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'Oklahoma!' Actress Celeste Holm Dies At 95

Jul 15, 2012
Originally published on July 15, 2012 6:10 pm

Academy Award-winning actress Celeste Holm has died. A star on both stage and screen, Holm was best known for roles in Gentleman's Agreement, All About Eve and Oklahoma! She was 95.

Holm died early Sunday morning in her Manhattan apartment with her husband, family and close friends by her side. She had been hospitalized a couple weeks ago following a fire in actor Robert De Niro's apartment in the same building.

If there was one role that put Holm on the map, it was as the coquettish Ado Annie, in the 1943 hit musical, Oklahoma!

Just shy of her 26th birthday, Holm had only appeared onstage in plays, but was persuaded by a friend to audition for Rodgers and Hammerstein. She sang a classical aria which impressed Richard Rodgers, but he wanted to see if she had the comic instincts to play a simple country girl, Holm told NPR in 1993.

'He said, "Could you sing a song as if you'd never had a lesson in your life?" "Well," I said, "what does that sound like?" And he said, "It's a bald, bold, unedited voice." So, I said, "Well, I can call a hog." He said, "I dare you." So I said, "Soooo-weeeee." And, the end of that, he said, "Well, that's loud enough, that's funny enough," and that is how I got my job.'

The New York-born, Chicago-raised actress was such a success in Oklahoma! that she was cast as the lead in Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's Bloomer Girl the following season.

Soon, Hollywood came calling. She became a contract player at 20th Century Fox. NYU theater professor Larry Maslon says Holm made her mark in certain kinds of Hollywood supporting roles.

"She refined the art of skepticism onscreen, but a sort of sensible skepticism, in a movie like A Letter to Three Wives — which I think is her best movie — All About Eve, Gentleman's Agreement. She was able to be smart and wise, and yet protective and caring at the same time," Maslon says.

Holm won an Oscar for Gentleman's Agreement. In the 1947 film, which starred Gregory Peck as a reporter pretending to be Jewish to expose anti-Semitism, Holm played a wise-cracking fashion editor. In the legendary 1950 film, All About Eve, she played opposite Bette Davis.

For the rest of her career, Holm traveled back and forth between Hollywood and New York, doing theater, television and more movies — including High Society, with a score by Cole Porter, in 1955, where she performed a duet with Frank Sinatra.

Holm was a millionaire, but in her final years, a protracted legal battle between her two sons and her fifth husband — a singer less than half her age — stripped away most of her savings. Still, when she was active, Holm adhered to a philosophy of keeping things light.

"You know, we're the only industry, outside of musicians, whose work is referred to as 'playing,'" she told NPR. "And it has to be playing. We have to really play together and that's what the audience responds to. If it's work ... you don't want to watch!"

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Academy-Award winning actress Celeste Holm has died. She was 95. Holm was best known for roles in "Gentleman's Agreement," "All About Eve" and "Oklahoma!" She died in her home early this morning with her family by her side. Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: If there was one role that put Celeste Holm on the map, it was the coquettish Ado Annie in the 1943 hit musical "Oklahoma!"

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OKLAHOMA!")

CELESTE HOLM: (Singing) I'm just a girl who can't say no. I'm in a terrible fix.

LUNDEN: Just shy of her 26th birthday, Holm had only appeared onstage in plays but was persuaded by a friend to audition for Rodgers and Hammerstein. She sang a classical aria which impressed Richard Rodgers, but he wanted to see if she had the comic instincts to play a simple country girl, Holm told NPR in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

HOLM: He said: Could you sing a song as if you never had a lesson in your life? Well, I said: What does that sound like? And he said: It's a bald, bold, unedited voice. So I said; Well, I can call a hog. He says: I dare you. So I said so-weeeee for quite a while. And the end of that, he said: Well, that's loud enough, and that's funny enough. And that is how I got my job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, " OKLAHOMA!")

HOLM: (Singing) I somehow sorta want to kiss him but I'm just a fool when lights are low...

LUNDEN: The New York-born, Chicago-raised actress was such a success in "Oklahoma!" that she was cast as the lead in Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's "Bloomer Girl" the following season.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BLOOMER GIRL")

HOLM: (Singing) Right as the rain that falls from above, so real, so right is our love.

LUNDEN: Soon, Hollywood came calling. She became a contract player at 20th Century Fox. NYU theater professor Larry Maslon says Holm made her mark in certain kinds of Hollywood supporting roles.

LARRY MASLON: She refined the art of skepticism onscreen, but a sort of sensible skepticism in a movie like "A Letter to Three Wives," which I think is her best movie, "All About Eve," "Gentleman's Agreement." She was able to be smart and wise, and yet protective and caring at the same time.

LUNDEN: She won an Oscar for "Gentleman's Agreement." In the 1947 film, which starred Gregory Peck as a reporter pretending to be Jewish to expose anti-Semitism, Holm played a wisecracking fashion editor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT")

HOLM: (as Anne Dettrey) Every morning, I get up, and I say to the mirror: Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me who's the most brilliant of them all?

GREGORY PECK: (as Philip Green) And what does the mirror say?

HOLM: (as Anne Dettrey) That mirror ain't no gentleman, Mr. Green.

RAZ: In the legendary 1950 film "All About Eve," she played opposite Bette Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALL ABOUT EVE")

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

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

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

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

DAVIS: (as Margo) All right.

LUNDEN: And for the rest of her career, Holm travelled back and forth between Hollywood and New York, doing theater, television and more movies. But in her final years, a protracted legal battle between her two sons and her fifth husband, a singer less than half her age, stripped away most of her savings. Still, when she was active, Celeste Holm adhered to a philosophy of keeping things light.

HOLM: 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.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?")

HOLM: (Singing) I don't.

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) And I don't.

CELESTE HOLM AND FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) 'Cause all I want is you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.