Celeste Holm, a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award winner who was recently enmeshed in a nasty and costly legal fight with her two sons, died Sunday morning, July 15, at her Manhattan apartment.
Holm, who was 95, had been hospitalized a couple of weeks ago for treatment for dehydration following a fire in Robert De Niro’s apartment in the same building. On Friday, July 13, she suffered a heart attack while at the hospital, but requested to be sent back home.
Celeste Holm: Ado Annie on Broadway
A native New Yorker (born on April 29, 1917), Celeste Holm began her acting career on stage. Her most famous Broadway role is probably that of Ado Annie, the girl who sings “I Cain’t Say No” – “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no, I’m in a terrible fix I always say ‘come on, let’s go!’” – in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s gigantic hit Oklahoma!, which opened in March 1943. (The musical was based on Lynn Riggs’ now all-but-forgotten 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, which featured Franchot Tone, June Walker, and Ruth Chorpenning as Ado Annie.)
After starring in the 1944 Broadway musical Bloomer Girl, Celeste Holm signed with 20th Century Fox. Holm’s first film role was in support of June Haver, Vera-Ellen, and Vivian Blaine in H. Bruce Humberstone’s Technicolor musical Three Little Girls in Blue (1946).
The story was the old Fox staple about three girls in search of love and money (not necessarily in that order), previously seen in Three Blind Mice (1938) and Moon Over Miami (1941), and later to be found in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). George Montgomery was the romantic interest, while Celeste Holm, dressed in bright red, got to sing “Always a Lady.”
Celeste Holm Oscar winner
Three Little Girls in Blue was followed by Gregory Ratoff’s weak musical Carnival in Costa Rica (1947), toplining Vera-Ellen and Dick Haymes (Holm steals the show doing a rumba-like number), and Elia Kazan’s socially conscious Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Starring Gregory Peck as a gentile passing for a Jew, Dorothy McGuire as his lover, and John Garfield as a real Jew, Gentleman’s Agreement was one of two major Hollywood movies dealing with anti-Semitism that year. Edward Dmytryk’s film noir Crossfire was the other one (in lieu of anti-gay bigotry, as found in the novel on which the film was based).
Both Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire were nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards. Celeste Holm, for her part, was a nominee for Best Supporting Actress. Gentleman’s Agreement ended up winning Oscars in the three aforementioned categories.
“Thank you for letting this happen,” Celeste Holm declared while picking up her statuette for Gentleman’s Agreement at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium in March 1948. “I’m happy to be part of an industry that can create so much understanding in a world that needs it so much.”
Holm’s Academy Award didn’t quite make her a Hollywood star. Even so, her movies in the late ’40s were all, at least to a certain extent, above-par productions: she supported Olivia de Havilland in Anatole Litvak’s Oscar-nominated mental illness melodrama The Snake Pit (1948); formed a complex quartet with Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, and Richard Widmark in Jean Negulesco’s film noir / action drama Road House (1948), which many consider an overlooked gem; and was Paul Douglas’ wife, jealous of sultry Linda Darnell, in the Edmund Goulding comedy Everybody Does It (1949).
Celeste Holm Oscar speech: Damien Bona and Mason Wiley’s Inside Oscar.
Celeste Holm received her second Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for playing a nun named Sister Scholastica opposite Loretta Young in Henry Koster’s light comedy Come to the Stable (1949). She earned her third and final Oscar nod for supporting rivals Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Broadway-set Oscar winner All About Eve (1950), wrapping up her Fox contract by appearing opposite veteran Ronald Colman in one of his last movies, the Richard Whorf-directed socially conscious comedy Champagne for Caesar (1950).
Celeste Holm Movies: Post-Fox period
Celeste Holm left Hollywood in 1950, reportedly because she preferred working on the stage. (There was also trouble at Fox, as she went on suspension after refusing roles offered her.) In the next six decades, her film roles would be few and far between. Among those, she supported Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds in Charles Walters’ musical The Tender Trap (1955); supported Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Grace Kelly in another Walters musical, High Society (1956); was Sandra Dee’s mother in Peter Tewksbury’s Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding! (1967); and had what amounted to a cameo in the Leonard Nimoy-directed blockbuster 3 Men and a Baby (1987).
