Friday, July 20

Ernie & Celeste

It sure seems to me that a lot of showbiz types are passing away these days.  The same occurred to two buddies the other day when we met for lunch.  We tried to come up with actors in their 90s who were still alive.  I recall us mentioning the DeHavilland sisters (well, that's what I call them) and Kirk Douglas and some others and we also mentioned Ernest Borgnine.  We had a laugh over the fact that Borgnine is 95 and Douglas 95 and they played father and son in 1958's rousing The Vikings.  Before I had my next meal that day, I heard on the news that old Ernie passed away.  I pondered warning the others.

In the days since, Celeste Holm, also 95, passed away and as is my style (and hey, I'm retired, what else do I have to do?), I have been thinking about Holm and Borgnine.  I don't know if they ever worked together or even knew one another, but I've been thinking about all the joy both of them brought to me over the years and therefore I have lumped them together in my mind... for the moment.

To tell you the truth, neither was ever a super favorite of mine.  I disliked neither of them, usually enjoyed and respected their work.  Regular readers here know that I throw the word favorite around like a mobile home in a tornado and I surely do have lots of favorites.  I simply want to acknowledge their long stay on the planet and their long careers, both of which include Oscars. 

Holm was around in some of those Hollywood golden years, the 1940s, working primarily at 20th Century Fox.  Ah, one of my favorite movie decades and my favorite movie studio.  (I know you knew that, but maybe there's a new reader.)  So I paid attention to Holm because I paid attention to Fox players.  Borgnine came along five years after she started in pictures in 1951. 

I would regard both as character actors.  Holm especially was rarely the lead in films.  She was usually the leading lady's best buddy (Eve Arden mirrored the same parts at Warners) or in love with the man who is in love with the leading lady.  So she more or less hightailed it back to Broadway, whence she came with great acclaim, and did one helluva lot of television.  Interestingly enough and to her credit, she has two unreleased films.

Ernie was a little different.  Yes, he was still basically a character actor (he never competed with Newman or Redford for parts) but he did ascend to a few more leading man roles than Holm did for leading lady parts.  Due chiefly, I'll assume, to TV's McHale's Navy and all those reruns, he is infinitely more famous than Holm.  

Old Ernie was one of the nastiest villains of 'em all.  He could sneer and snarl and eventually shoot you full of bullets or rip your head off.  He was big and loud and seemed so capable of doing much damage.  I am sure 1953's mega Oscar-laden From Here to Eternity was my first face-to-face (if you will) with Borgnine.  His Fatso was a psycho and his beating and eventual killing of Frank Sinatra's Maggio was chilling.  When Montgomery Clift then kills Borgnine, one couldn't help but cheer.

He went on to be the bad guy in some dazzling films of the 1950s... Johnny Guitar, Vera Cruz and Bad Day at Black Rock among them.  Loved them all; own them all too. 

Celeste Holm started off at Fox in two silly musicals, both costarring dancer Vera-Ellen.   In her third film, 1947's Gentleman's Agreement, Holm won a best supporting Oscar for her portrayal of a fashion editor who befriends Gregory Peck's character.  The film, about anti-semitism, rightly won Oscar's best picture.  Personally, I didn't think this part should have earned her an Oscar, although she was good.  That Oscar should have come later.  Maybe after those two silly musicals, they sat up and paid attention to Holm in this film and then fell all over themselves. 

In 1948 came one of my favorite Holm roles, that of the boss's right-hand girl at a nightclub in Road House, where singers leave cigarette burns on the piano, a downright yummy film noir co-starring Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark.  If you've missed it.... it's available for a gander.  Don't confuse it with the 1989 Patrick Swayze film of the same name.  Please.  She was quite fine in The Snake Pit, a searing look at institutional life for the insane and containing one of the best Olivia DeHavilland performances of them all. 

Then came an odd role and one you might find on a future quiz.  Be warned.  In 1949 writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz gave us A Letter to Three Wives.  Holm was none of the wives and she was never seen on screen.  Her character wrote to the three wives telling each one that she had run off with one of their husbands.  Holm's witchy character narrated the piece.  So well done.

