“I don’t really know why, but danger has always been an important thing in my life – to see how far I could lean without falling, how fast I could go without cracking up.” — William Holden

It’s his birthday today.

In a career of famous roles in famous films, I think his best – and perhaps most characterstic and essence-driven – of his roles is Sgt. J.J. Sefton in Stalag 17. Sefton has not just a hardness to him, but a sharp edge, an essence many call cynical but I call realistic.

Director Billy Wilder said in his interview with Cameron Crowe that Sefton was the closest stand-in to himself in all of his films. Sefton, in essence, was Wilder saying: “This is who I am. This is how I see the world.”

Sefton’s parting shot before he disappears into the tunnel underneath the prison camp – “If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we’ve never met before” – sums it all up, sums up the movie’s unsentimental mood. Does Sefton mean it? Is he being ironic? I don’t think so. There is no romanticism in Sefton, and his memory of the prison camp – and what humanity becomes under such circumstances – will not be something he wishes to dwell on, and any later encounter will just be a reminder. No good-byes. No looking back. If I see you, I’ll pretend I never know you. And finally, to take the edge off, he pokes his head back up, and gives a little toss of the hand and a cocky grin. Aaaaand scene. What a movie star. What an actor.


“I liked having him around … The idea of making him a braggart … then we find out slowly that he is really a hero. As he pleads there with that lieutenant at the end, he tucks his head out again, from the hole they have there in the barracks, and says, ‘If I ever see any of you mugs again, let’s just pretend that we don’t know each other.’ And off he goes. And he only does it because the mother of the lieutenant who is captured is a rich woman, and he’s gonna get ten thousand dollars. He’s no hero, he’s a black-market dealer—-a good character, and wonderfully played by Holden.”

Playing Sefton required an almost stern resistance to expanding the role into the self-consciously heroic. One can see the traps for that kind of “commentary” all throughout the role. Holden resists. It’s a performance of great control. But within that control there is a jaundiced and knowing acceptance of the ugliness of human nature – the accusations tossed around and the willingness to throw people under the bus – Sefton is not at all surprised by these things. In a way, it’s a relief: civilization has broken down in the camp, and so now people can show themselves in their true form.

Obviously Stalag 17 is also a comedy, but it’s a black-hearted one, just like Wilder liked it.

Wilder worked with Holden numerous times. He loved him as a leading man. He loved Jack Lemmon too, for his “everyman” qualities, but Holden was not – was never – an “everyman”. He had stature and scope. Just watch Stalag 17. Sunset Boulevard may be more famous, more quotable – but Stalag 17 cuts to the heart of Holden’s essence. Because … Sefton is tough, does not suffer fools, but … my God, don’t you just ADORE him?

François Truffaut wrote about Sefton in The Films in My Life:

Sefton is intelligent; that’s why he acts as he does. For the first time in films the philosophy of the solitary man is elaborated; this film is an apologia for individualism. (Certainly, the solitary man has been a theme in films, as with Charlie Chaplin and many other comedians. But he has usually been an inept person whose only desire was to fit into society.) Sefton is alone because he wants to be alone. He has the qualities of leadership, and everything would tend to establish him as the barracks’ trusted leader. After the deception has been uncovered by Sefton himself, and the leader the man trusted has been unmasked and convicted, we may wonder if Sefton escapes in order to avoid being named to take his place, knowing his fellow prisoners would do exactly that, both to exonerate themselves and because they finally recognize him as their only possible leader.

What’s sure is that Sefton escapes to get away from the companions whom he despises rather than from a regime he has come to terms with and guards he’s been able to bend to his needs.

Sefton needs those whom he despises to despise him in turn. If he remains, he will be a hero – a role he rejects no matter what the cost. Having lost his moral solitude, he hastens to regain it by becoming an escapee, with all the risk that entails.

Years ago, I wrote a long essay about William Holden for Slant, which focused a lot on his physicality (he was so athletic and he had great control). I really like that piece.

Since that piece was so long ago, I didn’t feel bad about reiterating my thoughts on Holden – and his physicality – and how he was able to use his body – in one of the most popular columns I ever wrote for Film Comment, on the art of the death scene. Because William Holden’s death scene in Sunset Boulevard is my #1 favorite. I do go on and on about it – and I broke it down here once, moment by moment – mainly because I just want people to GET how amazing it is, what he does with his body there.

One final word about Sunset Boulevard: not too many actors would have submitted to the requirements of that role, to the mere suggestion of that role: to be a pretty-boy sex-toy. Paul Newman could – and would – do it. In Sweet Bird of Youth. Roles like that put the man in the stereotypically female position: of being owned, of being objectified, used for sex, trapped. It could be seen as emasculating. It IS emasculating, that’s the whole point.

