David Lazar, Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, October 2020)
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I’d have to say that the best definition of a character actor I’ve come across is this: a character actor portrays people who can be counted on not to change. Over the course of a performance, the character actor’s subject can evolve not one scintilla. No epiphanies, please. Forgo the change of heart, but do have a heart, and stay that way, if you’re Bert Lahr or Thelma Ritter. Don’t bother if you’re Richard Deacon.
Since there’s no arc to their roles, character actors tend to be fated to limited screen time; in his brief appearance as waiter Carl, “‘Cuddles’ Sakall was charming in Casablanca,” David Lazar concedes in Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, “but his Eastern European malaprops are amusing for about five minutes.” This isn’t to say that the show could go on without character actors. It can’t: they’re essential workers – sometimes even miracle workers. “What magic, to suggest human dimensionality on a flat screen in just a few minutes,” Lazar writes in “On Characters: Preston Sturges’s Ensemble,” one of Celeste Holm Syndrome’s eight essays, all sprinkled with stardust and wistfulness. “What humility mixed with persistent faith, to think that these occasional moments of impersonation, these brief acted lives on the margins of narrative, could really matter to those of us sitting out there in the dark, ensembles of one.”
Character actors began mattering to Lazar when he was growing up in Brooklyn with his older brother, his “rather ego strong” father, his somewhat smothering mother, and “a heightened sense of the Holocaust.” (Being a Jewish kid born about a decade after the war ended can do that.) “As a child who felt as though he were destined to play a supporting role, a watching role,” Lazar writes in his introduction, “I started looking at how Edward Everett Horton was looking at Fred Astaire, how Mike Mazurki was looking at Tyrone Power, or how … Thelma Ritter was looking at James Stewart.” Lazar, who has demonstrated his ease with writing about himself in previous essay collections, gets to be a supporting player in each of Celeste Holm Syndrome’s pieces, which are trimmed with his personal asides but otherwise in thrall to one or more under-sung, or at least under-remembered, golden-age Hollywood workhorses.
Has anyone ever written as careful a sentence as Lazar, in his essay “Double Take: Jack Carson Agonistes,” about the actor?: “His characters, whether genial or slightly dyspeptic, tended to be working class, and part of Carson’s arsenal of quizzical looks centered on a class-based sense that others were speaking a language he wasn’t privy to, that he was missing out.” Lazar honors with similar rapturous particularity the actress Celeste Holm and three of her female peers in “Celeste Holm Syndrome: The Eyes of Sister Scholastica.” That title is a shorthand for what Lazar calls the “permanent chip on my shoulder” resulting from old Hollywood’s practice of letting the intellectually and emotionally unformed female characters get the guy, dooming their sophisticated, self-possessed sisters – often played by, that’s right, character actors – to in-perpetuity Saturday-night datelessness as the closing credits roll.
A giddying and foremost pleasure of Celeste Holm Syndrome is its partisanship. There’s no love lost between Lazar and the mother of Clark Gable’s only daughter – “Here I must admit a terminal objection to Loretta Young. Forever not Loretta Young for me. I find her straightforward sincerity medicinal” – but generally Lazar’s love flows, most mightily for the likes of William Demarest and Eve Arden and Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn and Thelma Ritter and Martin Balsam, and, of course, Jack Carson and the eponymous Holm. (Let’s attribute the fact that Lazar doesn’t spotlight any actors of color in his book to the paucity of movie roles for them at midcentury. This was old Hollywood, when any nonwhite actor who managed to make it onto the screen was necessarily a character actor.) As his fantasy mom and pop, Lazar casts not leading lights like Hepburn and Tracy or Loy and Powell but Jessie Royce Landis and Edward Everett Horton – “my two all-time favorite character actors, my cinematic parents, who I hope have a sexy reaction formation.”
Since I sulked into middle age some years ago, the first line of Raymond Carver’s poem “Late Fragment” – “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?” – has become an earworm, and I find myself longing to direct the question to people who have had enduring careers in the arts but never reached what’s considered the pinnacle: top billing, a best-seller list, what have you. If I could, I would ask the character actors that Lazar salutes – as well as my own favorites, among them Margaret Hamilton and Paul Lynde and Vincent Price and the abovenamed S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, whose Eastern European malaprops could, by the way, amuse me for well over five minutes – a variation on Carver’s question: was it enough to be a sidekick, a villain, an uncomplicatedly loyal best friend? Or did it ache not to be James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Dustin Hoffman, Walter Matthau, Judy Holliday, or Alastair Sim, the onetime character actors that Lazar lists as among those who crossed over to become leads?
In “My Two Oscars: On Wit and Melancholy,” Lazar includes some corker lines by Oscar Levant (Lazar’s second Oscar is Wilde, naturally), the quippy actor-musician-raconteur who spent his life trying and failing to be George Gershwin. As it happens, one of Levant’s quotes seems to anticipate my question: “It’s not what you are,” he said, “it’s what you don’t become that hurts.” I truly wish that Levant, who famously and publicly fought mental-health battles, had gotten what he wanted from life. Yet if everyone had been able to swap out their second-banana togs for the higher-thread-count apparel of the lead, we wouldn’t have the mollifying consistency of the character actor, that reliable, dogged, soothing sameness – a quality as salubrious as the voice of Eddie Muller introducing a picture over at Turner Classic Movies while the world burns around us.