Another piece of magic came about for Borgnine as well.  After all these bad guy roles, someone saw in him the ability to play a pudgy Brooklyn butcher, down on his luck in the romance department, and Ernie went on to win the Oscar for Marty.  The film would win best picture, as well, and Borgnine was on his way up.

He would still play villains but he stretched at the same time.  In 1956 he made two interesting films, as a New York father in crisis over his daughter's wedding in The Catered Affair, opposite Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds, and in The Best Things in Life Are Free, where he sang alongside Dan Dailey and Gordon MacRae.

Borgnine made a lot of war films and a lot of westerns.  On one of the latter, 1961's The Badlanders, he met fiery Mexican actress Katy Jurado and they were married.  Their battles often made the papers and their union didn't last long.  But it lasted longer than the 32 days he was married to singer Ethel Merman, his third wife.  I cannot imagine those two married although the real truth is I can't imagine anyone being married to her.  Borgnine would go on to marry five times, the last of which was immensely successful.

Celeste Holm would marry four times, one of which was a long one to character actor Wesley Addy.  Both of them seemed quietly sophisticated to me.  I would have liked to have been a dinner partner with them and heard her tales of working with some of the greats that she did.

Her association with Mankiewicz proved a bit of serendipity for he hired her for the best thing she ever did... that of Karen in 1950's Academy Award giant, All About Eve.  We won't get into much of this film at this time (oh, can't I keep any secrets?).  Karen was the wife of the playwright (wonderfully played by Hugh Marlowe, in his best role as well) and a good friend of pain-in-the-ass actress named Margo Channing, played by Miss Bette Davis.  Karen was the narrator and the heart of the film.

In the film, Karen is about the only one who can stick it out with the volatile Margo while in real-life it was quite the other way around.  Hell, in real life Davis even married one of her co-stars, Gary Merrill.  No, in real life Holm barely spoke to Davis.  Saying those sweet lines to her must be an example of why Holm was at least nominated for an Oscar.

Sorry to say I have never seen Come to the Stable, the 1949 Catholic nun story, for which she also received an Oscar nomination.  I've always heard positive things about it, but my eschewing it may have been the nun thing and also Loretta Young being one of them.  What have I missed?

I think the last really interesting or noteworthy film she did was High Society in 1956.  I certainly noted it.  Grace Kelly... c'mon.  Sinatra chased Kelly throughout the film but Kelly ends up with Crosby and Holm with Sinatra.  It was Kelly's last film and we all knew that when she was making it.  It was an event...!

If 1956 was a bit of a watershed year for Holm's movie career, Borgnine was setting Hollywood on fire as a result of that Oscar.  I quite liked his work as a rich and overbearing tycoon in Go Naked in the World (1961), with Gina Lollobrigida and Anthony Franciosa.

Along the way he had a small role in a big film,1967's The Dirty Dozen (he was none of them) and a big role in a big film, Sam Peckinpah's ode to violence and machismo, The Wild Bunch.

The early 1970s brought two significant Borgnine performances.  The first in the disaster flick, The Poseidon Adventure.  While one could hardly claim he and Gene Hackman were buddies in it, they were a remarkable pairing.  Then he had one of the best villain roles of his career in Emperor of the North, as a vicious railway conductor.  This is a film I want in my collection.

Borgnine has made so many films, many of which he seemed to take for the paycheck.  Nothing wrong with that either.  But he still has an impressive body of work.  About the only time one ever heard about him negatively was on his marriages to Jurado and Merman.  

Holm, on the other hand, while she always made movies and did lots of television, became a New Yorker, working on the stage.  It should be noted that she was famous in her early career for creating the part of Ado Annie in Oklahoma on Broadway.  My guess is that she was pissed that Gloria Grahame inherited the part in the film version.

About the only negative I ever heard about her was that she was rather imperious, not always easy to get along with.  I read that she was estranged from her sons and that they were not by her bedside when she died. 

I thank both Celeste Holm and Ernest Borgnine for their long and distinguished careers.  May they RIP.

NEXT POSTING:  Favorite Movie #32

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