Inhospitable attitudes towards women in a gendered-Hollywood; a melancholic Oscar Levant; the allure of cinema in black and white— these are just a few of the thought-provoking aspects in Chicago essayist David Lazar’s new book Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. A writer of three previous books of essays among other publications, Lazar is back with his astute perspective on media as he brings a magnified lens to character actors who were once overlooked during Hollywood’s Golden Age between the 1930s and 1950s.
In the introduction, Lazar explains his obsession with character actors: “They made me see something out of the corner of my eye, and what I saw made me feel differently or think about something I hadn’t thought of before.” Celeste Holm Syndrome casts the spotlight upon actors who held smaller roles, but don’t be fooled: these essays don’t merely discuss Thelma Ritter and Eric Blore’s biographies. Rather, Lazar creates his own play on second glances as he explores the nuances and essential moments of those actors who were a little off center during this era. Just as Lazar explains how cinema would fall flat without such characters, so, too, would we fall flat as film-viewers without this introspective look at those who played these small roles.
In the book’s namesake essay “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” Lazar discusses the Hollywood male gaze and how enchanting, talented actresses could end up “humiliated, disposed, cast aside for ingenues.” This essay is charged with the consequences of gender politics not only facing the characters in movies, but also their personal lives after Hollywood. What attracts us to cinema in this time period is also very much a flaw of it: nostalgia. That’s one of many things that draws Lazar to Celeste Holm, to film, and to what readers will find captivating in Lazar’s memorialization of it all.
What makes Lazar’s essays so dynamic is that we get to learn just as much about Lazar as we do these characters. We go along with him as he remembers experiencing cinema for the first time by eyeing his parents watching TV from a distance. We are in a bar with him as he experiences a horrific moment of discrimination. We are alongside his father when he was robbed at gunpoint at his travel agency. These are powerful images that intersect Lazar’s words, stories, and his exploration as an aficionado of cinema, someone who is paying homage to those who are not center stage but are still the center of his attention and, subsequently, the center of ours as his readers.
I spoke with Lazar about his inspiration for the book, writing processes, and how this book sheds light on Hollywood’s glories and dysfunctions.
While reading your book, I was cognizant of how much we can overlook and simultaneously admire the non-leads of movies, much more so than when I actually watch a film. You astutely write, “Because they aren’t center stage, there is a modesty to the character actor…and I love to watch them watch, perform their tricks, recede, but not from memory, at least not mine.” How do you think character actors function today/differently than during Hollywood’s Golden Age?
I don’t think there is as vibrantly identifiable a group of character actors around as there were in the Golden Age, a group of actors whom the audience looked for from film to film, or project to project, and would, in effect, ground a work in familiarity. Certainly, there are fine actors working the different visual media now, but would any of us easily list our favorite supporting or character actors in the way that sixty or seventy years ago the audience could list dozens of theirs? I think leads are sucking up all the oxygen. And many of the supporting performances that are lauded are really secondary leads more than character performances. The greatest character actor of our generation, who in fact was also sometimes a lead, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, sadly had his career cut short.
I noticed that your writing thrives off the use of parentheticals. Sometimes they will be used in jest, other times they seem to function as a way to bring up an important aside, much like how character actors compare to a lead. Are you deliberate when choosing to put your writing into a parenthetical or is it something that feels more free-flowing and natural as you write?
That’s a really astute question. Digression, or the aside, is the character actor of prose. Functionally, it acts to support, and sometimes it is entertaining, or diverting in its own right. But ultimately it supports the goal of the entire project, even if it does so texturally, in filling out the context or the aesthetic dimensions of the setting in the script. Similarly, sometimes the digression functions obliquely, to give, if you will, character to the voice of the writer. As for the deliberate or free-flowing choice, as Eliot wrote, “Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.”
It’s clear this book is more than just about the Golden Age of Hollywood, but also the intersections of family and cinema. When you first set out to write this book, did you intend to make these intersections about your family a part of the general narrative, or did that evolve as inextricably linked to the text?
One of the earliest film essays I wrote, in Body of Brooklyn, was called “Movies Are a Mother to Me.” The title was borrowed from a Loudon Wainwright song. But my earliest memories of film—both my schooling in movies, and my deep dive into film as an escape from family and, well, many things, have to do with the formative world I came from, the world where I watched my parents watch old black and white films in the dark on their trundle beds, and murmured about the character actors they loved. So, yes, these intersections between family and film are in Celeste Holm Syndrome, but in no way did I consciously set out to make them a leitmotif of the book. If we’re lucky, our subconscious narrative drives work overtime to layer our work with themes that need to peek out the windows of our work.
Your book is sprinkled with facts that, like character actors, are immensely interesting but sometimes need a second read (or glance.) I’m thinking about the moment when you discuss one of the first celebrities to talk about mental health publicly, or how “character actors could have names with character, suggesting quirks, or strangeness, even, at times, ethnic connections…” i.e. Natalia Zakharenkos becomes Natalie Wood.” It would be ambitious to write a book of facts about every major and minor figure during this time period and yet your book fits a lot into a mere 151 pages. How did you pick and choose your facts/subjects? Do you have a favorite writer who discusses cinema who inspired you?
I grew up in the thrall of three writers on cinema: Andrew Sarris, Paulene Kael and James Agee. Sarris and Kael would write weekly, or semi-weekly, in the Village Voice or The New Yorker, and I read Agee’s collected film works. Since I started reading them so young, it took me a while to understand the ideological underpinnings and antagonisms of Sarris and Kael, and their relative strengths and weaknesses, but this is great training for any writer. With Agee, who was essentially a generalist writing his beautiful sentences and smart, if not essentially cinematic essays, I learned the ways that technical knowledge about cinema was entirely useful but could also be a limited accoutrement to film essays. A little later, my world opened out and I started reading everything I could about film, from brilliant popular criticism like Molly Haskell’s groundbreaking From Reverance to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies to Film Form and Film Sense by Eisenstein; Notes on the Cinematograph by Robert Bresson was especially important to me—I read it countless times, in love with its severe poetry.
A lot of this book deals with the idea of negation, or rather, the writing dances around things that aren’t being discussed. I’m thinking about how in the introduction you say you did not want to write about Thelma Ritter after receiving that suggestion from others or how the text will literally say something along the lines of “If I weren’t talking about [x], then I’d be talking about [y].” Do you use negation to purposefully draw attention to a certain subject? To play with the readers’ attention?
One doesn’t want to be obvious, and I try not to write about subjects that suggest themselves too insistently by others or the custom of writing on the subject. But sometimes, as in the case of Ritter, the character actor everyone seems to think of when the subject arises, even the obvious is inescapable. But then comes the play of, not making the truth slant, but approaching the subject slant, or appearing to have the subject hijack you. This is where the play of essaying comes in—and is somewhere between joyful literary play and maddening self-punishment.
Finally, I have to ask: if you had to pick just one, what would you say is your favorite film of all time?
I have to cheat, really, and give you three—and I hope you’ll accept my violation of the terms of the question. 1) Wizard of Oz, because, like everyone else, I’ve never gotten over the wonder, it made me love movies, and from an early age I didn’t believe there was no place like home, which helped make me a critical watcher; 2) Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death despite a deathly performance by Raymond Massey, one of my least favorite character actors, for perhaps the most audacious and moving opening ten minutes of any film, and the brilliantly moving performances of David Niven, Roger Livesey (a favorite) and Kim Novak, and finally 3) Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, the best script in the history of cinema, two hours of poetically philosophical aphorisms, accompanied by found footage and montage of how we might, as Montaigne posited, live.
Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood
By David Lazar
University of Nebraska Press
Published October 1st