I was first introduced to William Holden when I was twelve. I was watching the classic I Love Lucy episode “Hollywood At Last,” in which the star-struck Lucy has a disastrous encounter with the actor at The Brown Derby restaurant and later disguises herself when Ricky invites him over to meet her. I have to admit, I was not that impressed by Holden at first. He is not an actor who is discussed often and I had not seen any of his movies, so it was difficult for me to understand why Lucy was so enamored with him.
Flash forward to December 5, 2015, the day I watched Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) for the first time on Turner Classic Movies’ The Essentials. In it, Holden plays a hack screenwriter who writes a screenplay for a deluded former silent film star (Gloria Swanson) who has faded into obscurity. I absolutely loved it, and suddenly the Holden hype made sense. Talented and handsome? Yes, indeed.
When I heard about the Marathon Stars Blogathon, I thought this would be the perfect excuse to watch more of Holden’s movies and cross some big-name classics off my list. Holden appeared in 70 films between 1939 and 1981, so I chose seven that I had never seen before and were easily accessible (shout-out to TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar).
*MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
Born Yesterday (1950)
My Fair Lady meets Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in this comedy, in which Judy Holliday stars as Billie Dawn, the seemingly “dumb blonde” mistress of crude junkyard tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). Harry is in Washington, D.C. with the intent of bribing some congressmen and is embarrassed by Billie’s unrefined behavior when interacting with the political elite, so he hires journalist Paul Verrall (Holden) to soften her rough edges and to teach her how to be cultured. Harry gets more than he bargained for, however: not only do Billie and Paul fall in love, but she also absorbs Paul’s lessons in history, philosophy, and government, realizes her potential, and begins to critically think for herself.
Without a doubt, this is Judy Holliday’s movie. She’s brilliant in her Oscar-winning role, but Holden also gives a solid performance. The wrong actor could have played Paul as condescending, but Holden understands the character’s good nature and plays him with earnest authenticity.
Stalag 17 (1953)
Holden received his first and only Academy Award for Best Actor for this second collaboration with Billy Wilder, in which he plays J.J. Sefton, a wheeling and dealing serviceman in a World War II POW camp who has to prove that he’s not an informant to the German guards. Holden’s win has been viewed as a mea culpa from the Academy for not giving him an Oscar for Sunset Boulevard, but in this ensemble piece where he could have been overshadowed by the comic relief players, his nonchalance sets the tone for the film and holds it together. Though Sefton is the main character, he is set apart from the other POWs through most of the film and we learn about him as they do. They see him as an arrogant schemer, and we feel the same way. When they think he’s the spy, we do too. It is a testament to great writing, and the wry, mysterious qualities Holden brings to the character elevate the story.
This was Holden’s third film with Billy Wilder. Audrey Hepburn plays the titular daughter of a chauffeur for the wealthy Larrabee family on their Long Island estate. Sabrina has been hopelessly infatuated with the family’s playboy younger son, David (Holden) since childhood, but he pays her no attention until she returns from a two-year stay in Paris a stunning, sophisticated woman. When the Larrabees need to seal an important business deal by marrying David off to an heiress, his hard-nosed older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) devises a scheme to distract Sabrina and make her fall in love with him instead.
A lot of the film’s humor comes from the womanizing David – and Holden delivers. The character is a total cad, but Holden plays up the charm and childishness that allows us to see not only why Sabrina likes David, but also that he is wrong for her. In one scene, Sabrina is waiting at the train station for her father after returning from Paris. David happens to be driving by and slams on the brakes upon seeing the glamorous young woman, but he is so self-absorbed he doesn’t even recognize the girl he’s known since childhood. Holden plays David’s cluelessness well, and it’s what makes the character so funny.
