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William Holden


LawrenceA
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William Holden (1918-1981) was born with the name William Beedle Jr, in O'Fallon, Illinois. At the age of three, his family moved out west, to Pasadena, California, where Holden was raised, and where he attended high school and college. He started acting in radio dramas and minor theatrical productions, where he was noticed by a talent scout, which led to his first, uncredited film role in 1938's Prison Farm. The following year he made his proper film debut, with the new screen name of William Holden (bestowed by talent agent Harold Winston, and taken from Winston's ex-love, Gloria Holden), in the film adaptation of the hit boxing play Golden Boy. He appeared alongside Barbara Stanwyck, who took a liking to Holden, and she helped guide him through his first major film experience. They remained lifelong friends.

 

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Holden would spend the next decade appearing in many films (19 in total), usually in a starring capacity, but none of the films made much of an impact at the time, and he never rose above B-level status. He took a break from 1943 to 1947 to join the US Army Air Force, where he worked primarily in the production of training films. His screen career didn't truly take off until 1950, and his landing the choice lead role in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. His role as an out-of-work screenwriter who becomes the companion of a bizarre, reclusive silent film star brought him the most attention yet, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

 

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Holden became one of the premiere male stars of the 1950's, starring in 21 films during the decade. Highlights include Born Yesterday, Executive Suite, Sabrina, The Country Girl, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Picnic, The Key, and his Oscar-winning role in 1953's Stalag 17.

 

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By the mid-1950's, though, Holden's off-screen diversions began to negatively affect his life. He had been a social drinker since he started as an actor, but by the early 50's, it had devolved into excessive drinking and alcoholism. He had been married to actress Brenda Marshall since 1941, although they were frequently separated, often for years at a time, and they wouldn't formally divorce until the early 70's. During the making of Sabrina in 1954, Holden fell in love with co-star Audrey Hepburn, but she eventually rejected his offer of marriage due to his drinking and his inability to sire children (he'd had a vasectomy after fathering 2 children with Marshall). Holden drank even more heavily in the ensuing years, prematurely aging him, although he was still often sited as one of the sexiest men in Hollywood. His career arguably peaked in 1957, with the co-starring role in the massively successful The Bridge On the River Kwai, a film that would go on to win 7 Oscars, including Best Picture.

 

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Holden's drinking became so severe that it started to effect the quality of his work, both his performances, and subsequently the films that he was offered. Among his movies of the 1960's were The World of Suzie Wong, Satan Never Sleeps, The Lion, Paris When It Sizzles, The 7th Dawn, and The Devil's Brigade. Holden had another steamy love affair, this time with Capucine, his co-star in The Lion and The 7th Dawn, but again his excessive drinking ended it. His drinking was reportedly so bad during the shooting of 1966's Alvarez Kelly that his co-star Richard Widmark would often have to help him remember his lines and stay on his horse. Holden's looks had continued to decline, and his weather-beaten face and at-times ragged voice served well in his next screen triumph, Sam Peckinpah's ultra-violent Western The Wild Bunch in 1969, a film that has gone on to be regarded as one of the best of the genre.

 

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Holden's following output was weak and sporadic, although he won an Emmy award for the starring role in the TV film The Blue Knight in 1973. During this time, Holden, and his girlfriend Stephanie Powers, spent a lot of time in Kenya, Africa, where Holden helped establish a wildlife refuge. After appearing in the Oscar-nominated disaster epic The Towering Inferno in 1974, Holden managed one last screen triumph, and garnered one last Oscar nomination, for the lead role in Sidney Lumet's Network, a blistering, still-relevant takedown of TV news.

 

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Holden appeared in a few more forgettable films, such as Damien:The Omen 2Ashanti, and When Time Ran Out. He made his final screen appearance in 1981's S.O.B. for Blake Edwards. He had landed a co-starring role in the upcoming film adaptation of the hit stage play That Championship Season, when Holden fell while at his apartment alone, striking his forehead and cutting himself deeply enough to bleed to death. He had been drinking heavily again, after production on the film was delayed. He was cremated with little ceremony, as was his wish, and his ashes scattered at sea.

