Fresh Air Remembers Actress Celeste Holm

Jul 19, 2012
Originally published on July 19, 2012 11:44 am

Celeste Holm, the actress of stage and screen, passed away of a heart attack on July 15. She was 95 years old.

Made famous on Broadway for her role as Ado Annie in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, Holm earned more fans for her performances in All About Eve (1950), The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956).

For her third film, Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement, she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress; she played a fashion editor who assists a journalist pretending to be Jewish (played by Gregory Peck) in his expose on the realities of American anti-semitism.

Born to Jean Parke, an artist and author, and Theodor Holm, a businessman, Holm attended various schools in Europe and the United States. She graduated from University High School for Girls in Chicago, where she performed in many school stage productions. She studied drama at the University of Chicago before becoming a stage actress in the late 1930s.

Celeste Holm spoke to Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1990; we remember her with an excerpt of that conversation.

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Actress Celeste Holm died Sunday at the age of 95. She was best known for her sporting roles. Although she sometimes played a witty sophisticate, one of the roles she first became known for was in the original production of "Oklahoma," as Ado Annie. One of her most famous films is "All About Eve." It starred Bette Davis as an aging Broadway star whose devoted fan is actually trying to steal her role and her boyfriend. Holm played Davis' smart and loyal best friend who sees what's happening. In "High Society," Holm and Frank Sinatra played journalists covering a society wedding. She won an Oscar for her supporting role in "Gentlemen's Agreement," which starred Gregory Peck.

I spoke with Celeste Holm in 1990 when the Museum of Modern Art was beginning a retrospective of films from the 20th Century Fox studio, including five featuring Holm. Darryl Zanuck was the head of that studio when she was signed. I asked her what Zanuck was like.

CELESTE HOLM: Well, he was short and so he wanted to be tall, and he made very good pictures because of that. But a lot of good things have been done for the wrong reasons. Now every day at the studio...


HOLM: ...they had asked me to come in at 6:30. This is making a picture called "Three Little Girls in Blue." I was the one who read. And they said come in at 6:30. And so I sat there from 6:30 to 5:30, 7:30, something like that, and never worked. I found out later that was called breaking the New York actress's spirit. Now what a dumb thing to do. What they're buying is the New York actress' spirit. You get somebody that's limp or angry what do you got? Nothing.

GROSS: When you were signed, like what's the first thing that happens? Did they send you to publicity right away, so that...

HOLM: Yes.

GROSS: ...that they could get a press release out of you?

HOLM: They sent me to publicity. I met an absolute idiot and he asked me what I had done and where I came from and all this. So I told him. And I told him we had a farm in New Jersey and that my father had built a theater on it for us, a stage. So he wrote that Celeste Holm's father had a theater built on their estate. My lord, it was nothing like that at all. You know, they didn't know, they didn't understand at all. You tell them a fact and then they blew it up into whatever they thought was suitable, so they gave an impression which was totally false.

GROSS: When you were signed to 20th Century Fox how was it decided which movies you'd be in? Would you have to audition for a film? Did they just assign you to a film?

HOLM: Oh no, of course not. No. No. No. They just said this is your next picture.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: And then you'd read it. You'd say oh, this is so silly. And they'd say yeah, well, yes, but this is what we want you to do. So the first picture they talked me into it. They said oh, it will be wonderful. You'll be fine. And I was. I got very good notices, you know, Times said I was a wow and all that sort of thing. So then they were very anxious to put me in another thing. They put me in "Carnival in Costa Rica," which was silly.


HOLM: Dumb. They never took us to Costa Rica. We hadn't any idea what Costa Rica was like. The whole thing you found were processed shots with trees with coffee beans on them. So we had no sense of reality about any of it. Oh. But then came. "Gentlemen's Agreement" and I was rescued. And then, of course, I could never get back into a musical.


GROSS: So was there an understanding that if you objected, strenuously, to a movie that you were assigned to that you would be punished?

HOLM: Oh sure. We went on suspension. I was on suspension a lot.

GROSS: Oh really? Like for what?

HOLM: Oh yes.

GROSS: What would they put you on suspension for?

HOLM: For turning down a picture.

GROSS: And what did that mean when you were on suspension?

HOLM: You didn't get paid.


HOLM: And when "Gentlemen's Agreement" came along, they would let me have that picture unless I agree to - see I made the mistake of making very clear that I was dying to do it so then they made me sign a term contract.


GROSS: Let me ask you about one of the most celebrated movies that you've been in and that's "All About Eve." Did you realize by looking at the script what a terrific movie this is going to be?

HOLM: You bet. Sure. Oh, I knew that would be a wonderful picture.

GROSS: I'd like to play a short clip from a scene in "All About Eve." This is the kind of culmination of the scene that starts with Bette Davis saying, fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

HOLM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So the party is coming to a close.

