Thoughts on William Holden

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.

The list goes on and on.

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.

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14 Responses to Thoughts on William Holden

  1. Dan says:

    “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.”

    Makes me think of his work in ‘The Wild Bunch.’ (You knew I was going to say that, right?) – playing a man who has outlived his time, is looking at the end of the road, and professes to live by a code that is often more observed in the breach. Tormented by his past (getting his best friend jailed due to carelessness) and looking for a way out of the life he’s made for himself.

  2. red says:

    Yup – I knew I could get a Wild Bunch comment outta you! :)

  3. CW says:

    I’ve always been a huge Bill Holden fan, and I’ve always been dumbfounded about why he drank himself to death. He had everything – legendary fame, estate in Africa, Steffie Powers – and he wanted to kill himself. I would have saved myself just so I could hang out with Steffie Powers.

    There must be something pathological in people like Holden – some quantifiable malfunction in their brains, not of their own making. Something that medical science should be able to fix.

  4. Rob says:

    You left out the most thankless role he ever took: Opposite Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday. I love that movie.

  5. red says:

    Rob – of course!!!!

    I love Judy Holliday. ha!

  6. red says:

    CW –

    It is indeed baffling. My understanding is that his drinking, while obviously well-known, was never really seen as the enormous problem that it was. Maybe because he seemed so capable, strong – the good-looking guy, etc.

    Sad.

  7. red says:

    Tempe –

    A beautiful comment. Thank you so much. I have not seen The Lion … i will make sure to check it out.

  8. dave rudbarg says:

    Well my favorite William Holden performance is in a very under appreciated film called S.O.B ……
    in my world,he always was under appreciated…

  9. Rob says:

    Tempe brought up Capucine, who I always thought was one of the all-time most beautiful women in film. I finally decided to see what happened to her. Sometimes, I wish I wouldn’t do things like that. “Tragic suicide” is a bit of an understatement. She committed suicide by jumping out of her 8th-story apartment window in Switzerland. I didn’t need to know that and I should have known better than to delve deeper into her biography. This has happened to me before. After watching a Made-for-TV movie about Abbott and Costello, it upset me to the point where I can’t watch their movies anymore.

  10. Cassandre says:

    hey im the grand daughter of William holden and i wanted to thank you for the praise of hhim, i agree with you and when I think about him i too become depressed, he died in a way that could have been prevented but never truly understood, and no one remembers his greatness today and its a shame that hes been forgotten…

  11. red says:

    Cassandre:

    Wow. Thank you so much for commenting.

    I love your grandfather’s work. He will always be one of my favorite actors.

    I think he is one of the best actors America has produced. I will always remember him – just know that!! And judging from all of these other commenters, your grandfather is not at all forgotten.

    Best to you.

    Sheila

  12. Lorraine says:

    William Holden is my favorite actor and was in my IMHO,the finest actor of his generation and also one of the most under-rated by film critics and historians.Bill was a versatile, natural, sensitive, understated actor who had the magical gift to be able to seamlessly blend himself into the heart and soul of his character and become them on screen. Bill was brilliant , real and believable in all his roles.I love his dark, edgy, cynical roles like Sefton in STALAG 17 and Joe Gillis in SUNSET BOULEVARD but have equal affection for his romantic idealistic roles such as Mark Elliott in LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING ,BORN YESTERDAY and NETWORK.There is a sadness and repressed romantic idealism lying just beneath the surface in all his cynical roles-you get the sense as you watch them that they were hurt at some time in their life and the cynical shell is a reaction to their hurt. Bill`s beautiful, blue, expressive eyes were so often fillled with sadness which made them even more poignantly beautiful.Bill had the most beautiful smile ever-filled with warmth and true, gentle sweetness.Because Bill so often chose roles which had a personal meaning to him, anyone having knowledge about him as a man, can learn so much about him by watching his films.Bill was so brave, the way he shared so much of himself with his audience through his acting.Acting I believe was a catharsis for Bill-allowing him the freedom to express emotions he himself found difficult to express in real life.
    Bill was a gorgeous man-but his looks and sex appeal were approachable ,low-key and sweet-he wasn`t an aloof, mysterious Greek God like Cary Grant.Bill holden and the characters he played were so human-real people we can relate to.Bill`s trademark ‘Little-Boy-Lost vulnerability is so touching.Bill was manly but not afraid to show he could be sweet, gentle, sensitive, tender and vulnerable.i`ve never seen a more tender actor in love scenes(love him as a romantic leading man in LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING,fORCE OF ARMS, PICNIC,THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and others.In all of his films Bill`s humanity shines through-the sympathy and compassion he exibits is beautiful and touching to watch.
    The one quality concerning Bill which I admire and love the most is the redemtion pattern which is present in all of his films which I have seen.
    Bill`s characters often express cynicism, dissillusion-ment,doubt, anger and fear and they maybe partly motivated by self-preservation but in the end they find the moral courage and strength to do the right thing and/or make a change for the better in the life of others.The way in which Bill chose his roles says much about his personal integrity.
    William Holden ‘Romantic /Heroic Cynic” or Bill Holden ‘Romantic Idealist”-which ever category his films fall under, Bill left us a film legacy which contains some of the finest films ever made and is a legacy of which Bill himself, his family and many fans around the world can be proud.November 16 marks the twenty-third anniversary of his deatth.Bill waged a courageous struggle against his alcoholism but it is a battle he sadly lost.Bill Holden was a good but not perfect man.The “human heroism” of Bill himself and many of the characters he played touches my heart in a special way.
    In closing I would like to mention the achievement of which Bill was most proud-his dedication to wildlife/nature conservation.God Bless Stefanie Powers and Don and Iris Hunt for working so hard to keep Bill`s dream alive.Bill is smiling down from Heaven on all of you.
    I would love to discuss Bill`s work as an actor or conservationist through this site or via private e-mail.
    Lorraine

  13. cathy says:

    my first crush was william holden my father and i
    went to see “picnic” well, what can i say. i remember telling my father that i wanted kim novak’s job. over the years i have met some people who knew william holden and were close to him and they told me that i’m not to far off on my thoughts on him “underneath it all there’s a pleasurable soul”

  14. Lorraine says:

    Cathy;
    Hi !
    Contacted you by private e-mail because I was not able to post via this site.I will try one more time.Underneath Bill did have a “Sweet Soul” or as you so beautifully describe it-“A Pleasurable Soul”.
    PICNIC is one of my favorite films and one of William Holden`s finest performances.Bill is brilliant and touching in conveying Hal`s desperation and painful awareness of his human weaknesses.Bill should have received an academy award nomination for his performance in PICNIC.
    Bill was voted No 1 at the box office in 1956 on the strength of his performances in LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING and PICNIC.American women across America fell in love with Bill Holden in 1955-1956 watching him tenderly romance Jennifer jones and dance in the moonlight with kim Novak.Through video/DVD women continue to thrill over Bill in these films and wish they were jennifer Jones and kim Novak during the time these films were made.
    God Bless,
    Lorraine