"Celeste Holm Syndrome: The Eyes of Sister Scholastica" by David Lazar

David Lazar

David Lazar

David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms from the University of Nebraska Press, Who's Afraid of Helen of Troy, After Montaigne, Occasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in Nonfiction, Essaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviews, and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Nine of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. He is professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. Lazar is founding editor of Hotel Amerika, now in its eighteenth year, and series co-editor of 21st Century Essays at Ohio State University Press.

Celeste Holm Syndrome: The Eyes of Sister Scholastica

Kevork Djansezian (Hollywood couldn’t work with that?) was born in Brooklyn in 1917 and died in Manhattan. She was the original Ado Annie of Oklahoma and a sharp, well-dressed character in All About Eve, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Tender Trap, and High Society, many other films. She is stupidly ignored or thrown over by Gregory Peck, Jack Carson, Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra (sic) in favor of supposedly more glamorous (ha!) and marginally younger women. But who could be more glamorous than Celeste Holm. I have Celeste Holm syndrome: a permanent chip on my shoulder about Hollywood’s sexually undermining interesting “mature” women when their roles called for economic power or independence. In this, I know, I’m not alone, but the male gaze dominating as it does, these films manage to remain in the pantheon despite their abominable gender politics. Here I’m specifically thinking as well of the quartet of Eleanor Parker (Sound of Music), Eve Arden (almost everything), Nina Foch (An American in Paris) and, again, Celeste Holm in the aforementioned films. Because these women were interesting and powerful in their roles, vibrantly sexual, verbally playful, self-aware and forward in their intentions, they end up humiliated, disposed, cast aside for ingenues: Julie Andrews is the choice of the Captain in Sound of Music; Leslie Caron gets spirited away at the end of American in Paris, leaving Nina Foch flat-footed; in My Dream is Yours, Jack Carson melts away from his attachment to Eve Arden into the young Doris Day’s lyrical enticements. And then there’s Celeste Holm, a kind of avatar of urban chic, too together, I suppose, to go to the romantic school in which the men are the teachers, choose who’s in the class, and shut the door, definitively, behind them.

Celeste Holm was thirty for Gentleman’s Agreement, thirty-eight and thirty-nine for The Tender Trap and High Society, respectively.

Eleanor Parker was forty-three in The Sound of Music.

Eve Arden was forty-one in My Dream is Yours.

Nina Foch was, astonishingly, twenty-seven when she filmed An American in Paris—aren’t you surprised? (I was)—twelve years younger than Gene Kelly, the man she is the “older woman” to, the young man she’s “setting up.” She is certainly playing a woman in her late thirties or early forties, though. A woman, as opposed to the gamine girl-ness, the unformedness of Leslie Caron’s barely post-teenager.

That Hollywood wasn’t and hasn’t been hospitable to women is both a painful understatement and lacks nuance. Just saying that Hollywood was a site of degradation can’t begin to speak to the achievements, against odds, of Bette Davis, or Ida Lupino, or Katherine Hepburn. Nevertheless, it, Hollywood, meaning the major studios and production companies controlled by men from the second decade of and throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, have been models and molders of patriarchal treatment and representations of women. And I have always linked these four women, in my mind, to a very specific kind of degradation, the kind that speaks to the atrophied and damaging desires of men for younger women, pliant women, women who are teachable, educable, and whose power wasn’t commensurate, or even threatening.

I want to speak to this group of women and their humiliations in these films, which I’ve always suffered from personally, always cathected to, and what they offered, and not Gene Kelly, Sinatra, etc. The one twinge I have is Jack Carson, whose genial desperation and general confusion, his character actor traits of self-defeat making him less despicable than the leading man who tossed these women over so stupidly. But first I want to speak to my leading actress in this essay, Celeste Holm, and why, for me, she has top billing as a character actress.

She is not a character actress in quite the same way as Eve Arden, bringing a persona from role to role (in Arden’s case, the jaunty but caring amanuensis who can deliver a line with asperity, frequently at her own expense). She does, bring a kind of fractured persona to some of her roles, not dissimilar from Eve Arden’s qualities: urban, independent, wise-cracking. But Holm also disappears into different kind of roles on occasion, as in her Oscar-nominated role as Sister Scholastica in Come to the Stable, where she plays a theological sidekick (a character actor specialty) to Loretta Young. I love watching Holm as Sister Scholastica (almost as much as I like saying “Sister Scholastica”—how about that for the next Marvel hero) just to get lost in the movement of her eyes. The film itself is a rather disposable piece of sentimental post-war kitsch about nuns wanting to build a hospitable for injured children in Connecticut. They’ve come from France with a mission and need to get the deed from a mobster whose son died in action: Holy creaking plot lines, Batman! And here I must admit a terminal objection to Loretta Young. Forever not Loretta Young for me. I find her straightforward sincerity medicinal. And I don’t watch movies to be cured of anything, other than melancholy and cinema-deprivation. Loretta Young is not the medicine for my melancholy—she makes me want to go to an anarchist convention. I can’t stand that much concentrated self-satisfaction.

