A handsome matinee idol of the 1950’s, William Holden died alone in 1981, from an alcohol-related fall. A sad coda to an Academy Award winning screen career. He was only 63 at the time.
To an outsider, Holden seemed a complex man, who made some of his boldest acting choices toward the end of his career. Holden’s career had been in decline since the 1960s, only a few of his films during this period were notable. Even with that, Holden had a tremendous film career.
Holden began his career in the 1930’s and worked his way up the ladder of starring roles
until he became an A-List leading man with Sunset Boulevard in 1950.
In the next decade, Holden did his finest movie studio work. He was the romantic lead of choice and alternated between action films and romantic roles.
His 1950’s films included: Sunset Boulevard, Born Yesterday, Stalag 17, The Moon is Blue, Sabrina, Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Country Girl, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Picnic, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Horse Soldiers. That’s about half the total of films he made during the decade.
By the end of the 1950’s he was at the height of his popularity. He was ranked in the box
office top ten each year during the decade and had two Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actor win for Stalag 17.
The films he made during the 1960’s were for the most part, not worth his talent. He made a lot of films but mostly they were inconsequential, parts he showed up to read his lines and then go home.
In 1966, while making a film in Italy, he was convicted in the vehicular manslaughter. Holden lucked out with only a suspended sentence which could have been a severe prison term, especially since alcohol was involved.
In 1969, Holden was cast in The Wild Bunch, one of two films that saved the last 20 years of his career. He was 50 years old while making the film, old for a Western outlaw, and he looked it.
At first, Holden would seem an odd choice for the role of killer Pike Bishop. World-weary and worn like cracked leather, Holden played the role as a man out of place, time having passed him by in a rapidly changing world. Holden’s career was in the dump, an old 50, his prospects dimming as audience tastes were also changing.
The Wild Bunch was a controversial success, and it breathed a certain amount of life into Holden’s career, but not much.
He followed the film with two under-performing Westerns, pale in comparison to The Wild Bunch, but starring roles. He chose to star in a small film directed by Clint Eastwood called Brezy about a man undergoing a midlife crisis with a young girl. The story was a familiar topic, though it’s rather unseemly now, but Holden’s dour and emotionally withdrawn character was quite effective. Holden’s films seemed to draw on that also familiar surliness and bitterness, perhaps why he was not associated with comedy material.
Holden took a foray into television playing what else, a bitter, world-weary beat police
officer, for which he won an Emmy.
Holden’s best role in the last half of his career, even better than Pike Bishop, was in the hugly successful film Network. He was nominated for an Academy Award for playing what else, a world-weary network news executive. He was incredibly good and should have won.
The last of Holden’s films were nondescript, films he likely took for the money. The Towering Inferno was a huge hit, although it didn’t require Holden to do much. His second disaster film was a disaster, When Time Ran Out. Paul Newman also starred and he thought it was a dog.
Few actors had a decade like Holden had in the 1950’s. He was handsome, athletic and looked good in a dinner jacket or a cowboy hat. He was a fine dramatic actor and could play light comedy, and Holden made money for his studios.
As I watched several of his early movies recently, what I saw was an actor who made acting look easy. Perhaps too easy. Maybe it was his approach or the sameness of some of his characters. Early on, he developed his wisecracking cynicism and it stayed with him. I often wondered whether to take seriously many of Holden’s characters because the cynicism acted like a wall around him. Usually sarcastic and trying to be one step ahead of the situation, Holden was Maverick before the James Garner character was written.
Besides the cynicism, Holden’s characters were disappointed romantics, who still believed there was honor in the world, even if it was out of style and usually a bad deal. Even in bad, selfish characters, there could be a streak of honor. Joe Gillis (Sunset Boulevard), Sgt. Sefton (Stalag 17), David Larabee (Sabrina), Shears (The Bridge on the River Kwai), Pike Bishop (The Wild Bunch), Frank Harmon (Brezy), Max Schumacher (Network) all fall into this category.
Whatever the role, lead or support, Holden commanded every scene he was in. He had scenes with Hollywood’s biggest stars, and while their roles might have been more glamorous, he was never acted off the screen.
Holden was one of the last stars from that golden era, before the pictures got smaller.
From Sunset Boulevard:
Betty Schaefer: “I’ve been hoping to run into you.”
Joe Gillis: “What for? To recover that knife you stuck in my back?”
Typical Holden dialogue.