 

William Holden to me stands as one of the prime examples of 1950's urban masculinity, sharp-witted, sharp dressed, a skirt-chaser that drinks too much. He could be charming and heroic, although I think he was best when he played cynical world-weariness, a man who had seen it all, twice, and didn't much care for what he saw. He also always seemed human, though, and not like a manufactured screen star, as so many of his lesser contemporaries did. And that humanity is what keeps garnering him fans, even into the 21st century.

 

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The following year he made his proper film debut, with the new screen name of William Holden (bestowed by talent agent Harold Winston, and taken from Winston's ex-love, Gloria Holden), in the film adaptation of the hit boxing play Golden Boy. He appeared alongside Barbara Stanwyck, who took a liking to Holden, and she helped guide him through his first major film experience. They remained lifelong friends.

 

Reminded me of one of my favorite Oscar moments when William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck presented the award for Best Sound back in 1978. His unscripted words regarding her and her reaction to those words were priceless.

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Reminded me of one of my favorite Oscar moments when William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck presented the award for Best Sound back in 1978. His unscripted words regarding her and her reaction to those words were priceless.

 

As a followup to these words, one of the most touching tributes to Holden came three months after his death when Barbara Stanwyck accepted her honourary Academy Award on the Oscar stage.

 

It chokes me up when I hear this lady speak from the heart about her friend.

 

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Lawrence, thanks for a great review of Holden's career. He is one of the stars who exemplifies the 1950s, with a great run of films in that decade. Thanks for mentioning The Key, a little-known masterpiece, and The 7th Dawn, one of his best 1960s films.

 

The paradox of William Holden is that he seems like the kind of man almost any man would want to be and most women would want to date/marry/etc., yet at the same time, no actor is better is better at conveying guilt, self-disgust, and self-loathing, not even Dana Andrews, a similar type in many ways, right down to the alcoholism. Perhaps one reason that Holden's performance in Sunset Boulevard holds up so well is that Holden put some of his own emotions up there on the screen.

 

What a great photo of Holden, too. That's how his fans want to remember him.

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I have seen 44 of the 68 movies William Holden appeared in. My favorites are:

 

Sunset Blvd.

The Wild Bunch

The Bridge On the River Kwai

Network

Stalag 17

Executive Suite

The Key

Sabrina

Rachel and the Stranger

Born Yesterday

 

I also enjoyed his guest spot on I Love Lucy.

 

I have yet to see these films, many of which are available on Amazon Prime:

 

Those Were the Days! (1940)

I Wanted Wings (1941)

Texas (1941)

The Remarkable Andrew (1942)

Young and Willing (1943)

Blaze of Noon (1947)

Dear Ruth (1947)

The Dark Past (1948)

Streets of Laredo (1949)

Dear Wife (1949)

Submarine Command (1951)

The Turning Point (1952)

Forever Female (1953)

The Proud and Profane (1956)

Toward the Unknown (1956)

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

The Christmas Tree (1969)

The Revengers (1972)

The Blue Knight (1973)

Open Season (1974)

Fedora (1978)

Ashanti (1979)

The Earthling (1980)

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Lawrence, thanks for a great review of Holden's career. He is one of the stars who exemplifies the 1950s, with a great run of films in that decade. Thanks for mentioning The Key, a little-known masterpiece, and The 7th Dawn, one of his best 1960s films.

 

The paradox of William Holden is that he seems like the kind of man almost any man would want to be and most women would want to date/marry/etc., yet at the same time, no actor is better is better at conveying guilt, self-disgust, and self-loathing, not even Dana Andrews, a similar type in many ways, right down to the alcoholism. Perhaps one reason that Holden's performance in Sunset Boulevard holds up so well is that Holden put some of his own emotions up there on the screen.

 

What a great photo of Holden, too. That's how his fans want to remember him.

 

Very nice analysis of some of Holden's screen appeal, kingrat.

