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Heroes of William Holden

William Holden is a name unknown to most of the general public these days. A prolific actor working within and outside the Hollywood system for close to 40 years and starring in more than 70 movies, Holden’s mug was plastered across such classic films as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Picnic, Sabrina, and The Wild Bunch. William Holden was the archetypal Hollywood leading man with deep secrets – in league with the likes of Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift. He was Oscar-nominated twice for Best Actor, in the memorable films Sunset Boulevard and Network, and won the golden boy in 1954 playing an amoral, devious prisoner of war in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. None of this had been expected from one of the Hollywood System’s overnight successes — imagine Luke Perry winning an Academy Award and you’ll understand.

William Holden busted onto the Hollywood scene in 1939 with the schmaltzy Golden Boy, a tale of a pretty boy who strives to be a boxer despite his father’s wishes and ends up entangled with Barbara Stanwyck and a mob boss who wants a piece of the action. Holden’s good looks and smooth moves got him roles in a series of studio vehicles such as Our Town and Texas, before heading off to the war in Europe. Holden served two years in the Army and upon his return, he resumed his role in the studio system as a handsome leading man in more mediocre comedies, romance, and war stories.

In the 1950s, things took a turn for Holden. He was forced by contract into Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to star as Joe Gillis, a Hollywood hack screenwriter who details his experiences living with aging silent move star Norma Desmond as she plans her comeback. The film was unusually cruel in its depiction of faded Hollywood stars rejected by the studio system, and ironically, Holden’s cynical turn brought him an Academy Award nomination, stronger scripts, and respect as a mature, challenging actor. With Sunset Boulevard, Holden’s future roles would take on more brooding and dark tones – reflective of Holden’s ever-worsening alcoholism, which the studios hid with great discretion.

Films like Born Yesterday – wherein Holden plays a tutor hired to teach a billionaire’s lover proper social etiquette, and Stalag 17 – the film that brought Holden an Oscar in 1953, were early turning points signifying his shift from pretty boy to dramatic actor. His portrayal as drifter Hal Carter in Picnic, who spends half the movie naked from the waist up while he steals his best friend’s girl, still brims with enough sexual energy to heat up any late night Cinemax skin flick. Up next were comedies like Sabrina, alternating with war/anti-war movies like The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Bridge of the River Kwai, alternating with tragic love stories like Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. All were blockbusters.

Holden loved to travel to exotic locations, and he even owned a country club in Kenya. In the 1960s, the roles he took on declined, and the quality of his acting deteriorated. A weariness and disinterest seemed to settle in Holden, and in 1969, all of that emotional weight became the catalyst for greatness when he took on his arguably greatest role in Sam Peckinpah’s bloody saga of aging badmen, The Wild Bunch.

The 1970s brought Holden many misses and very few hits. His roles in the westerns Wild Rovers and The Revengers were basically Wild Bunch knock-offs. He starred in the best disaster movie of the seventies – The Towering Inferno – and gave us his only horror appearance as caretaker to Satan’s son Damien in Damien: Omen II. The one real impact Holden made in these lean years was the role of television studio president Max Schumacher in Sidney Lumet’s Network. Holden’s performance of a man unable to control the ludicrous attempts of a network to maintain its viability is haunting and unnerving. Holden received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his work in the film, but it was won by his counterpart, Peter Finch, who received the award posthumously.

At the end of it all, William Holden took one last role in Blake Edward’s S.O.B, a black comedy dealing with a fading producer trying to turn his latest failure into a hit. Tragically, Holden’s life ended in 1981 at the age of 63 when he slipped and fell, cutting his head open on a coffee table and bleeding to death. The coroner’s report states that Holden was conscious for thirty minutes after the cut. I guess he was ready for his close-up.

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