And here, in homage to the eyes of Celeste Holm, I must digress to (do we digress to, or from—is a digression losing a trail, or finding one?), a story, told by Stephen Sondheim, paraphrased. Ethel Merman was on the Loretta Young tv show in the late fifties and kept cursing during rehearsals, as was her wont. Young, strict of conventional morality, had a curse jar, to keep all in line as good mouthwashed children. How she managed this in Hollywood is a mystery. But Merman slipped, and Young said, Miss Merman, please put fifty cents in the jar. Merman later said, “Shit, I forgot my line.” Young: “Please, Miss Merman, my rules.” Another payment to the jar. A third infraction, Merman saying, “Damn it, missed my spot.” She could see Young walking towards her and cut her off, saying, “Here’s five bucks, Loretta, and go fuck yourself.” I love that story.

Come to the Stable was written by Claire Boothe Luce, such a complex American woman, in her transitional period. She had written The Women, one of the early feminist works of American theatre, campaigned for suffrage, campaigned for Roosevelt. After her daughter was killed in a car accident in 1944, she converted to Roman Catholicism, became increasingly conservative. She wrote Come to the Stable in 1946, filmed in 1949. The purity of the nuns, and the relative humorlessness of the script, the atmosphere of post-war exhaustion and the forced miracles and epiphanies are unconvincing, to say the least. Loretta Young is like a bulldozer, all certainty and stolidity.

But Celeste Holm, by her side, younger, somewhat bewildered, looks at everything as though it had just come to life, as though attention were the quality that the weary world needed most. It is a quality she brings to all her roles-- despite being known for how well she snaps a line. Henry Koster, the mid-list director of Come to the Stable, keeps her in the background. But had the film been shot by Rosselinni, he would have shot her face in half white, half shadowed light, to bring out her extraordinarily asymmetric beauty.

Celeste Hom’s face: it captures me. I have Celeste Holm syndrome. I can’t think straight when I look at her. She’s too interesting, too sympathetic, but not too sympathetic. If that makes sense. Her eyes are large, pale blue we see in the color films, but more perceptive than anything, and they seem to exist in an impossible distance from her long, elegant neck. Her nose is aquiline with a slight turn down, giving an impression of a slightly pretty birdliness in some images, especially from an angle. Photographed straight on, she can radiate a sudden wild symmetry because smiling she becomes a bit toothy, a large smile. Her smile twists, her mouth is expressive, so we follow the nuances of her voice, her instrument, as she uses it, plays it, to return to the eyes for the register of what she herself has just said.

In Tender Trap we first see Celeste Holm playing the violin in an orchestra, and her voice is a bit like a string instrument. It has range, great melody, but can also crack and perform dissonances when it has to. Celeste Holm has one of the most playful voices of Hollywood actresses, and the range of voice is much of the range of persona, part of what establishes and stretches our sense of character, in film and with each other. Think of the distinct voices you know, the way their warmth or quirkiness, or their icy trebling of self brings them to sudden distillation—a sudden frisson of memories accompanies the sounds of their voice. We think of the legendary quality of cinema’s classic visages, Bogart’s asymmetry, his rough beauty, Joan Crawford’s full lips and dark eyes, the way she flashes a kind of unknowable depth and wildness in her face. But voice is just as important—Barbara Stanwyck’s quirky disguise of her Brooklyn accent into something like East Coast with aspirations, the Bogart lisp, the earnestness inherent in Gregory Peck’s deep bass, Robert Ryan’s snaky breathiness, voice cracking (has any actor used breath better?). For character actors, much of the character is in voice: Edward Everett Horton’s comic strip upper class New York (though he, too, was born in Brooklyn), Thelma Ritter’s working class Brooklyn accent, always seemingly on the verge of impatience in its edginess (I seem to be stuck on New York here), or Eric Blore—whose English accent is almost always surreally inflated, extended, so that vowels become epic things, cartoon arias.