 

To be honest, as an actor and personality he failed to make much of an impression upon me until Billy Wilder gave his career a renewed kick start with Sunset Boulevard. That film vaulted him to the premiere ranks of stardom, with more good roles to follow in that decade, particular highlights being Stalag 17, Picnic and Bridge on the River Kwai.

 

Once his new screen persona was established with Sunset, Holden became, at his best, one of the great cynics of the screen. He was Bogart's equal in that respect, but with far more sex appeal.

 

The 7th Dawn, a little remembered and unfairly neglected 1964 production filmed on location in Malayasia, is a sentimental favourite of mine. Many of my initial introductions as a boy to old movies was on Buffalo's Channel 7's The Late Show many years ago. I didn't know it then but the theme music that that late night film presentation had was the theme from The 7th Dawn. I whooped for joy when I saw the film a number of years ago for the first time and recognized the music. It was like re-discovering an old friend.

 

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Here are the opening and closing titles of the film, with an impressive title design by Maurice Binder. The stunning cinematography is by Frederick Young and the haunting music I love so well by Riz Ortolani.

 

 

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Tom, thanks for the powerful music and, as you say, the stunning cinematography of Frederick Young, who is one of the greats. Hint: this film is likely to appear on a future top 10 list.

 

Wow, Lawrence, I haven't seen any of the Holden films that you haven't seen, and haven't even heard of most of them. Cast in the right films, Holden could certainly have been one of the great 40s noir actors.

 

I would imagine that, like certain other very masculine actors, Holden may have felt that acting wasn't a manly profession.

 

Fortunately, he was able to work with some top directors like Wilder, Lean, Reed, Wise, Cukor, Lumet, and Peckinpah before his career was over. Lewis Gilbert isn't too shabby, either.

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I love William Holden! He's one of my favorites--he didn't used to be though (not that I didn't like him, I just didn't think much about him) until I started watching TCM more regularly.

 

My first exposure to Holden was in his guest spot in the "LA at Last!" (or "Hollywood at Last!" as it's also known) episode of I Love Lucy. Holden, along with Harpo Marx and Tallulah Bankhead (okay, that's in a Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour episode) have probably the best guest appearances in the entire series.

 

In my opinion, this is the funniest part of the entire episode. If I could find an image that also shows Desi Arnaz (to Holden's left) with his eyes bugged out, that would really complete the image.

 

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Anyway, for years, I had seen this episode over and over. I had never really heard of Holden in any other films, as at that time, the only classics I watched were either musicals or had Lucille Ball in them. I only saw Miss Grant Takes Richmond (starring Holden and Ball) for the first time a few years ago. I figured Holden was one of those actors who was "popular enough at the time to be asked to be on I Love Lucy." Lol.

 

Anyway,

 

My real love of William Holden started a few years ago when I saw Sunset Boulevard in the theater. While Gloria Swanson was fabulous and hilarious, I found myself really drawn to Holden's character. Here was this handsome (but a more rugged, more attainable handsome) man who was down on his luck and stumbled into what seemed like a dream situation. Faded and delusional silent screen star, Swanson, who has been living as a recluse in her mansion, is writing her comeback screenplay. Fully intending to take advantage of the situation, Holden convinces Swanson to hire him to fix her script. Unfortunately, Holden slowly becomes consumed by Norma's life and her various neuroses. Holden brings a weary and cynical attitude to his character, which demonstrates how desperate he is to fix his situation. He is also the one who keeps the film grounded so that it doesn't end up completely absurd. He also delivers a degree of charm that makes it believable that Swanson and his other leading ladies would find themselves taken in by him.

 

After 'Boulevard,' I wanted to see more of Holden's films. In the past few years or so, I've seen:

 

Golden Boy, I didn't care for this film at all. I would have never recognized Holden if I hadn't known he was in the film. He looked a lot like Tony Curtis in this film, but without the Bronx accent. In fact, I think Curtis would have been better in this film, but he would have been too young at the time. The only thing that saves this film slightly, in my opinion, is Stanwyck. I absolutely loathe Lee J. Cobb in this film. I'm not sure why they couldn't cast an actual older actor to portray Holden's father. In this film, you can tell that Holden is nervous and unsure. Unlike Errol Flynn or Audrey Hepburn, he isn't an instant charismatic screen personality in his first major role.