HOLM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Bette Davis is really drunk and getting...

HOLM: Very drunk.

GROSS: ...getting very bitter because you could tell Eve is really out to get her roles and out to get her man.

HOLM: No, no. She doesn't know Eve is out to get her roles yet. She doesn't know. She wasn't understudy yet. She was just secretary. But she knew that she felt threatened in relation to her man.

GROSS: So the party is...

HOLM: At that point.

GROSS: The party's wrapping up. People are kind of getting ready to go home. Bette Davis is really drunk, and here's the scene.


HUGH MARLOWE: (as Lloyd) How about calling it a night?

BETTE DAVIS: (as Margo) And you pose as a playwright. A situation pregnant with possibilities, and all you can think of is everybody go to sleep.

MARLOWE: (as Lloyd) It's a good thought.

DAVIS: (as Margo) It won't play.

HOLM: (as Karen) As a non-professional, I think it's an excellent idea. Excuse me. Un-dramatic, perhaps, but practical.

DAVIS: (as Margo) Happy little housewife.

MARLOWE: (as Lloyd) Cut it out.

DAVIS: (as Margo) This is my house, not a theater. In my house, you're a guest, not a director.

HOLM: (as Karen) Then stop being a star, and stop treating your guests as your supporting cast.

MARLOWE: (as Lloyd) Now, let's not get into a big hassle.

HOLM: (as Karen) It's about time we did. It's about time Margo realized that's what attractive onstage need not necessarily be attractive off.

DAVIS: (as Margo) All right. I'm going to bed.

HOLM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did you have any conversations with Bette Davis like that off the set?


HOLM: No. We had no conversations at all.

GROSS: You weren't even on speaking terms?

HOLM: I had nothing to say to her.

GROSS: Why not? What was she like to work with?

HOLM: Excellent. She was fine to work with, but there was no small talk.

GROSS: You mean she allowed no small talk?

HOLM: Well, she had nothing to say to anybody, and so consequently, nobody had anything to say to her.

GROSS: Let me quote something that she said - and this is in the 1970s, when she got an AFI, an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award. And at the...

HOLM: Mm-hmm. I was there.

GROSS: OK. At the party after the banquet, she said Joseph Mankiewicz did give me a second career, but he was slightly in error describing the wonderful cast of "Eve." They were wonderful, but there was one bitch: Celeste Holm. Why do you think she said that about you?

HOLM: Because I had no patience with her. First day I walked onto the set, I said: Good morning. And she said: Oh, (beep) good manners.


HOLM: So I thought, well, this is a waste of time. So I had nothing to say to her. So then at one point she got - she suddenly lost her temper, and her mother was visiting the set, and she had never talked this way before. She did this in front of her mother. She used four letter words in combination I've never even heard a sailor use.

And I said: I'm going back to my trailer, and when Ms. Davis gets herself together, call me. And then when we were playing in the - in 21, we were all sitting there together. And so I came back from having talked to Eve in the ladies room.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: And Anne and I were very good friends. I mean, I loved everybody in the cast except Bette, because she wouldn't let you love her. So I - we were all sitting there, and I said: Did you know that the man who made the wonderful glass teapot, Pyrex, when he found out they were using it to make martinis, he stopped making them?

And Bette drank more than she should, I thought. And so she looked at me and she said: I don't know how I've lived this long without knowing that.


HOLM: So I don't know who was the bitch.

GROSS: Did this kind of tension between you two get translated into your acting?


GROSS: Into the scenes that you played together?

HOLM: I don't think it did. I thought we were both very good together. Everybody said you must be really very good friends. I said no, not really. By the way, I have never had any difficulty with any other actress...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: any other show, ever.

GROSS: Well, Marilyn Monroe had one of her first roles in "All About Eve." And...

HOLM: I got to be a very good friend of hers.

GROSS: What were your first impressions of her when she came onto the set?

HOLM: I thought she was a sweet, dumb little girl.

GROSS: Was that impression after you'd worked with her more?

HOLM: Yes, because she wasn't terribly good in that. She got awfully good after she worked with the Actors Studio and so forth. I thought she was absolutely marvelous in "Bus Stop." Marvelous.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now, you worked with Joseph Mankiewicz. You know, he wrote, directed "All About Eve." You'd work in other of his films, as well.

HOLM: "A Letter to Three Wives."

GROSS: Yeah. What kind of director...

HOLM: Wonderful man.

GROSS: Well, tell me...

HOLM: Wonderful.

GROSS: Tell me what his directing was like, especially when he was directing his own lines. And his writing was so good. There was so much clever dialogue.

