Celeste Holm wasn’t afraid to speak her mind
Celeste Holm, who died Sunday in Manhattan at the age of 95, created the role of the sassy Ado Annie — “I Cain’t Say No” — in the original 1943 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s seminal musical “Oklahoma!”
Holm also won the supporting actress Oscar for 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” for her role as the lonely and sympathetic secretary.
In person, she was someone who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
Warm and gracious, she had been in the business for 60 years when I interviewed her in 1997. At the time, Holm was appearing in “Promised Land,” a spinoff of “Touched by an Angel” in which she played Gerald McRaney’s mother.
She took no prisoners when it came to her views on the business. Asked about the current state of Hollywood, she replied:
“I think we seem to be in the middle of a suicide on the part of the motion picture industry. I don’t think the motion picture people realize the influence they have and they are making such nonsense!”
Holm said she never wanted to be a star. But British actress Flora Robson, who is best known for her role as Queen Elizabeth in 1940’s “The Sea Hawk,” told her she had “star” quality when they did a play in the early 1940s on Broadway.
“She was a lovely lady,” said Holm. “Every night I would run downstairs and talk to her before she went on stage. She suddenly said one night, ‘You are going to be a star.’ I said, ‘How come?’ She said, ‘You are going to get a show in which the show is going to be great and you will be a star.’ I said, ‘How can I avoid that?”’
Not long after Robson’s prediction, Holm landed the role of Ado Annie. After her turns in “Oklahoma!” and the musical “Bloomer Girl,” she was signed by 20th Century Fox, where she made her film debut in “Three Little Girls in Blue.”
Holm called it “one of the silliest movies in the world, but a sweet score and fun.”
She said no one remembered her next film, “Carnival in Costa Rica.” She caustically described the producer as a self-proclaimed genius, even going to the point of wearing his hair like Albert Einstein.
Then came “Gentleman’s Agreement,” directed by Elia Kazan, that won the best picture Oscar and earned Holm her own statuette.
But getting the part was a challenge. Studio head Darryl Zanuck thought of her as a musical-comedy star and “Agreement” was a heavy drama dealing with anti-Semitism.
“So they made me do the big emotional scene first as a test,” Holm recalled. “I didn’t know it was a test.”
Perhaps the funniest story she told during the interview was her encounter with Leslie Howard — best known as Ashley Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind” — who was a notorious womanizer. It was 1936 and Holm was playing a lady-in-waiting and an understudy to Ophelia in Howard’s touring production of “Hamlet” in Chicago.
“I was wearing a gorgeous scarlet dress with a gold wimple and a train. After my scene, I immediately exited to the first wing. I could see the show from there.”
Howard entered the wing. “He took one look at me and before I could say anything, he took me in his arms and kissed me as beautifully as I had ever been kissed before or since. I was totally unprepared. I had only met him the night before.”
The problem was that Howard was nearsighted. And as soon as he kissed her he realized he had kissed the wrong girl.
Holm went to her dressing room. “One of the actresses I was working with said, ‘What happened to you? You look like you have seen a ghost.’”
She told the actress what had happened. The actress started to laugh. “She said, ‘He was having an affair with the girl in New York who wore your dress. He probably forgot where he was.”
Holm began to laugh at the memory. “It does make one realize how interchangeable we all are!”
But Holm wasn’t interchangeable; in fact, she was one in a million.
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