According to the IMDb, Holm has two movies coming out: Aaron Warr and Joshua Zilm’s comedy College Debts, with Derek North; and Steve Marshall’s romantic comedy-drama Driving Me Crazy, featuring fellow film and TV veterans Joseph Bologna, Renée Taylor, Dick Cavett, and Mickey Rooney.
Celeste Holm’s extensive television resumé includes all sorts of genres, from playing the fairy godmother to Lesley Ann Warren’s Cinderella in Cinderella (1965) to roles in series such as Medical Center, The Love Boat, Falcon Crest, Touched by an Angel, and its spinoff, Promised Land. TV movies include Death Cruise (1974), Murder by the Book (1987), and Once You Meet a Stranger (1996).
Another type of “celebrity work” worth mentioning, is Holm’s tireless support of various charity organizations and social causes throughout the decades. For instance, once she reportedly raised $20,000 for UNICEF by charging 50 cents per autograph. She was also an avid supporter of government funding for the arts.
Celeste Holm husbands
Celeste Holm was married five times. Her first husband was future film and television director / producer Ralph Nelson. Among Nelson’s credits as a director are Lilies of the Field (1963), which earned Sidney Poitier a Best Actor Academy Award, and Charly (1968), which earned Cliff Robertson a Best Actor Oscar. Husband no. 4 was actor Wesley Addy, whose credits include two major Bette Davis movies: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Husband no. 5 was former waiter and aspiring opera singer Frank Basile, 49 years her junior, and with whom Holm became embroiled in an ugly lawsuit against her two sons.
Celeste Holm lawsuit husband Frank Basile vs. Holm’s sons. Though best-remembered for her film, stage, and television work, in recent years Celeste Holm was in the news chiefly because of a protracted legal battle pitting her two sons (from two previous marriages) against her and husband Frank Basile (photo, with Holm), a former waiter and aspiring opera singer 46 years her junior.
Celeste Holm lawsuit: trust control
Not long after Holm’s marriage to Basile in 2004, a lawsuit ensued. The issue revolved around a trust fund set up by Holm’s youngest son, Dan Dunning. According to Dunning, the irrevocable trust of which he was the trustee was intended to protect his mother’s investments.
The legal battle for control of the fund depleted Holm’s reported $2 million in savings, and left her relying on Social Security and a pension: adding up to a not inconsiderable $12,000 a month. That monthly allowance notwithstanding, Holm was recently sued for overdue maintenance and legal fees on her Central Park apartment.
“Dan Dunning did the very thing to his mother that he claimed I was trying to do,” Basile told John Leland, author of the New York Times article “Love and Inheritance: A Family Feud.”
Basile added: “But [Dunning] said I was out for half her money. He took it all. This whole thing could have been prevented. Every time her son seemed to care more about the money than her wishes, Celeste, how did you feel about that?”
“Pretty rotten,” Holm answered.
“Did you hear that?” Basile asked. “She said, pretty rotten.”
As per statements found in Leland’s report, the sons acted the way they did because they felt Basile was trying to take control of Holm’s finances.
Celeste Holm and sons
Ultimately, Celeste Holm and her sons severed ties. According to Leland’s piece, in his book of memoirs, Possiplex, Holm’s older son and Internet pioneer Theodor Holm Nelson, 74, doesn’t mention his mother by name. (His father was film director / producer Ralph Nelson.)
In the past decade, Holm had been in fragile health. She suffered from memory loss, and according to Basile, she had “two bouts of skin cancer, bleeding ulcers, a collapsed lung, hip replacements, pacemakers.” Additionally, she had to be fed through a tube in her stomach.
Celeste Holm Frank Basile photo: Getty Images.
Celeste Holm and Bette Davis All About Eve photo: 20th Century Fox.