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A Discussion of William Holden


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James, I admire Holden's performance as Joe Gillis because of the complexity of the characterization. The audience sees the Joe Gillis that he could have been in his scenes with wholesome Nancy Olson. That's the likeable Gillis that you knows lies beneath the surface no matter what degree of moral repugnance his later behaviour with Norma Desmond may be.

 

Remember, Gillis prostitutes himself due to economic reasons. If he had been doing well as a screenwriter he would not have taken on stud work living with an aged increasingly delusion former film star. While there's no doubt many would regard his behaviour as fairly reprehensible, don't forget that, at the end, Gillis, repulsed by his own behaviour, tries to walk out on Desmond, and for that he will pay the ultimate price.

 

No, James I don't agree that Gillis is an indecent human being. I think he's essentially a good guy who compromises himself, does do indecent things before, at the end, for reasons of self respect, tries to emancipate himself and, perhaps, even redeem himself, to a degree. That he fails in that and is murdered gains him audience sympathy.

 

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!

 

 

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Well, I think Norma was a nasty, mean, domineering woman who was "buying" this young guy's affection and refused to see he wasn't interested in her. He did the best he could to not hurt her feelings and that was commendable. A normal guy would have run away from this woman, but I think Joe was intimidated and afraid of her. He finally got his courage up to leave at the end of the film. I think through the film, he developed some type of feelings for her, more as a "concerned friend". The woman was double his age and should have been able to see that he obviously wasn't interested in her. I think Joe wasn't a bad guy as the movie progressed. I actually felt more sorry for him and his plight, than this frightening woman.

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Wow, people can be so judgemental about others, even fictional movie characters.

It's funny, because first james condemned Joe Gillis for being selfish and immoral, and then movielover condemned Norma Desmond for being selfish and immoral.

 

Something I like in movies is when a character is neither good nor bad, but somewhere in between , like the vast majority of us.

Joe is nowhere near the vile person james makes him out to be. He's just some guy down on his luck who sees a way to, at least temporarily, get a break, buy some time, until he can get on his feet again (with a new screenplay, and not the one he's writing for Norma Desmond.)

This is what he tells himself, and what he believes, or tries to believe, for a while. He does not initially intend to use Norma, and he certainly does not want to be used by her.

 

A lot of human beings -most, in fact - will rationalize to themselves the reasons for doing something they're not morally comfortable with. This is what Joe does.

He does not hurt anybody - except maybe himself. And he never intended to get sucked into the vortex that is Norma's desperation. Joe's main flaw is that he is weak. It's just too easy to stay there, in that bizarre gothic mansion, then to rouse himself to break away and make a fresh start.

This is actually a classic noir trope, someone who is bound to someone or something against their will, but who doesn't have the strength or energy or will to free themselves.

 

 

As for poor Norma, she is delusional and bitter and sad, and she clings to Joe because he represents to her the outside world she no longer inhabits.I don't believe she was "mean", and I don't believe Joe was intimidated by her. She was pathetic, and Joe felt tied to her as much because of that as by anything else.

Also, the mansion Norma and Joe inhabit has an eerie compelling life of its own. It's almost as though once one has entered its environs, one cannot escape. The place is holding Joe almost as much as Norma is. It's like there's a spell, or a curse, on all who enter there.

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I didn't mention BORN YESTERDAY among Holden's '50s masterworks. I don't know if it was released before of after SUNSET BOULEVARD, but they're both from 1950. I always thought he was the best thing about that movie, bringing some actual subtlety in contrast to the "look at me" performances by Judy Holldiay and Broderick Crawford. Like in SUNSET, Holden's character makes a deal with the Devil but mainly because it amuses and intrigues him and not out of financial desperation. All his scenes with Holliday are charming, the patience he shows for her, the encouragement he provides ... but he's also well aware of her feminine wiles; in fact that's certainly part of what keeps him around. I like his principled insistence at least initially that they both keep these urges on the back burner.

