William Holden, over his long career, racked up an astounding body of work. He is one of our greatest actors. Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 (later to be made into a TV series called Hogan’s Heroes), Picnic, he played Joe Bonaparte in the film version of Golden Boy, Country Girl, Bridge on the River Kwai. The Wild Bunch. Very few actors build up such a resume, and turn in such consistently fine performances over a long lifetime.
Then there’s his genius turn in Network. I don’t use that term lightly. He acts everybody else (including the great Robert Duvall – whom I love, but who I think turns in kind of a wooden one-note performance in that movie) off the screen. Who can forget Holden’s sex scene with Faye Dunaway? The sadness of it, the comedy of it? She’s getting undressed, casually, jabbering on and on about “market shares” and her upcoming show “the Mao Tse Tung Hour” … They begin to have sex, and she never ever shuts up. Holden lies beneath her, staring up at her, with … something I can’t even describe on his face. Humor? Partly. There’s desire there, too. But mixed in with that desire is the sadness of the middle-aged man, the guy cheating on his wife, the guy who knows that this won’t last … His great great scene with his wife at the end (Beatrice Straight – she got an Oscar for her less than 10 minutes on screen) – and then, my favorite: when he breaks up with Faye. His monologue there could not be better. She doesn’t say a word, and he is as gentle as he can be, but also firm, and sad, and … a bit pathetic. A bit of that speech is:
I feel lousy about the pain that I’ve caused my wife and kids. I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency. And I miss my home, because I’m beginning to get scared shitless, because all of a sudden it’s closer to the end than the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me, with definable features.
Watch that movie again … and watch how he says those lines.
A truly courageous actor. In that role, he faced the fact head-on that no, he was not the “leading man” anymore. Think of other male movie stars growing old … and you can see how rare it is for them to face that fact. They hold on. They hold on desperately. But Holden came out onto the other side … he was once a leading man, and he kind of became a character actor later.
Holden, as a young actor, was known as “the Golden Boy”. That was one of his nicknames. Because he had played the “Golden Boy” himself, but also because of his regular every-day American good looks, the quarterback good looks, the breezy certainty of his handsomeness. – William Holden’s handsomeness is immediately apparent, in an empirical way. You look at him and think: “There’s a handsome guy.” But it’s not glamorous, or knock-you-off-your-feet gorgeousness, or off-putting, like some brands of good looks are. Holden looks like you could meet him in real life. There are good-looking guys like that in real life. He didn’t have the glitter or the sexual mystery of Cary Grant. It was hard to figure out what exactly, at times, was going on with Cary Grant – which is part of his enduring appeal. The voice? The walk? He’s gorgeous – but he’s a goof – is he British – is he American? But William Holden was immediately place-able: An open-faced American guy, with a mop of hair, and a huge sunny smile. He was an American golden boy. I heard somewhere that he was descended from George Washington, which sort of makes sense.
He won an Oscar for Stalag (directed by Billy Wilder). I can’t remember if Holden won more Oscars, but he was certainly nominated multiple times.
Billy Wilder loved William Holden, loved him dearly, as a man and as an actor, couldn’t say enough loving things about him. Wilder’s two favorite actors were Holden and Cary Grant. Wilder ended up working with Holden multiple times – and with Cary Grant none. (Wilder was bummed about it til the end of his life!) But still – Wilder had great affection for the skill, humor, and dedication of Holden. Also the fearlessness. He’d do anything.
Wilder has talked about the scene in Sunset Boulevard where Norma shoots Holden’s character, and he topples into the pool. Holden was an athlete, graceful, physically fit … Holden pulls off a difficult stunt there. Not every actor could throw himself into the pool in the way he does in that scene – it’s an amazing bit of physical acting. If you get a chance, watch it again. See how easy he is with his body, and how REAL that moment looks.
Holden’s end is haunting to me. The man was a drunk. He had been a pretty serious drunk for years. I do not know what demons he had to combat, but his drinking was notorious. One night, he was alone in one of his apartments (he had apartments everywhere – Hong Kong, LA, he had a house in Africa … he was a peripatetic type) – and he was drunk, and he fell and cracked his head open on a coffee table. The fall alone did not kill him. He lay there and bled to death. He didn’t phone for help, he lay there – probably half in and out of consciousness – or maybe just too wasted to realize the danger he was in – probably unaware that he was going to die if he didn’t get help.
I look at his craggy lined face in Network, and wonder.
