Interview: Bringing Background Characters to the Fore: A Talk with Author David Lazar

Sidekicks, comic foils, and other stock and background characters: cinephile and essayist David Lazar loves watching old movie character actors more than the leads. In his latest book, Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Lazar offers several essays about his favorite old Hollywood character actors and what made them stand out even while standing beside brighter stars.

Born and raised in Southern Brooklyn, Lazar attended Stanford, Syracuse, and the University of Houston, earning degrees in poetry and nonfiction, and studying under literary figures like Hayden Carruth and Raymond Carver. He currently teaches at Columbia College, and established the school’s MFA program in nonfiction. Celeste Holm Syndrome is the latest of his 12 books, among them other essay collections like I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms; Occasional Desire: Essays; and Don’t Look Now: What We Wish We Hadn’t Seen (co-edited with Kristen Iversen). I asked him about his new book, what magic character actors bring to their films, and how today’s character actors measure up to their cinematic “ancestors”.

You talk about how much more interesting the old character actors are to watch—people like William Demarest, Martin Balsam, Eleanor Parker, Edward Everett Horton, and others. Who are some of your favorites and why?

Well, Edward Everett Horton, certainly, Demarest, Peter Sellers (whom I didn’t write about), Celeste Holm, Mike Mazurki, Jean Dixon. Horton, Holm, and Demarest for the reasons I cite in the essays in my book; to boil it down, Everett’s quirky, closeted personality, which was invariably expressed as self-mocking wit; Holm’s sharp delivery and vulnerable eyes, her sympathetic mien; Demarest’s gift at comic bluster. Sellers was peerless at invention, voice, comic impersonation: The Mouse that Roared, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita… Jean Dixon, whom many readers might not know, was a wonderful stage actress with great theatrical timing, who managed, in many different roles—some quite subsidiary—to give nuanced performances that are often overlooked; Mike Mazurki  . . . because he’s always so Mike Mazurki—the embodiment of the sympathetic lug.

The Oscar Wilde/Oscar Levant chapter was particularly poignant. Clearly Levant resonates with you. What drew you to him, and has the character/personage of the professional “wit” disappeared?

I’m drawn to Levant because he’s such a tragic figure, because there’s no one else quite like him in the films of the ’40s and ’50s. He’s a sore thumb, throwing out lines like non sequiturs that are brilliant and disruptive. More perhaps than anyone, he illustrates to me, the subversive possibilities of the character actor, how they can throw shade under the radar, under the nose (eyes?) of the Hayes Office which would otherwise have censored his/their insinuations. I’m also drawn to him because of his combination of extraordinary talent (he broke new ground in fascinating ways—almost single-handedly creating the revealing reality show) and self-loathing. He’s a familiar and sorry template of the artist, no less compelling for his drive to self-destruct.

About wits, an interesting question. We’re awash in comedy, but wit is a different category. I think the stirring of interest in the aphorism suggests a hunger for wit. Few comedians, though, are genuinely witty. The late-night hosts fall short, on the altar of “amusing.” The few people who are tossed up as contemporary wits: Fran Lebowitz (who I think exhausted her store 25 years ago) or a writer like Anthony Lane, who is sharp but predictable, illustrate how desperately we search for wit, and how hard, as you suggest, it is to find wits in the public domain.

Your chapter on actress Celeste Holm explores your title, Celeste Holm Syndrome, or the Hollywood practice of setting up mature, independent, and interesting women characters to fail. Clearly, we’re not past this, even in the 21st century. Can you explore that?

The essay explores the way woman of a certain age—shockingly young by our standards—were tossed over for younger women, for innocent ingenues. We’re still not particularly interested in mature, smart, and sexualized women as protagonists for our cinematic pleasure. Male protagonists dominate, and younger women are still the objects of the gaze. Have things improved? Sure. MeToo has made a big difference in consciousness, and some women in Hollywood, like Reese Witherspoon, have used their power well to create roles and opportunities for other women in their late 30s or 40s. Past their 40s, the cinematic universe remains brutal for women, unless you’re Meryl Streep or Catherine Deneuve.

I think I first learned about most classic character actors through bits in old Warner Brothers cartoons. Likewise, my kids occasionally do Frank Nelson’s “YESSSSSS!?!” routine because of The Simpsons. How many old-school character actors still hang on through imitation, homage, and the like?

Not many, I would think. Like you, when I was a kid, I would see versions of Jimmy Durante or Martha Raye or Sheldon Leonard show up in the cartoons—these were character actors who managed to become the versions of “star” character actors: they were so recognizable in their mannerisms that they become targets, as it were, for caricature, in cartoons, by mimics, etc. I don’t see a lot of that now. Other than a show like The Simpsons perhaps, and even there, is Parker Posey showing up? Maybe, and I missed her?

Which actors didn’t receive enough attention in their time?

In terms of character actors I have a bifurcated response. On some level, any character actor who was able to keep working, from Margaret Hamilton to James Gleason, Thomas Mitchell to Beulah Bondi, to even lesser-known actors…were receiving the attention, from the studios, of getting work, and having their names reasonably well-known by the filmgoing public. There were others, of course, whose careers stayed below the radar. Some I think have been under-appreciated as actors, like Charles Coburn or Marie Windsor. What’s “enough,” right?

Do you have any favorite modern character actors; people like CCH Pounder, William Fichtner, Marcia Gay Harden, Stephen Tobolowsky, Margo Martindale, or others?

There are some wonderful character actors working today, though I think we have less of a tendency to recognize character actors as such, and reward them for that distinction. I’d put someone like Tilda Swinton in that category, even though she’s sometimes marquee. The same is true for Octavia Spencer, who is astonishingly good. I was originally going to end the book with an essay on Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to me a kind of apotheosis of the character actor, until I decided to more or less keep to the Golden Age period. I completely agree with you about Margo Martindale, and I would also add Patricia Clarkson—who has a distinct aesthetic, an actress who thinks her work more than most—and Allison Janney.

David Lazar

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had asked?

What character actor is going to play me in the film of my life?

Finally, I always ask authors what they’re reading lately and to recommend books our readers should look into

Here’s my list of recents:

Annie Ernaux’s The Years

Anne Boyer’s The Undying

Victoria Chang’s Obit

Xu Xi’s Dear Hong Kong

Michele Morano’s Like Love

George Perec’s Winter Journeys

And the books in the 21st Century Essays series at Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press!


Celeste Holm Syndrome is available at most bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.

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