 

It's hard for me not to sympathize with Joe in SUNSET, because of what happens to him and because of how looney-tunes Norma ultimately becomes. I think it was probably Wilder's intention that Joe be thought of as a louse, but possibly there was an inherent decency in Holden's manner that doesn't make it wholly convincing. Or maybe it just makes him three dimensional. I had a simlar reaction to Jack Lemmon's character in Wilder's THE APARTMENT. I believe we're supposed to initially find his character rather repugnant, loaning out his apartment in exchange for undeserved career advancement, but again, Lemmon didn't really do repugnant (except maybe in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES; I thought his character was pretty reprehensible in that movie). Maybe if they hadn't shown so many scenes of his character being put upon and inconvenienced, we would have had less sympathy for him.

 

But I digress. Back to Holden. I liked the idea argued here that the scenes with Nancy Olson show Joe as he could have been, maybe should have been. You can debate about his motives near the end of the film. Norma's schemes to ruin any chance of happiness for Joe and Betty have failed. In spite of Joe's dogged, morbid insistence on revealing every sordid detail of his living arrangement, she's willing to pretend none of it ever happened and start anew. The hopeless romantic in me always hopes that maybe this time I'm watching a director's cut in which Joe takes her up on her offer. Perhaps feeling he's beyond redemption or unworthy of her, so he sends her on her way. Perhaps he realizes he was screwing up her chance for real happiness with Artie. He's not going to stay with Norma anymore, either. It feels to me at the end he's marshaled together whatever dignity he has left ... for all the good it does him!

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> I think Joe wasn't a bad guy as the movie progressed.

 

Joe was a heel from the get go and when he finally found a path towards redemption with Betty, he threw it away for the tangible suits and high lifestyle that staying with Norma afforded him.

 

He was hurdling towards his fate the moment he pulled into Norma's drive way at the beginning of the movie.

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Finallly someone mentioned Artie! Joe was returning to Dayton Ohio, where he came from, indicating that he had finallly given up the "Hollywood dream", which had lead him to this turning point. He was not going to redeem himself by continuing to see and work with Betty because of his regard for his friend Artie. Joe realized that he could no longer stay with the destructively delusional Norma nor could he leave Norma's perfumed claustrophobic world and walk out with Betty. The only path open for Joe, who finally tries to regain his self-respect is to go back to the editing desk in Dayton. As we all know he doesn't make it. Joe Gillis is a superbly written role, fully realized by Holden.

 

I guess it is obvious that William Holden is one of my favorites too! (Executive Suite a particular favorite of his many fine films)

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*MissW wrote: A lot of human beings -most, in fact - will rationalize to themselves the reasons for doing something they're not morally comfortable with. This is what Joe does.*

*He does not hurt anybody - except maybe himself.*

 

Spot on, MissW. Holden's Joe Gillis characterization works so well because the actor, along with Wilder's direction and the writing, is able to portray the complexity of a human being, an essentially decent guy (ie. the Joe that he might have been is seen in his scenes with Nancy Olson) and what he resorts to out of economic desperation. And, at the film's end, he tries to "cleanse" himself by walking away from the money, and the increasingly bizarre and possessive Norma Desmond, only to be shot down.

 

It's been a few years since I saw Sunset Boulevard. Correct me if I'm wrong. But my memory tells him that after Norma hits Joe with the first bullet in his back Holden staggers a bit but still keeps walking away from her. Her second (or is it third?) bullet sends him into the pool.

 

There's something about that act of his, of continuing to keep walking, almost as if he's trying to pretend he hadn't been shot, that makes me sympathize with Joe. He's about to become a dead man but even as he is just seconds away from death he keeps walking, shocked, stunned, I suppose, by the bullet, but still determined to follow through on his emancipation from the possessive woman behind him. It is, however, too late for him.

 

At the end of Sunset Boulevard I feel sorry for both Joe and Norma.

 

Quite frankly, conversations of this manner make me appreciate even more the complexity to be found in Wilder's film, and the fact that it is even an even greater film than I originally realized.

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I guess my two favorite films with William Holden are 1954's Executive Suite with the all-star cast that AndyM108 really likes and one of his final films The Earthling.

 

These are two totally different types of films but two films that show his greatness as an actor. He sometimes showed a very intense, often smoldering and very powerful presence and yet could also be very tender and loving. In Executive Suite he showed mostly that tender side but there was that powerful last ten minutes or so of the film where he takes command of the board room meeting to establish himself as the front runner to the position of corporate head.

