Have you ever done this: Have you ever watched a movie just for the supporting characters?
It would mean disregarding the main characters and, to an extent, the plot itself, but what a trippy experience to gambol through a movie’s parallel universe.
We’re mulling this over because we’ve just finished reading David Lazar’s new collection of essays, Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
When it comes to old movies, Lazar observes, “The action, it seemed to me, was on the sidelines.”
His new book is more than a collection of essays; it’s a curation of love letters to the great character actors from the 1930s to the 1960s.
In fact, Lazar’s observations make you want to re-watch all your favourite old films and never pay attention to the leads. Why be distracted by Ginger and Fred when you can immerse yourself in the likes of Eric Blore or Edward Everett Horton?
It’s the sort of radical thinking that could turn movie-watching On Its Head.
Why do character actors appeal to us, besides their obvious entertainment value?
First, says Lazar, they’re Efficient. They accomplish a lot with very little screen time, and directors like Preston Sturges knew the value these actors bring when you’re In A Crunch.
Secondly, he says, “the virtue of a character actor [is] they’ve been there before, and the histories of their roles come with them.”¹
Finally, Lazar says, character actors are appealing because they’re not the A-List demigods. They have flaws, like the rest of us mortals, and many were allowed to keep their birth names. (As you know, not all A-Listers were allowed to keep their names; just look at Issur Danielovitch Demsky, says Lazar, better known as Kirk Douglas.)
“[C]haracter actors could have names with character,” he writes, “suggesting quirks or strangeness, even, at times, ethnic connections.”²
Lazar has a delightful way of looking at legendary character actors, and here are some of his random analyses:
Celeste Holm had “one of the most playful voices of Hollywood actresses”.³
Jack Carson sometimes “walks into a room as though he’s looking to be congratulated and killed simultaneously”.4
Thelma Ritter was “jaded but not jaundiced. There’s a difference.”5
Celeste Holm Syndrome is like gossiping, in the best possible way, with a dear friend about the people you both adore.
What is, then, Celeste Holm Syndrome? Lazar defines it as (A) a crush on Celeste Holm (he waxes poetic about her “slight asymmetrical beauty”); and (B) an admiration of women who are a little older, but are also sophisticated and self-assured.
In other words, women like the 1950s Celeste Holm.
Lazar’s writing is a dessert buffet, full of unusual treats and surprises. He basks in long paragraphs and colons, and has a tongue-in-cheek, deconstructionist approach to film criticism.
(However, his essay on “Movie Mothers”, an exploration of the Oedipal complex, is something we won’t delve into here.)
Let us raise a glass to these character actors, and toast them for their enduring appeal. They – all of them – have gifted us with enriched movie experiences.
This post is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER BLOGATON, hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen, and Outspoken & Freckled.