Feature

Celeste Holm, 1917–201

The city girl who first starred as a rube

Celeste Holm almost didn’t get the role that made her a Broadway star. She auditioned for the part of Ado Annie, in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Oklahoma!, with a formal song by Franz Schubert, prompting Rodgers to ask if she had anything with “a little less polish.” Holm thought for a second before letting out a loud hog call—“Sooooieeeeeeesoooie”—for the startled composer. The role, and stardom, was hers.

Holm was destined for the stage from an early age, said The Washington Post. As a precocious toddler in New York City, she once danced to the music of the hotel pianist at the Waldorf-Astoria. When guests began applauding, she hid under the piano in fright until “her mother assured her that clapping meant approval.” Holm secured her first Broadway part in 1939, but it was Oklahoma! that brought her wider attention, particularly her “showstopping” rendition of “I Cain’t Say No.

“Hollywood soon called,” said The New York Times, “and in her third film she hit the jackpot.” Holm starred alongside Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and won an Oscar for playing a “witty, worldly fashion editor.” She was soon cast as the best friend of Bette Davis’s aging Broadway star in All About Eve (1950). But she didn’t get along with Davis, after the actress greeted her cheery “good morning” on the first day of shooting with a dismissive “Oh…good manners.” “I never spoke to her again,” Holm said, “ever.”

Holm often disagreed with Hollywood’s studio executives over “the kinds of roles she should play,” said the Los Angeles Times. She bought out her contract with 20th Century Fox after All About Eve and returned to Broadway, but went west again to play alongside her friend Frank Sinatra in two MGM classics, The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956). Though she made her last appearance on Broadway in 1991, Holm continued to work in film and TV and never really retired. “If people retired, we wouldn’t have had Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud,” she said. “I think it’s very important to hang on as long as we can.” 

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