 

In the Earthling he is dying of cancer and wants to return to the place of his birth to die. Along the way he takes care of a young boy who has just become an orphan. Both learn from one another and even though Holden is shown to be this old, gruff and tough man who wants really just to die alone, we all know that he becomes very attached to the young boy.

 

Holden was a great actor who had a very bad alcoholic personal life through most of his career. In some of his roles, his alcoholism affected his performances and as others have written, his once beautiful facial features turned into a weathered and rough look. This older rougher look helped him in later roles especially The Wild Bunch and Network.

 

His 1966 conviction in Italy of killing another automobile driver was also caused by his drinking. Luckily for him, he received an eight-month suspended sentence for vehicular manslaughter. Just have to wonder why he didn't seek more help for his problem.

 

As others have written, his best films were in the fifties, and then he sort of did not do as many "good" films in the sixties. After The Wild Bunch (1969) his career picked up again, only to fall back to earth after Network. In fact after Network his only really good acting was in The Earthling (1980) with Ricky Schroder.

 

Some of the films he acted in that I really liked were the following:

 

Sunset Boulevard 1950

Born Yesterday 1950

Submarine Command 1951

Stalag 17 1953

Executive Suite 1954

Sabrina 1954

The Bridges at Toko-Ri 1954

The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957

The Horse Soldiers 1959

The World of Suzie Wong 1960

The Devil's Brigade 1968

The Wild Bunch 1969

Wild Rovers 1971

Breezy 1973

The Towering Inferno 1974

Network 1976

The Earthling 1980

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>Also, the mansion Norma and Joe inhabit has an eerie compelling life of its own. It's almost as though once one has entered its environs, one cannot escape. The place is holding Joe almost as much as Norma is. It's like there's a spell, or a curse, on all who enter there.

 

Hmmmm...does this remind you of a certain old Eagles tune?

 

(...ya know, I DID always wonder if Norma's mansion might've smelled a bit of colitas)

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I admit to have a very different view of Joe than MissW and you. I can't believe anyone would say something like 'he does not hurt anybody'.

 

The movies starts out with Joe running from creditors because he cannot pay for his car. This isn't a car he needs to take his mother to the doctor or his kids to school on cold days. This is a car he needs only because he wants it. He just doesn't wish to lose it. These scenes are there to give insight into Joe's character.

 

I have no issue with him being a gigolo. That type of relationship hurts neither party (or both parties equally if you will). The main reason I call Joe a cad is for leading Norma on. We all agree she is delusional. Joe see this from the very start. What does he do with this information; He tells her he can make her screenplay into something when he knows she is washed up. Making a come back is central to Norma existance. Therefore to a delusional person like Norma that is a very nasty thing to do. Very hurtful. An "essentially decent guy" doesn't do something like that just to make a buck.

 

Like I said Joe actions shouldn't have resulted in his death so I also sympathize with Joe at the end. Like Jeff in Out of The Past, we are given hope that their character can turn things around with the help of a good women. But this being noir, it cannot be. One has to meet his fate.

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>Like I said Joe actions shouldn't of resulted in his death so I also sympathize with Joe at the end. Like Jeff in Out of The Past, we are given hope that their character can turn things around with the help of a good women. But this being noir, it cannot be. One has to meet his fate.

 

Actually a very good comparison of two otherwise very bright guys having the fates line up against them because of their meeting two crazy dames.

 

(...and you're right James, neither of them should of..ahem..should HAVE ;) come to their sad conclusion, though a more positive ending would have definitely made for two lesser films)

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What do you think about the character of Jeff verses Joe? I have made the case that Jeff was a decent guy that just made a mistake (misleading Whit because he fell in love), while Joe is much more of a cad. Do you think I'm being unfair to Joe? (of course maybe I just have more sympathy for Jeff because who can blame him once they see Kathie step into that cantina!).

 

 

 

 

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Personally I can't say Jeff was any more "noble" than Joe. Both of them pretty much immediately knew they were playing with fire by becoming involved with those crazy bitc..errr..women.

 

And so, even though it was a sexual attraction that Jeff at first had with Kathie which might have dawn him into her little web, in MY book that gives him to extra "pass" over the actions of Joe's.