That character (Max) is a sad man. A workaholic, kind of skating along in his marriage. Being pushed aside at work, no longer needed. A man who also has a bit of trouble with drinking. Just a bit, though. It’s hard for actors to play things so close to them. Or, at least, it often is. But Holden wasn’t afraid. He didn’t protect himself, in that part. He let us see the reality of who he was NOW – in all of his middle-aged loneliness, his sexual insecurity, his fear of death … A lot of actors as they get older do not want you, as the audience, to see all that stuff. They still want to be the tough-guy, the hero, whatever. This is why Cary Grant retired. He didn’t want to suddenly be the old guy with 4 lines in a movie. He was done. William Holden, the golden boy, the handsome guy, one of the biggest stars of his day, a heart-throb, voted “one of the sexiest stars of the 20th century” in 1995 … did not hang on to his old persona. His segue into power-house middle-aged parts is very rare. Not a lot of people can pull it off – especially those whose careers were based mainly on their looks, and on the fact that female fans went ga-ga. But Holden was a talent. Always was.
Maybe his private drinking was where he put all his grief, his sadness about what he had lost … but up on screen, he didn’t hang onto it. He didn’t seem to be saying to us: “MEMBER ME? MEMBER WHEN I WAS THE BIG SEXY STAR IN THE 1950S? WELL, I STILL GOT IT. I STILL GOT IT.”
It’s hard for actors to grow old. It’s harder for women – there’s a black-out period in between the ages of 35 and 60 when it’s nearly impossible for women to get good parts. Especially with the tendency of male movie stars in their 60s to have 25 year old actresses cast as their wives. This is vanity, make no mistake about it. “I can’t be married to a 60 year old! Not if I’m still trying to prove I’m a virile stud!” However, male actors growing old have their own set of challenges. Particularly for those who were once sex-symbols, or heart-throbs, or leading men. (This problem does not exist for “character actors” – those who were never good-looking enough to be sex symbols. The character actors, male and female, NEVER stop working. EVER. They will get parts until they’re 80.) But former heart-throbs, like William Holden was, had BETTER have more going on with them than just their good looks, or the ease that comes with being young.
You had BETTER have some gift for this mysterious thing called acting.
Otherwise … you’ll have a short career.
Recently I saw a movie Holden made with Jennifer Jones called Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, which I thought was a snooze-fest. A manipulative boring tear-jerker. Blech. Holden plays a journalist, I think, stationed in Hong Kong. He falls in love with a “Eurasian” doctor, played by Jennifer Jones. They have a sweeping love affair, where they have to deal with prejudice, also with the Communist revolution in China, and there are multiple scenes with swelling violins, etc. It’s not very effective. There’s next to no chemistry between Holden and Jones.
But I thought to myself, as I watched it: Okay. What is missing here? What, exactly, is wrong?
Here’s what I think it is:
And this may just be me projecting William Holden’s performance of dark sadness in Network back over his earlier career … but I don’t think so. I think that Holden is best in darker material. Edgier material. Yeah, he’s got all-American good looks. But he wasn’t quite believable saying to Jennifer Jones, “I am so in love with you … I love you, darling …” etc. He’s more believable when he’s not so forthright, when he has ulterior motives, or when he’s trapped. Trapped into living a lie. Think of his character in Sunset Boulevard. How attracted he is to his co-writer, how much he loves being with her, the intellectual stimulus, the companionship … it could be a true romance. And yet, then … there’s Norma Desmond’s web he is caught in … and finally, at the end of the film, he reveals: that he LIKES being caught in that web. He LIKES being a “kept” man. Many actors turned down Sunset Boulevard for that reason. They found it too embarrassing – to play a character who would willingly become the “house-boy/love-slave” of an aging movie star – merely because she buys him expensive suits and cigarette cases. He’s a sort of prostitute in that movie. He’s trapped in that house – she uses him for sex, and he uses her back. Holden had no problem with any of this. He’s great in that movie. He’s sexy, too, in a sort of dark and unexpressed way. It’s not your basic leading-man part … not at all … He is in quite an emasculated position for the entirety of the film – he’s a sex-slave to Norma … He plays the role typically played by women – the money-hungry woman who puts up with anything as long as her tormentor keeps her in furs and nice clothes … but perhaps THAT is part of his complex appeal.
It’s certainly part of his complex appeal in Network.
In Love is a Many-Splendored Zzzzzzzzzzzz, Holden pretty much plays your straight-up romantic leading man, and it falls flat. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t seem true. I kept wondering what he was hiding, what he was lying about.
Holden’s good looks concealed a secret: this was a man tormented by insecurity, by sadness, by addiction. He drank himself to death, basically. He wasn’t an old man when he died. Not at all.
It was when directors saw beneath his good looks – and got a glimpse of the darkness beneath – that Holden’s true genius could be exploited.
Thinking about William Holden makes me sad, for some reason.
A great actor. Is he really remembered now? Does he really get the props he deserves?
Those of you out there who have seen and loved any of his performances, anything you would like to comment on? Let’s have a little collective tribute to this guy.