I think I’m especially sensitive to the lingering effects of voice, because I’ve been haunted for so many years at the slowly disappearing memory of my mother’s voice. My mother died almost forty years ago, in my very early twenties. This was way before the digital age, and no tape recordings or films with sound exist with her voice inscribed. The inscription of her voice in my memory is a tenuous affair—at times I think I remember it, at other times it’s a aural flicker, something heard in a dream, or from two rooms away, almost-heard. She, incidentally, had a Brooklyn accent, which was always a curiosity, since she was born in rural New Jersey, only moving to the Midwood section of Brooklyn in her teens. Go figure.

But it is perhaps because of her that I listen so closely to voices, and perhaps that I take such special pleasure in the voices whose register register with me. Such is the case with Celeste Holm’s. Listen to her revive her show stopping number from the original production of Oklahoma; she was the original Ado Annie, and her “I Can’t Say No,” is definitive, full of sly restraint, perfect for a song about the limits of restraint. She sings it years later on Ed Sullivan—you can see the kinescope on YouTube—but it seems like little has been lost in the twelve years between her original performance in 1943 and the TV version of ’55. Holm’s voice, unlike Gloria Grahame’s exaggerated sexpot version in the film, is full of half-knowing reservations, uncertainty that taboo and desire are reconcilable, until, her eyes coming alive, she seems to convince herself that they are, and the generic hayseed accent she sings with, softened by her native and suppressed sophistication, gets warmer and more confident: she can’t say no, but that’s ok with her, and just fine with us—she sings half a lament and half a seduction, of us.

Listen to Holm say to David Wayne, in The Tender Trap, “The night is young, we’re middle-aged. Anything could happen.” Yes, the writing is tart, but Holm delivers it with a blend of gentle, self-aware self-mockery that is anything but bathetic; it’s actually a calibration of absurdity and possibility, fluted through her mezzo delivery with something like upbeat rue. That’s a complex instrument, the voice just breaking like a small wave.

In All About Eve, one of Holm’s most well-known roles, as Karen Richards, best friend to Bette Davis’s Margo Channing, Holm serves as a kind of agent provocateur, setting the plot in motion (“Nothing you’ve ever done has made me as happy as taking Eve in” she tells Margo, after Karen introduces the serpent into the garden of their friendship; in a misguided attempt to “correct” Margo’s inflated ego and give the ingenue actor, Eve, a break, as Margo’s understudy. And it is Celeste Holm who serves the volley, delivered in perfect friction between understanding and exhaustion—the continuum of a friendship pushed to its limits—asking Bette Davis’s Margo, “Is it over or just beginning, in response to her building frustration and fury. Davis’s response is, of course, one of the great delivered lines of cinema: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” It’s easy to forget in the white hot greatness of the Davis riposte, how good the set-up is, and why Holm is so right as the tolerant foil for her—her voice the tonic to Davis’s gin, her face the unembittered Modigliani contrast to Better Davis’s weathered cusp of beauty.

The Celeste Holm performance that most captivates me and infuriates me is her Ann Dettrey in Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947, written by Moss Hart based on Laura Z. Hobson’s postwar novel about antisemitism. Holm plays the fashion editor at the magazine where Gregory Peck, as Phil Green, is masquerading as a Jew to write his expose. And here I have to say that while few actresses seemed as permanently stylish as Holm (her clothes always seemed tailored perfectly—she defined the handsome woman, and I mean that as a high compliment) no one ever looked better in a hat. Perhaps it was because of the slight asymmetry of her face, her tendency to wear them at a slight, jaunty angle, but hats and Holmes were made for each other. “Does anyone still wear a hat?” Elaine Stritch famously sang in the original incarnation of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Celeste Holm is hatted for eternity. “We’re sophisticated New Yorkers,” she tells Phil Green (Peck) near the beginning of Gentleman’s Agreement, and she looks it.

But it’s a muted sophistication that Holm brings across, a wry sophistication, at times self-mocking. She’s been around, taken the measure of things, of herself. She’s proportionate and has a sense of proportion. Perhaps it’s this quality of self, of strength, among the women I mention earlier, that makes them such targets for the rejecting scenario of cinematic narratives. Because these women project assurance, age plus wisdom plus sexual power, they have to be crippled by a film’s assertion that they aren’t preferred by their male protagonists, by Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck. These mid-century male stars need ingenues, ingenuousness embodied in youth, not the company of ripe companionship.

Nina Foch, Celeste Holm, Eleanor Parker, Eve Arden. Here I have to digress to talk briefly about why each, sharing some of the qualities of Celeste Holm, is ill-treated by the dull-witted men and masculinist frames of their films, and how this has ruined each of the lauded films in question for me.