Montgomery Clift was originally cast in the role Holden ended up playing, but Clift backed out (igniting Wilder’s wrath). Clift was, at that point, in a similar position in his real life, with a much older woman, AND he claimed he didn’t want to repeat himself, and the role was so close to the one he played in The Heiress. (Although … it wasn’t really that close. I mean, sort of, but not really.) Some friends of Clift’s wondered if Clift’s underlying torment about being gay, and being closeted had something to do with him backing out: to play an “emasculated” role might be too revealing. All of that being said: Holden, a golden boy (literally: he had played the role in the movie of the same name), an athlete, a stereotypical leading man – gorgeous, manly, strong – did not balk at taking on the role, at using his handsomeness in this subverted perverted way: that he could be “had”, he could be “bought.”

I am haunted by William Holden’s end.

I try to focus on his career, his work, how good he was, how controlled, how intelligent in his process and approach.

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12 Responses to “I don’t really know why, but danger has always been an important thing in my life – to see how far I could lean without falling, how fast I could go without cracking up.” — William Holden

  1. Tom Nassisi says:

    Absolutely marvelous commentary on William Holden’s performance of Sefton in Stalag 17, one of my favorite movies. Great job! You nailed it. I love your blog and read it pretty much every day.

  2. Bill Wolfe says:

    Picnic is one of my favorite movies from the Fifties, in large part because of Holden’s performance. It’s so interesting that in a decade devoted so much to images of success, he repeatedly played men who looked as if they *ought* to be successful, but in fact are tormented. One of the lovely aspects of S.O.B., which I believe was his last film, was his ability to convey the sense that his character had come through his struggles and had attained a funny kind of grace. (“Funny” in both senses.)

    • sheila says:

      // he repeatedly played men who looked as if they *ought* to be successful, but in fact are tormented. //

      So true! You’d look at him and think “what problems can THAT guy have.” He was always poking holes in that assumption – which is pretty bold!!

  3. gina in alabama says:

    Holden had a similar edge in Bridge on the River Kwai. His character had adopted (stolen?) another identity (similar to Don Draper?) when taken prisoner (as officers may have expected better treatment?) His character’s end was ironically, that of a hero. I always liked him and his end was indeed sad. Also he was great in Network as were so many others (Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway). And he was a fine looking man.

    • sheila says:

      Yes – so true, I love his performance in River Kwai. You’re right: Irony is a key component in Holden’s persona.

  4. Lizzie says:

    I also love how different he is in Born Yesterday, how NON-physical–playing this mild-mannered, intellectual guy who is not totally IN his body, you know what I mean? Like, his body is only there to cart his brain around, which is a very specific nerdy body language that he captures really well (even though that’s clearly not his lived experience because, hello, he’s William frickin’ Holden!)

    And the way he plays off of Judy Holliday–respectful, delighted, really listening to her, pushing her to do better, examining his own biases, keeping his impulses in check, willing to play second banana/straight man because that’s what the story demands…I think my favorite thing about the performance is that he’s such a selfless, decent guy that if Billie came to him without any romantic interest and asked for his help “getting out” from under Harry’s thumb, you just know he would help her because he wants her to be happy.

    (Shallow note) Plus he looks SO YUMMY in glasses!

    • sheila says:

      I love him in Born Yesterday! You’re so right – he seems like a born nerd in that! He was so talented!

      // willing to play second banana/straight man because that’s what the story demands //

      Yes, it’s so beautiful and generous.

  5. I had forgotten the details of Holden’s passing. That’s going to live in my brain’s Hall of Horrific Ways To Go, along with Isadora Duncan, Anton Yelchin, Jayne Mansfield…anyway, I first saw Holden in one of his last movies, a pictured called The Earthling, which is mostly notably precisely for being one of Holden’s very last movies (as well as the very first role for Ricky Schroder, who later named one of his kids for Holden). Fine actor who probably is insufficiently remembered these days….

    • sheila says:

      Kelly – His death haunts me too. Ugh. His performance in Network cuts so close to the bone – he was such a Golden Boy (literally) in his youth – and to put himself out there, as a “failed” old man – all the disappointments and pathos – he’s made a fool of himself with this younger woman – to just admit all that – not a lot of former Golden Boys can do that.

      wow, I remember The Earthling!

  6. Kristen Westergaard says:

    You do such a great job illustrating the gifts that a special performer like Holden brings to film. I occasionally find him a bit brassy, but in his great roles- and he has a ton of them- he brings an earthiness, grit, humor, and depth that is imprinted on my psyche. He’s the kind of actor that occasionally shows up in my dreams because he means something to my subconscious. I love The Wild Bunch for many reasons, but one is the pairing of two brutal but also oddly vulnerable bandits- Holden and Robert Ryan.

    • sheila says:

      Kristen – thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      // He’s the kind of actor that occasionally shows up in my dreams because he means something to my subconscious. //

      This is so interesting!!

      and oh GOD yes Robert Ryan.

      I like Holden best in the roles which allow for DEEP ambivalence and contradictions – like Sunset Boulevard – and my favorite Stalag 17. In Sunset Boulevard he’s soft, in Stalag 17 he’s hard as nails – both extremes seem to sit well with him. Two totally different types of men. I think he had far more range than he was allowed to show. The curse of a handsome all-American man!

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