Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age

David Lazar. Univ. of Nebraska, $19.95 (186p) ISBN 978-1-4962-0045-7
Columbia College professor Lazar (I’ll Be Your Mirror) celebrates some of classic Hollywood’s most acclaimed character actors in this spirited essay collection. He begins by celebrating writer-director Preston Sturges’s unofficial stock company of brilliant character actors, including William Demarest, Julius Tannen, and Esther Howard, and elsewhere celebrates the physical comedy of Jack Carson, “king of the double take,” and Eric Blore’s “supercilious but frustrated” servant characters. However, Lazar goes beyond praise to investigate the nuances of performance, singling out what made these performers successful, and often subversive. In the title essay, Lazar laments the Hollywood trope of the sexy, confident woman passed over by the male lead for a waifish young ingenue, recalling in particular Celeste Holm’s standout turn in Gentleman’s Agreement (he slyly notes that Holm, deemed too old, at 30, for Gregory Peck in the 1947 film, died at 95 married to her 41-year-old third husband). One of the most resonant essays, “Ma,” considers five classic portrayals of mother characters, including Thelma Ritter’s in Birdman of Alcatraz and Jane Darwell’s in The Grapes of Wrath, alongside reflections on Lazar’s mother’s death from cancer when he was a young man. Fans of Hollywood’s Golden Age will delight in this affecting look at what makes actors truly memorable, even if they’re not in the spotlight. (Oct.)
Reviewed on : 07/24/2020
Release date: 10/01/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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