A Review of David Lazar’s Celeste Holm Syndrome

February 19, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Elizabeth Bales Frank

Cinéaste. That’s a fun word, with its emphasis on sophisticated enthusiasm. Unfortunately, that word did not reach peak popularity until the early aughts. In my teen years, I was just a nerd in my dark bedroom, in thrall to the glow of the goings-on in what a certain female relative described as “those boring black and white movies you watch all the time.” Undeterred, I left the Midwest for film school and the art house cinemas of Greenwich Village.

David Lazar, whose latest essay collection is Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, grew up in those art house cinemas and revival houses, travelling from Brooklyn into Manhattan to feast on the offerings of the Hollywood Dream Factory. If the terms “Hollywood Dream Factory,” “Celeste Holm,” or even “character actor,” leave you cold, if you don’t drive by Turner Classic Movies while channel surfing just to see what’s on offer, if you concur, in other words, with my relative’s judgment on “boring black and white movies,” this book is probably not for you. Lazar’s knowledge of his topic is so thorough and he explores it with such zeal that neophytes will feel in the dark—and not in the transporting dark of the cinema. But if you are a cinéaste, this collection is an education and a delight.

“Have you ever watched a film and just focused on the supporting characters?” Lazar asks. “As a child who felt as though he were destined to play a supporting role, a watching role . . . the action, it seemed to me, was on the sidelines.” Later, he explains the allure of character actors: “What magic, to suggest human dimensionality on a flat screen in just a few minutes. What humility mixed with persistent faith, to think that these occasional moments of impersonation . . . could really matter to those of us sitting out there in the dark, ensembles of one.”

In this collection, Lazar explores the films of Preston Sturges, who ran a kind of cinematic commedia dell’arte in the 1940s, employing the same actors in numerous films. In “The Two Oscars,” he compares the wit, outsized talent, and outsider status of Oscar Levant and Oscar Wilde. In other pieces, he explores some terrifying or sacrificing (or both at once) movie mothers (Thelma Ritter, Elizabeth Marvel), and provides solo monographs on Jack Carson, Martin Balsam, and Edward Everett Horton. But it is the title essay, “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” that brings it home in this collection.

The “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” you see, is not about being a character actor at all. It is the practice that Hollywood has of “sexually undermining interesting ‘mature’ women when their roles called for economic power or independence.”

As examples of the “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” Lazar cites Eleanor Parker, the Baroness in The Sound of Music, and Nina Foch in An American in Paris, who loses Gene Kelly to the charms of Leslie Caron. (Lazar might have an obsession with Nina Foch, who occupies a large digression of the Oscar Levant essay as well, as Levant played the musician sidekick in that film.) Other examples include Eve Arden and Celeste Holm in numerous films, women who don’t need to be schooled by men, women who enter the scene “vibrantly sexual, verbally playful, self-aware and forward in their intentions, [who] end up humiliated, disposed, cast aside for ingenues.”

Notice above I wrote “Hollywood has” and not “Hollywood had.” Do we not see repeated examples, in our entertainment, the “Celeste Holm Syndrome”? To my mind, the term should elevated in the popular lexicon to the status of the “Bechdel test.” (And for those not familiar, the Bechdel test, created by Fun Home’s Alison Bechdel, demands that two women in a movie have a conversation that is not about a man.)

Lazar’s writing is both erudite and ardent. He is both professor and cinéaste. In his essay on Franklin Pangborn and Eric Blore, who played quietly snarky valet and butler types, he declares that they have names which confirm his “long-held belief in nominal determinism.” Another way to say that is to declare, as he does, is that one of Jack Carson’s wives was called Kay St. Germain Wells—“whose name I may elope with in my dreams tonight.”
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Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work has appeared in The Sun, Barrelhouse, Epiphany, Post Road, The Writing Disorder and other publications. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute in 2018 and encourages you to support your local librarians, especially if you live in Missouri. Her novel Censorettes was released by Stonehouse Publishing last November.

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