In American in Paris Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan) plays, of all things, an aspiring painter. It just doesn’t work. He’s too jumpy, too insouciant in his remarks about art. Thank goodness for Oscar Levant, constantly rendering the film watchable by undercutting the postwar peppy American self-congratulatory mayhem with sardonic asides. But Kelly wants to paint (his paintings in the film are exceptionally ordinary post-impressionist images) and he does have one advocate: Milo Roberts, played by Nina Foch, an “older” woman who takes an interest in Kelly (she was twelve years younger), clearly enamored of him. Surreal age disparities are nothing novel in Hollywood films. Jessie Royce Landis played Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest despite being eight years older than him. James Stewart at fifty-four played a young recent law school graduate courting the thirty-three year old Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The list is endless. But Nina Fochs’s older heiress who “sets up” Gene Kelly, giving him a room of his own to paint in, enabling his career and clearly loving him, implicitly (it’s 1951 and MGM) sleeping with him in premonitory shades of, a decade later, Patricia Neal (who might be included in our pantheon, as well) and George Peppard’s arrangement, is clearly a strange age inversion. Because she pursues Kelly, in other words displays sexual agency, it seems, in the emotional logic of the film, she must be betrayed and rejected. She’s beautiful, realistic, supportive. Oh, and wealthy: another form of agency—economic. In the cultural milieu of 1951, these aren’t recommendations. The gamine Lesley Caron, reasonably unformed, girlish, dependent, is the natural choice for Kelly once Foch enables him to create a facsimile of an ego. If it weren’t for Vincente Minnelli’s wildly bold choreography of costume and color in scene, and a few of the dances (and Oscar, Oscar Levant!) I could hardly bear to watch The Sacrificial Desecration of Nina Foch. She’s used, ditched. What is presented as the romantic end of the long impressionist ballet, culminating in the getaway (forget the marriage of convenience between Leslie Caron and Georges Guetary, the man who saved her during the war) is a poem of ingratitude—leave those who save you, those who nuture you, for the abstract dance of love. If they happen to be women who are, by all appearances to us, the cinematic audience, remarkable, beautiful and, well, “mature,” well, all is fair in love after war. Just ask Milo Roberts.

I assume not everyone is as bothered as I am that the Baron von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) leaves his magnificently wealthy Austrian socialite fiancée, Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker) for his children’s young nanny, played by the irresistible Julie Andrews. Parker was forty-three when the film was made, and ravishing. Her hair, like two blonde vortices on either side of her head, expectant and vulnerable blue eyes . . . and dressed throughout to show off her slimness, in clothes that are tailored, meaning tight, in lamé and twill fabrics whose frictions all but call out their cost, their essence of taste, the highbrow, Eleanor Parker projects a raw sexual desire, for the Baron, the Baroness wanting her Baron. The sexual tension between Plummer and Parker is strong, the kind that eviscerates anyone else around: children, nannies. But Plummer also has sexual chemistry with Julie Andrews, Fraulein Maria, and she is poor, and young and virginal. Her desires are subservient to her role as mother in training.

I’ve always loved Parker in The Sound of Music because she defines a kind of midcentury decadent elegance, and her presentation of the Baroness seems, for the most part, a study in honest decadence, which appeals to me. She knows herself, which always appeals to me, even if I sometimes succumb to a slight queasiness at her voraciousness. Robert Wise allows her, through much of the film, to act as a foil, a friction in our sense of female possibilities—lopsided distaff powers. This is no virgin/whore binary, it’s a virgin/sexually hungry middle aged woman binary, with the film tilting towards the virgin. But it has to win its contest, uneasy as Ernest Lehman, the great screenwriter, or more likely Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse who wrote the original book (they did write Life with Father) is about the matchup, by playing dirty. Julie Andrews has abundant charms, but we are meant to be swayed against Eleanor Parker because 1) she doesn’t like children, which shows because she plays ball with them in high heels, like a dimwit, and in a creaky expositional plot move, tells the Baron’s friend Max Detweiler (Richard Haydn) that she’s going to ship the children off to boarding school. It’s bad mother syndrome, in antecessum.

