They had faces then: Eve Arden, Martin Balsam, Jane Darwell, William Demarest, Oscar Levant and Thelma Ritter. They’re among the supporting players celebrated in the new book “Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age,” out Oct. 1, and written by Columbia College professor David Lazar.
Cinema buffs will recognize the paraphrase above from Billy Wilder’s iconic “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), when faded silent-film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) declares: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” While most classic-film fans tend to favor larger-than-life stars such as Swanson and Bette Davis or Cary Grant and Clark Gable, from an early age Lazar gravitated toward supporting players — those Hollywood stalwarts who could be regarded, to invert another line from Norma Desmond, as “those little people out there in the dark.”
“I’ve always associated more with character actors; there’s so much happening on the margins,” said Lazar, who teaches classes in creative and non-fiction writing and film studies at Columbia College. “The real action was always on the sidelines. That’s where people said more interesting things because less attention was paid to what they did. They could get away with saying things that slipped through the [Hays] Code,” referring to the Motion Picture Production Code, which beginning in the early ’30s enforced a set of moral standards. “You’d ask yourself, ‘Did Eve Arden really get away with saying that?’ It made character actors intimately and ultimately more interesting to me.”
Lazar, who will conduct a virtual book reading Oct. 1 through the Book Cellar, constructed the volume (published by the University of Nebraska Press) as a series of essays, filtered through an autobiographical prism. “They’re my attempt to dive under the surface of my long love for character actors,” he said. “Character actors play with our sense of not just what a character is but what character is: what defines individual nature, what qualities create a persona and demonstrate how closely guarded the inner life can be.”
He admits that he could have kept writing the book, which grew out of a Guggenheim fellowship, “forever — because the possibilities were so endless,” he said. Some were musts: “William Demarest, I love watching him,” he said. “Thelma Ritter became a kind of joke because she’s so ubiquitous. And then there are actors like Eve Arden, who deserve their own pantheon.”
Also near the top of Lazar’s list is Celeste Holm, supporting actress winner for “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), and who as the sidekick Karen in “All About Eve” (1950) serves up a line to protagonist Margo (Bette Davis), who utters a quip that has volleyed through the decades into cinema immortality: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Holm also inspired the book’s title: “Her face captures me. I have Celeste Holm syndrome,” he writes. “I can’t think straight when I look at her.” Though in the post me-too era, that statement might sound suspect, the sentiment comes from a place of respect.
Laura Emerick is a local freelance writer.