 

Though, I suppose on the OTHER hand, because Jeff knows he's "sacrificing" himself at the end by bring Kathie to justice, one COULD say HIS actions at the end were more noble.

 

(...but either way, what makes both of these two films such standouts is that you have two intelligent but flawed characters fleshed out by two very good and very interesting to watch actors who were very adept at playing cynical world-weary types)

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I feel no need to compare the two. Other then both men being captive to a woman with her own agenda (two very very different women), I don't think either the characters or the stories have much in common.

 

I will say again, I'm surprised at the level of judgement directed toward Joe. (This not just aimed at you, james, others have made a similar assessment of him.)

 

I still say Joe wasn't hurting anyone, It was a sick reciprocal relationship, his and Norma's. As I said earlier, Joe just wanted to buy some time.

It's not as though he'd planned in advance to take advantage of Norma Desmond's fragile mental health and desperation. He had no idea who or what lived in that huge old house when he pulled into the driveway to escape his debtors.

Also, you talk about his car and his desire to keep it. But apparently this is shameful of him, because he's not using it for something altruistic like "driving his mother to her doctor's appointments", he just likes his car and wants to keep it.

What's wrong with that? Sounds pretty normal to me, especially in Hollywood.

 

 

People (not just you james) write about characters in movies as though they expect them to exhibit exemplary behaviour. Doesn't happen, not in the real world, not in the cinematic world.

 

 

Sometimes it feels as though people think they are morally superior to the characters in films like *Sunset Boulevard*. Who knows what you would have done in a similar situation?

 

 

Wilder has Holden perform a voice-over narration throughout this film for a reason: we are getting the story from Joe's perspective, from his point of view. I strongly believe that it was his intention for us to empathize with the character, maybe not to condone his actions, but at least to understand them. And if you understand why someone does something wrong, you're one step closer to forgiving them. Or at least not judging them harshly.

(Not that we're required to "forgive" fictional characters !)

 

 

As I said earlier on this thread, the key to what happens with Joe and his unkind behaviour towards Norma, not to mention the damage he does to his own self-respect, is weakness. A kind of entropy engulfs him, he wants to break away but he's bound by his own inertia.

I'm convinced it is more this inertia, this moral torpor Joe experiences, than it is greed or cynical self-promotion that makes Joe do the things he does (and doesn't do.)

 

 

 

He doesn't seem to care much about the material gifts Norma Desmond bestows on him. Isn't there some scene in which she's buying him new clothes, and he looks not only uninterested in the suit she's asked him to try on, but almost disgusted? The look on his face says "I seem to have become, without even knowing it, this crazy lady's gigalo. Good lord, what's happened to me? What should I do?" And of course he does nothing.

No, I don't think Joe stays on with Norma for luxury or material benefits. He just doesn't know how to free himself - which in a way, would be freeing Norma too.

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My judgement of Joe was done to praise the great direction of Wilder as well as the acting of Holden in a difficult role. I believe little things like the car scene and the fact that Betty was the girlfriend of Joe's friend are there to show a certain side of Joe.

 

As you noted the voice over was for "us to empathize with the character,,,". So we are conflicted. That is the greatness of the picture. Granted maybe I painted Joe in too negative of a light but can you say that you didn't overlook some of his faults (that Holden charm being so hard to resist). I do see that you now say "his unkind behavior towards Norma". That behavior did hurt Norma and deeply given her unstable condition. You make a good point that Joe didn't fully realize the extend of her illness. He was only somewhat aware of it from that first meeting, by the time he came to realize she was really sick it was too late for him to just get out.

 

Great discussion, about fictional characters no less!

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>He didn't NEED a car in LA? Who lives in LA with no car? We're not talking Manhattan here.

 

 

Whaddaya talkin' about here, finance?

 

This was Los Angeles in the year 1950...and when that city had the largest inter-urban rail transit system in the world...and of course before Judge Doom(he of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" fame) and his ultimately successful plan to get rid of the rail system in La La Land! ;)

 

(...yep, all Joe would have had to do to get around would have been to take the Santa Monica Blvd line which would have been just steps from Norma's house of horrors in Beverly Hills!)

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