HOLM: Very bright, yes. But it was more than dialogue. It was that the characters of the people were interesting.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: They were individuals. And that's what good writing is about. And nobody seems to know that now. Most writing is just somehow get it onto paper, and if all the lights are left on, well, let's print it. It's very sad. It's not good enough.

GROSS: So what was his way of directing you? Did he have...

HOLM: No, he didn't have any particular - he just saw to it that we didn't bump into each other or the furniture. Most of us were pretty good actors, you know, so he left us pretty much alone.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1990 interview with Celeste Holm. She died Sunday at the age of 95. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our 1990 interview with Celeste Holm. She died Sunday at the age of 95. She costarred in the original production of "Oklahoma!" and in the films "All About Eve," "High Society," "Come to the Stable" and "Gentleman's Agreement."

You were directed by Elia Kazan in "Gentleman's Agreement."

HOLM: Yes, indeed.

GROSS: What was he like as a director?

HOLM: He's a very interesting director. He's a secretive director. For instance, if he has a piece of direction for you, he'll whisper it in your ear so the other actors don't hear what it is. Then he whispers in their ears. And then you do the scene again, and you try to figure out what he said to them by what they do.


HOLM: And they try to figure out what he said to you. It's very interesting and very truthful, because all good actors have secrets. All interesting people have secrets, which is why you wanted to get to know them better.

GROSS: What's one of the secrets he whispered in your ear?

HOLM: You cannot stand that girl. I want to see it very quickly, and then cover it.

GROSS: And why wouldn't he have wanted the actress that you were...

HOLM: Oh, he didn't want...

GROSS: ...playing against to know that?

HOLM: ...her to hear that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Why not?

HOLM: Well, because your relationship to somebody is your own relationship. He didn't want it to be an inimical one. He did not want a confrontational thing at all. He just wanted that subtle business, where one woman looks at another and doesn't much like her, you know.

GROSS: What was the reputation of the different studios among actors?

HOLM: Well, I found out later I probably would have done a great deal better at Metro. I always loved working at Metro. "High Society" we did at Metro.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: "Tender Trap" I did at Metro.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: And they were both delicious pictures, delightful - and a much more human studio. I don't think Zanuck liked actors. I know he didn't like women. He liked girls. They would say yes, whatever you say. But if you, you know, you said wait a minute, I'm not sure that's going to work, well, he didn't want to hear that.

GROSS: So in what way was MGM more human? I mean, you said you really liked them.

HOLM: Well, it was just more fun.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: They seemed to realize that humor - I've always had a sense of responsibility about keeping a set alive and happy, because that's what photographs. You know, we're the only industry - outside of musicians - whose work is referred to as playing, and it has to be playing. We have to really play together. And that's what the audience responds to.

If it's work, it's not - you don't want to watch. And that kind of pleasure, that kind of balloon, that kind of bubble in the air is what makes all good comedy. And it's what the audience really enjoys.

GROSS: Since we brought up "High Society," let me ask you about making that movie.

HOLM: Right.

GROSS: And as you pointed out, it's an MGM movie made in 1956. Now, you played opposite Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in this.

HOLM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What was it like to work with Sinatra? You also worked with him in the "Tender Trap."

HOLM: Mm-hmm. Well, I've always gotten along well with children.


HOLM: And Frank's charm is that he's like a child. He wants everything his way, and he wants it now. And he sings beautifully. And as long as all of those things are functioning, why, he's just a pleasure.

GROSS: And if they're not?

HOLM: Hmm?

GROSS: And if they're not functioning?

HOLM: Well, then he sometimes walks off the set.

GROSS: Did that happen a lot during "High Society"?

HOLM: No. No. It happened once in "Tender Trap."

GROSS: What did he walk out over?

HOLM: Astonished us all, just astonished us. Couldn't believe it. You know, he'd just suddenly say, well, I don't want to shoot anymore today.


HOLM: Of course, he was also delicious in it. He was absolutely wonderful in it.

GROSS: Were you sorry when the film studios broke up?

HOLM: Yes. I was very dismayed and disheartened by that, because, you see, the most important thing about freedom is responsibility. If you don't have a sense of responsibility about what you do, it's not very good, as a rule. And the studios had all those theaters to fill, so they had a sense of responsibility to those theaters.

And the minute those theaters were gone, they didn't have that, and pictures were not as good after that. Then they no longer had all those people under talent - under contract, which they had to protect. You know, the industry was really very changed by that.

GROSS: Celeste Holm, recorded in 1990. She died Sunday at the age of 95. Here she is with Frank Sinatra from the soundtrack of "High Society."


FRANK SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants to be a millionaire?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Have flashy flunkeys everywhere?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants the bother of a country estate?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) A country estate is something I'd hate.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants to wallow in champagne?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants a supersonic plane?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants a private landing field?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) And I don't.

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) Because all I want is you.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website: Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.