But really, I always feel that Eleanor Parker’s love is a mature, hot-burning love. Like Nina Foch in American in Paris, she’s got money, desire she knows how to express, and a dead husband. But the men see through these ghosted women to the young virgins waiting beyond them. I don’t like it. It feels violent, and punishing. Eleanor Parker, who is reprieved in her sendoff, apparently chastened by rejection, looks to me in the end like a sacrifice to the Virgin Maria. But even as she’s thrown over, bathed in Robert Wise’s purifying soft and gauzy light, tarred with our the attempted distraction of our gaze by the moral damnation attached to her wealthly step-parental scheming, I can’t help responding to the virtue of her intensity, since, after all, she loves deeply, unabashedly, and no one ever wore a skin tight dress while addressing love’s impossibility from the desperation in her eyes, with a more alluring combination.

And here I return to the sine qua non of the brilliantly jilted, and the subject of my essay: Celeste Holm, Holm as Ann Dettrey in Gentleman’s Agreement.

For those of you who don’t remember Kazan’s film, Holm, as stylish as ever playing a New York fashion editor, decidedly single, is singular as a non-prejudiced attendant to Gregory Peck’s Phil Green masquerade as Jew to expose anti-semitism for the magazine they both work for. Peck is smitten with Dorothy McGuire’s Kathy Lacy, who scene after scene demonstrates her clueless Westchester well-intentioned class bias, anti-semitism, and general dopeyness. While McGuire is having to say things like “heck, I didn’t know asking someone not to mention they were Jewish was anti-semitic” (a paraphrase) the sharp witted and sharply dressed Holm, spending time with Peck’s Jewish buddy (he’s not named Buddy in the film, he’s named Dave!) is cracking lines like, “Every man who seems attractive is either married or barred on a technicality” or “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most brilliant of them all. That mirror ain’t no gentleman.” Celeste Holm’s delivery is Eve Ardenish: sharp and rueful, but a bit softer. Just as songwriters loved writing for Fred Astaire because he could syncopate their melodies and articulate their lyrics so well, screenwriters (Ben Hecht, Moss Hart, Herman Mankiewicz) loved writing lines for Celeste Holm because her delivery was so precise, their sentences were, well, syncopated by her.

Watching this fill there is a subtle sense of inevitability, unlike American in Paris, where the Minnelli and Kelly and Alan Jay Lerner have their strength of their bad conviction throughout the film that of course Kelly is going to dump the lovely Nina Foch for Leslie Caron. The opposite seems true when you watch Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement. You think, of course Gregory Peck is going to leave Dorothy McGuire for Celeste Holm. For one thing, she’s Celeste Holm. For another, she’s not anti-semitic and supports his project. For another, she’s wearing those great hats and she’s the fashion editor (I know I said that already). What’s more, she’s completely hit it off with his best friend, played by John Garfield. Holm’s delicate look of despair when Garfield is called a Yid in a nightclub is heartbreaking. So the chance of spending your days with John Garfield and Celeste Holm. Well, the calculus of that is impossible to refute, to refuse, right?

You know the answer to that question. Almost impossibly for 1947, Holm’s fashionable supportiveness, her fastidious self-awareness in character--“Everybody loves Ann,” she says sardonically, the cracked ice of rejection in the general acclaim accompanied by a muted half-laugh—is doomed to meta-rejection, the woman whose character is perennially single must stay single to support the prevailing gender tropes of what becomes of an independent and free-thinking single woman in her thirties. “One little action on one little front,” she says, makes all the difference. Hurray for that, but when Gregory Peck’s Green, responding to her direct attention near the end of Gentleman’s Agreement asks, “Are you proposing, Ann,” it’s the seal of her social doom. She’s too forthcoming, too straight in not letting any bigoted garbage get past her, too overt in her intentions. In short, she’s fully formed, not teachable. Which is the death spiral for all the women, all the characters I’ve been discussing. Who gets the embrace, the nod, the eternal return? Kathy Lacy, of course (the name itself makes me a little sick, dripping as it is of gender-y associations, that double “y,” my double “why?”

Where does this leave us? And what happened to Celeste Holm after her character turns in some of the most canonical films of the fifties? She did some theater and lots of forgettable TV, though I remember, even as a child, my parents lighting up when she appeared: look, it’s Celeste Holm, as though something special had happened, or was about to. This aura is the comet’s tail of the character actor, and perhaps the actor past her prime, prime measured in the terms of highest visibility, or greatest commercial success, not artistic power. Like writers, actors should age well, or interestingly, but it doesn’t always seem possible, especially for women, which is to say we don’t let them or see them. Nevertheless, Ms. Holm lived on at her Central Park apartment, purchased for ten thousand dollars in 1953 with her earnings from All About Eve. At her death in 2012, at the age of ninety-five, it was worth an estimated ten million. Holm had been living there with her third husband, an opera singer. He was forty-one.