Celeste Holm

Celeste Holm

Celeste Holm obituary in “The Guardian” in 2012.

Celeste Holm Who has died aged 95, was the original Ado Annie in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s groundbreaking musical Oklahoma! which opened on Broadway in 1943. In I Cain’t Say No, she sang: “I cain’t be prissy and quaint / I ain’t the type that can faint.” Annie was a none-too-bright farm girl, but Holm was a smart, witty and sophisticated actor, whom everybody seemed to like. Many years later, during the interval of a Broadway show, she came out on stage and made a plea for her mental-health charity. It was done with such sincerity and passion that the audience could not fail to pay up.

On screen, Holm was the first woman to sing the Cole Porter song Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, sharing the delightful duet with Frank Sinatra in High Society (1956). Holm and Sinatra played reporters nosing about the reception room of a mansion and studying the array of ultra-expensive wedding gifts. Despite such high points, her film career was not as illustrious as it should have been. Nevertheless, she won the best supporting actress Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and was nominated in the same category for Come to the Stable (1949) and All About Eve (1950). In a way, Holm, who was attractive without being a glamour puss, seemed slightly above it all: more of an observer than a real participant.

She played key figures on the sidelines in the two films she made for Joseph L Mankiewicz. In A Letter to Three Wives (1949), we only hear her beautifully modulated voice as the brazen Addie Ross, who has written a letter to the eponymous wives, explaining that she has gone off with one of their husbands. In All About Eve, as the stylish wife of a playwright, she co-narrates the picture and also contributes to the downfall of her friend, the ageing Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis).Advertisement

Holm was born in New York. Her father was a Norwegian-born insurance executive and her mother was a portrait artist and author. When she was about three years old, she was taken to see a performance by the dancer Anna Pavlova and decided she wanted to produce “the same effect of rejoicing on an audience”. She studied ballet for 14 years while attending schools in Holland and France, before going on to a drama degree at the University of Chicago.

Holm understudied the role of Ophelia, to Leslie Howard’s Hamlet, on tour in 1937. Two years later, she was on Broadway playing Mary L, the rather sad married woman in the bar in William Saroyan’s Pulitzer prize-winning play The Time of Your Life. It made a star of Gene Kelly as Harry the Hoofer, and launched Holm’s career.

After her triumph in Oklahoma!, Holm went into the stage musical Bloomer Girl (1944), in which she played an abolitionist who gradually falls for a slaveowner. Under contract to 20th Century Fox, she injected a vibrant sense of humour as a visiting Frenchwoman in Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), but was rather wasted in the musical film Carnival in Costa Rica (1947).

Her third movie was Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan’s well-meaning exposé of antisemitism in America. Holm played the chic but lonely fashion writer on investigative journalist Gregory Peck’s magazine. Although she had some of the film’s most pungent lines, and shone as usual, it was hardly an Oscar-winning role.

In Road House (1948), she performed with her customary wit, but had far less to do than Richard Widmark, who was billed below her. She finally got her first starring roles in three films in 1949: as dreamer Dan Dailey’s practical wife in Chicken Every Sunday; as a tennis-playing nun in Come to the Stable, who despite the handicap of her habit, lobs, volleys and smashes her way to victory; and utilising her talent for light comedy in Everybody Does It, as a woman who wants to sing opera but can’t, and whose husband doesn’t but can.

After All About Eve, the dictatorial head of Fox, Darryl F Zanuck, fired Holm because she insisted on a salary increase, and then, according to Holm, “he called the head of every other studio and said he had fired me because I was too difficult to work with”. As a result, MGM turned her down for the role of Gene Kelly’s patron in An American in Paris (1951), since she was “too costly”. The less starry Nina Foch was cast instead, and Holm did not make a film for five years.

In the meantime, she returned to the stage in New York in the title role of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, and temporarily replaced Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I. MGM made amends by casting her in The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society, in both of which her character loves Sinatra, although he is more interested in Debbie Reynolds and Grace Kelly respectively. “I guess I’ll just keep on fiddling until I die or get married, whichever comes first,” she says in The Tender Trap. In the same film, when someone says he thinks he has met her before, she replies: “It’s this face of mine. It’s what everyone’s wearing this season.”

Holm then concentrated on stage, starring in the musical comedy Mame, and appeared on Broadway into her 70s. She made many television movies (playing the Fairy Godmother in a 1965 version of Cinderella) as well as TV series, including Run for Your Life, The Fugitive, The Love Boat, Falcon Crest, Cheers and Promised Land. In 1982, she was in the first episode of the long-running series American Playhouse. She still made the occasional feature film, playing Aunt Polly in a musical version of Tom Sawyer (1973) and Ted Danson’s mother in Three Men and a Baby (1987).

Holm sat on the boards of the New Jersey Film Commission and the Actors’ Fund, and was knighted by the King of Norway in 1979. Her first three marriages – to the director Ralph Nelson, Francis Davies and A Schuyler Dunning – ended in divorce. From 1961 until his death in 1996, she was married to the actor Wesley Addy, with whom she starred in Candida on Broadway in 1970. She married the opera singer Frank Basile, who was half her age, in 2004.

She is survived by Frank and her sons Ted, from her first marriage, and Daniel, from her third.

• Celeste Holm, actor, born 29 April 1917; died 15 July 2012

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *