Oscar-winner Celeste Holm didn't think highly of Hollywood. The actress, who died at the age of 95 on Sunday, preferred to be known for her stage and television career, which lasted more than 60 years. Although her movie career had a short peak of only about 10 years (1947-57), during that time, she made an indelible mark on the big screen.
In fact, she remained an intelligent, acerbic big-screen presence throughout her life. Latter-day audiences will remember her as Ted Danson's no-nonsense mother in "Three Men and a Baby" (1987), and even at the end of her life, she'd completed roles in two yet-to-be-released comedies, "College Debts" and "Driving Me Crazy." Still, she'll be best remembered for the work she did in "Gentleman's Agreement," "All About Eve," "High Society," and other landmark films of the 1940s and '50s. Here's a list of her 10 essential movie roles.
"Gentleman's Agreement" (1947)
Holm ended up winning an Oscar for her third movie, "Gentleman's Agreement." The film itself was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including three for its actresses; besides Holm's trophy, it also took home awards for Best Picture and Best Director (Elia Kazan). Regarded in its day as a milestone in its honest depiction of anti-Semitism (in which magazine reporter Gregory Peck goes undercover as a Jew to experience bigotry first-hand), "Gentleman's Agreement" seems dated and even tentative today, but it still draws power from the performances Kazan elicited, particularly those of Peck, John Garfield, Dorothy McGuire, and Holm. As the sympathetic, smart, tart-tongued, lonely fashion editor who befriends Peck, Holm makes one of the better impressions in the movie, and she creates a template for later Holm characters who will find themselves isolated by their own breeding, intelligence, wit, and hauteur.
"A Letter to Three Wives" (1949)
Holm is never seen in the film, but she dominates it through voiceover as Addie, the letter-writer who announces to three women that she's run off with one of their husbands. In director/co-writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Holm finds a filmmaker who recognizes and knows how to use her sharp, brainy edge. It's a collaboration that will pay off even bigger dividends a year later in "All About Eve."
"Come to the Stable" (1949)
Holm and Loretta Young are French nuns on a divine mission to build a children's hospital in Connecticut. Holm's future "All About Eve" husband Hugh Marlowe is a successful songwriter who is also the chief obstacle in the sisters' path. The heroines push forward with an unlikely combination of piety, will, and hidden talents; let's just say it's hard to imagine anyone but Holm could have pulled off playing a French nun who's also a tennis champ.
"Everybody Does It" (1949)
In this remake of the 1939 farce "Wife, Husband, and Friend," Holm plays against type as a socialite who fancies herself an opera singer but who is as talentless as Susan Alexander Kane. Hubby Paul Douglas discovers that he's the one with the operatic pipes, which puts a crimp in their marriage. In fact, Holm was a fine singer, known for originating the role of Ado Annie in the initial Broadway production of "Oklahoma!" and introducing the song "I Cain't Say No." It takes a real talent to sing as badly as she does in this small comic gem.
"All About Eve" (1950)
Mankiewicz's Best Picture winner is generally regarded as the best (and bitchiest) film ever made about Broadway. The backstabbing battle between Bette Davis' drama-queen diva Margo Channing and Anne Baxter's scheming ingenue Eve Harrington is where most of the sparks fly, but Holm (in an Oscar-nominated performance) is indispensable as Karen Richards, the point-of-view character for much of the film, the one character who is smart and refined but has no theatrical talents of her own and so becomes a player on the sidelines. She's convincingly loyal as Davis' best friend (though Holm claimed the two actually didn't get along at all on the set), but Karen is also the one who repeatedly, unwittingly, betrays Margo by allowing Eve to insinuate herself further into Margo's inner circle. Then again, Karen is also the one who (again, unwittingly), saves Margo from herself. Holm's cathartic laugh at the movie's climax, when Karen finally realizes all she's done to and for Margo, is worth the price of admission.
"Champagne for Caesar" (1950)
Again, Holm plays against type in this latter-day screwball comedy, as a Delilah-ish con woman who probes eggheaded quiz show champ Ronald Colman to find his intellectual weakness. (Of course, she ends up falling for him, despite her worst instincts.) As the seductive "Flame" O'Neill, Holm proves she's more than just an ice princess in this inspired piece of silliness.
"The Tender Trap" (1955)
Holm tried to quit Hollywood once, leaving movies to make her name in television, but once she became a popular TV star, the film industry came calling again. The result was this musical, in which she played the second female lead, opposite Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, and David Wayne. She plays a classical musician who, tossed aside by playboy Sinatra, finds romance with his family-man pal Wayne, only to recognize that he really yearns to return to his wife. Once again, Holm is the smartest person in the room, and she and Wayne almost steal the movie from Sinatra and Reynolds.
"High Society" (1956)
Holm and Sinatra reunite in this musical version of "The Philadelphia Story." She's Liz, the jaded photographer who accompanies scandal-sheet scribe Sinatra as he covers the doomed society wedding of Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly). The movie belongs mostly to Kelly, Bing Crosby (as the ex who still loves her) and Sinatra, but Holm and Sinatra have a good wisecracking chemsitry, particularly in their duet of Cole Porter's sour-grapes anthem "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
"Tom Sawyer" (1973)
After another attempted retirement from movies, Holm is called back into action as Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly. Once again, her aristocratic demeanor allows her to paint in a few short strokes a character who embodies all the rules of social decorum against which her anarchistic little nephew (Johnny Whitaker) and pal Huck Finn (Jeff East) will rebel.
"Three Men and a Baby" (1987)
Holm has just one scene in the movie, but it's a good one, in which she pointedly tells her son, immature playboy Ted Danson, to be a man and take care of his own messes -- in this case, changing the diapers of his newly-discovered infant daughter. As usual, she displays a certain tartness, along with some warm, hard-earned worldly wisdom.