 

Miss Grant Takes Richmond. Made a few films prior to 'Boulevard,' this film wasn't going to win any major awards and is more of a vehicle to show off Lucille Ball's comedy talents. However, Holden demonstrates his charm and skill in comedic roles and is very entertaining in this film. He is also an excellent straight-man to Ball's antics.

 

Born Yesterday. He is the character that evens out the insanity and boorishness of Broderick Crawford's character. He represents the "out" for Judy Holliday's character and also represents a happy medium between Holliday's brash, dingy Billie Dawn, and Crawford's absolutely horrible and abusive Harry Brock. The audience roots for Holden and Holliday to get together. BILL! SAVE JUDY! That's what I always say anyway.

 

The Moon is Blue. I know many here dislike this film. I actually really like it, save for the wannabe Audrey Hepburn, Maggie McNamara. I like Holden's cynical, realistic Donald Gresham character. While he is at first somewhat a cad in the beginning of the film (his only goal really being to bed McNamara), he calls out McNamara for being a tease and for also making such a point about how big a virgin she is. "People who advertise are anxious to *sell* something!" Holden tells McNamara. Anyway, I really like this film.

 

Executive Suite. An ensemble film, but Holden is effective as the manager (the one who seems the most likable and the one who'd most likely be the most successful). I liked his character very much, especially when he finally decided to take charge of the process to replace their deceased president.

 

Sabrina. I love this movie. It's one of my absolute favorite films. While I'm not sure why Holden has blonde hair in this film, I don't even care. He is very charming and funny in this movie and I can see why Audrey was holding such a torch for him.

 

Picnic. My favorite favorite Holden movie. I love this movie. I discovered it a couple years ago on TCM. It was absolutely pouring and windy and horrendous outside and this movie just happened to be on. I do love me a good melodrama, so it seemed like a good way to pass some time. While I know Holden and others felt he was too old (and perhaps he was. He didn't appear to be a peer of Cliff Robertson's), I don't care. While he may have looked a bit long in the tooth, his persona was perfect for that of Hal, the drifter. He was a hunky drifter and was different than the snooty, boring Robertson. I always shudder/laugh when Robertson tells Kim Novak: "I want to see if you look real in the moonlight!" Anyway, save for a few "babys," Holden would never use such a corny/creepy line on a lady. He also made an interesting match for Novak's character. Novak, tired of just being seen as pretty and someone who could skate by on her looks, wants someone to like her for her. Robertson's character only views Novak as a trophy, someone who would look good on his arm. Novak's mother, Betty Field, likes Robertson and dislikes Holden, because Robertson would raise their social standing. Holden would not. The "Moonglow" dance between Holden and Novak is one of the sexiest scenes on film. I love this movie.

 

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(Burning the trash never looked so good)

 

Paris When it Sizzles. I know Lawrence mentioned not having seen this film. This is the second and last pairing of Holden and Audrey Hepburn. In this film, Holden is a screenwriter who is hired to write a screenplay for his boss. He is a bit of a playboy and ends up procrastinating until two days before his assignment is due. Hepburn portrays a secretary who he hires to help him type up the script. Holden, who had writer's block up until Hepburn's arrival, finds himself inspired by her and the gears finally start turning. The bulk of the film flips back and forth between reality where Holden and Hepburn are writing the screenplay, and fantasy sequences where Holden and Hepburn are acting out Holden's screenplay as it is written. There are funny cameos by Tony Curtis and Marlene Dietrich. This isn't among Holden or Hepburn's best films, but it is worth watching, if only for Holden, Hepburn, Hepburn's clothes and the Parisian setting.

