowly, sadly and angrily.”

Celeste Holm: April 29, 1937 – July, 15, 2012
Most of you would have heard by now the news that 95 year old actress Celeste Holm had died. I imagine that several high profiled obituaries should be forthcoming because with her three Oscar nominated turns (two in the forties, one in the fifties) Holm’s status has a classic performer has been established. And, yet, Holm’s own presence in the world of the cinema has not been particularly extensive. For example, the majority of her work on the screen was in supporting roles. Two of the only (?) lead roles I recall her in are in two oft-forgotten and not particularly essential older films Champagne for Caesar and Chicken Every Sunday (she's charming in the former in a fair but unexceptional comedy, and fine but somewhat miscast in the more sedate latter). And, as if to mirror her own contribution to film Holm’s own Oscar career (1947-1950) occurred completely in the supporting category.

When I heard that she’d died I, in fact, thought immediately of the Patron Saint of Supporting Actresses StinkyLulu. Holm’s Oscar career makes for one of my favourite incidental Oscar titbits. Nominated in 1947 (and winning) for Gentleman’s Agreement, then nominated in 1949 for Come to the Stable and 1950 for All About Eve) holds the distinction for being the only performer to be nominated with a fellow nominee from her film in each of her multiple Oscar bids. (Granted, her second nomination for  
Come to the Stable is one early example of potential category fraud, but who on earth could revile a face like this?)

I was first “introduced” to Celeste via her uncredited voiceover work in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives which I saw immediately before Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, and I remember the satisfaction I felt after investigating after to verify whether the voice of the man-stealing Addie Ross from the former really was the lovely Karen Richards from the latter. And, I do have an improbable appreciation for Holm in All About Eve, a performance with a significant lack of ostensible bite considering her relative power and surroundings, but one which I find to be as excellent as her those of more oft-remembered co-stars.

Even as a fan I’d admit that her Karen Richards is just the slightest bit more delicate than someone who bumps shoulders with the likes of Margo Channing would be, but I find her performance in All About Eve to be such an interesting point in her filmography mostly because the thing I most associate – her voice – is not what makes the performance works most effectively. It’s like fadeout during the prologue which takes us back the meat of the film – Holm’s facial expressions are essentially what make Karen work so well for me, a burst of almost comedic air to the serious machinations of the company. Even in her most serious films (her Oscar winning turn in Gentleman's Agreement) there was this strident burst of happiness which she seemed to exude, so that I would find myself smiling for no reason.

And, it’s a shame after the one-two-three Oscar punch she opted for more stage work than film (and television later in her career). And, I’m sure, much of the sadness I feel in relation to news of her death comes from the overwhelming sense of loss felt as so many legends of the era pass.

As for her legacy, neither of her two final films (Driving Me Crazy (2012) or College Debts (2012) might add new dimensions to her legend, but that legend is no danger of being forgotten.

I, for one, am still guilty of mimicking Karen’s giddy laughter in that restaurant scene.
- “What’s wrong?”
- “Nothing. Everything. Everything is so funny!”

RIP Celeste. It might not be funny, but we'll keep on laughing.

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