Of all the films I watched for this marathon, Picnic was the most disappointing, mainly because Holden is miscast. He was 37 at the time this movie was made, playing a character I assume should be in his mid twenties. That character is Hal, a drifter who shows up in a small Kansas town on the day of the Labor Day picnic to visit his old college buddy Alan (Cliff Robertson). He is immediately taken with Alan’s girlfriend Madge (Kim Novak) and sparks fly between the two of them. Holden tries his best to make Hal believable, but some moments of boyish expression are awkward coming from a man of his age, and having his hair brushed forward over his forehead doesn’t help. It would have worked better with someone like Marlon Brando, James Dean, or Paul Newman (who played the role on Broadway), or if Holden was about 10 years younger.
That’s not to say Picnic does not have its high points. And in this particular case, Holden’s talent is best on display when he does not have any dialogue, namely the famous scene where he dances with Kim Novak. The way he gazes at her is enough to make you go weak in the knees and it’s hard to take your eyes off him. Their dance is the definition of sexual tension, and it’s likely a reason the film was one of the top box office attractions that year.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Holden plays another World War II POW in this Best Picture winner, this time in Asia. The Japanese Army is forcing the POWs to build a strategic railway bridge, but their initial instinct is to sabotage its construction. Enter British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who, after settling his differences with camp commander Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), persuades his men that the bridge should be built well as a symbol of British morale and dignity under harsh circumstances. Unbeknownst to the principled yet deluded Nicholson, the Allies are planning to destroy the bridge. Holden plays Shears, an American serviceman who escapes from the prison camp, but who reluctantly returns to complete this mission.
Holden’s character is similar to the one he played in Stalag 17: he is cynical, acts in his own self-interest, and does what he can to make the most of his time in the prison camp (i.e. bribing guards). But in Bridge, there is more emphasis on the character’s desire to just get home and not be a pawn of principle. Shears is a foil to Col. Nicholson, who wants to live and die by the rules, and Holden skillfully captures his embittered sarcasm and fatalism.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
After a string of less-than-stellar films in the 1960s, Holden made a comeback in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The story follows an aging band of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (Holden) as they pull off one last heist for a Mexican warlord as the American West is dying and bounty hunters close in on them. The film is known more for its revolutionary use of editing and on-screen violence than the performances, but the actors play their roles with conviction. Holden departs from his easygoing type and plays the world-weary outlaw with an unprecedented level of grit. His character is brutal; the first words out of his mouth, said about innocent hostages in a bank, are “If they move, kill ’em.” It is not the Holden I had become used to watching, and his believability is a testament to his inherent talent.
Network is my favorite Holden performance thus far. He plays Max Schumacher, the head of the news division of a struggling television network that exploits the rantings and revelations of deranged former anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) for its own profit. Max represents a dying era of television news that is being taken over by sensationalist entertainment, and his desire to preserve his reputation and refusal to compromise his integrity don’t help him. The film is brilliantly written, directed, and acted, and is eerily prescient of today’s media landscape.
Holden’s performance in Network is understated, yet powerful. He approaches Max with such vulnerability and sincerity that we hang onto his every word and facial expression. This is best exemplified in the scene in which Max confesses to his wife Louise (Beatrice Straight) about his affair with head of programming Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). Louise rightfully and obviously feels betrayed by her husband of twenty five years, and we can sense that Max regrets hurting her, but he doesn’t regret the affair itself. It’s a heartbreaking scene and both actors play off of each other magnificently. It’s a shame Holden didn’t win an Oscar for this role; Straight won Best Supporting Actress (the shortest-ever Oscar-winning performance), Dunaway won Best Actress, and Finch beat out Holden for Best Actor, but he was just as deserving.
Watching several of Holden’s movies within a short time frame was a great way to see his evolution as an actor. He boasted an impressive filmography and he seemed to truly understand the characters he played. Whether he was the hero, anti-hero, or somewhere in between, his performances seem effortless. He wasn’t flashy and didn’t draw attention to himself, but his versatility allowed him to consistently turn in good performances in a variety of genres. I think it’s safe to say I have a new favorite actor.