 

Network. I love this movie. Though I'll admit it was a little disconcerting at first to not only see Holden in a sex scene but to also hear him using profanity. Not that I don't doubt he used profanity in real life, but it is odd to see a star who for years was part of the studio system and up until then, I think the most hardcore word he was able to say was "damn." Along with Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway, I thought that Holden was one of the best characters in the film. I also think that Holden's character represented one of the few shreds of humanity in the film.

 

---

 

I haven't seen many of his 1940s films. I have quite a few of his films on the DVR, none of which I've seen yet.

 

Invisible Stripes

Escape From Fort Bravo

The Bridge on the River Kwai

SOB

Stalag 17

Rachel and the Stranger

 

---

 

Some of his other films I'd like to see:

 

The Wild Bunch

 

The Country Girl (if only because he was promoting this film on I Love Lucy and I want to know what Grace Kelly did that was so great that she beat Judy Garland for A Star is Born. I do like Kelly, but Garland deserved that award!)

 

Love is a Many Splendored Thing. I think I've actually seen this film before as it is/was on Netflix Streaming, but I can't remember anything about it.

 

The Towering Inferno

 

The Bridges at Toko-Ri

 

The World of Suzie Wong

 

The Key

 

The Dark Past

 

Union Station

 

The Turning Point

 

Aside from 'Boulevard,' I don't think I've seen a Holden noir!

 

I very much recommend the biography on Holden, Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden, by Bob Thomas. It was very interesting and well written.

 

I am about to start reading a "romantic biography" (as it was called) about Audrey Hepburn and William Holden's behind the scenes romance on Sabrina: Audrey and Bill: A Romantic Biography of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden by Edward Z. Epstein.

 

Thank you Lawrence for spotlighting such a great actor!

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I have to admit that I tend to forget Holden.   e.g.  I don't say to myself 'I'm going to see this film,  just because Holden is the lead'  like I do with Bogie,  Leslie Howard,  Grant or some of my other favorites.

 

But in most cases I'm impressed with a Holden performance and in the last decade or so I've become a fan.    

 

My favorite Holden films are:

 

The Fleet's In;   This is a fun musical with Lamour at her peak in terms of beauty,  just the right amount of Betty Hutton and some fine songs in I Remember You and Tangerine.    

 

Rachel and the Stranger;    fine performances by all 3 stars (Mitchum, Holden and Young).  One can see the very different acting style between Mitchum and Holden.    

 

Miss Grant Takes Richmond;   Silly film but Lucy and Holden work well together.

 

Sunset Boulevard;   one of the best films every made 

 

Born Yesterday;   While I feel the character doesn't fit Holden's screen persona (e.g. putting on glasses doesn't make that type of man a nerd),  Holden still pulls off the role.

 

Stalag 17;   The perfect role for the Holden screen persona.   

 

Sabrina;    This movie has so much charm and Holden is in fine form as the carefree younger brother.

 

Bridge on the River Kwai;   Holden in yet another first rate production.   

 

The World of Suzie Wong;   A softer side of Bill.

 

The Wild Bunch;  

 

 

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I'm  a big fan of Mr. Holden.

 

Thankyou, LawrenceA for starting a thread  about one of my favourite actors of all time.

 

The movie I have seen the most often is Bridge on the River Kwai.

 

I still have not seen all of his movies, but I did recently add The Wild Bunch to movies I have seen.

 

I love that everyone has a different set of favourite films of William Holden.

 

The video of Barbara Stanwyck was wonderful.

 

 

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  • 4 weeks later...

Lawrence A:  William Holden is one of my all time favourites, ever since I saw him in PICNIC, a **** of a movie for its time and that dance!!!, that picnic....oh the sizzle.  I loved him in LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDOURED THING as well.  Made me order a biography of his life which I found fascinating and terribly envious of Stephanie Powers who had a relationship and shared mutual interest in wildlife conservation.  Thanks for the post and the thread.  It appears the Favourites are more interesting than what I see on the General Thread...oh yes and my George post is now here.

 

Thanks too for the info re Holden movies on Amazon Prime

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