Friday, April 15, 2022

William Holden’s Golden Year: 1950

 

William Holden was ambivalent about stardom despite his natural acting ability.


William Holden was a much respected actor in his time. And 40 years after his passing, Holden’s performances look even better today.

Check out this three day Blogathon dedicated to William Holden! 
https://loveletterstooldhollywood.blogspot.com/ 
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Most aptly, Bill’s acting idols were Frederic March and Spencer Tracy, for their command of the craft and their natural style. How ironic that Bill idolized Tracy, who also went through bouts of depression and drinking, and a troubled marriage, too. And like Tracy, Holden didn’t live a long life, either. Holden’s style recalls a more animated Henry Fonda. William Holden wasn’t the standard stoic like Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, but he had their same strength. Holden was handsome and knew it, but was not a showboat; Bill was restrained, but not wooden. Bill Holden was empathetic and real; there was no macho posturing or jaw-jutting over-emoting like Burt, Kirk, and Charlton.

While William Holden was confident about his masculine good looks, there was
no macho swagger, like Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Charlton Heston.

Holden was one of countless actors who had a love/hate attitude about life as a film star. Holden also suffered from the "imposter" syndrome over stardom. Bill was smart enough not to believe his own publicity, but he went too far the other way, and beat himself up about his status as a man versus the image. 

When Holden started in Hollywood, he was natural, relaxed, and self-assured on-camera. Post-WWII, Bill was willing to dig deeper and tap into his self-doubts for his roles. Off-screen he was plagued by insecurity and depression; sadly, alcohol wreaked havoc with his gifts.

William Holden in 1950.

William Holden became a top star in 1950, and it seemed like a long time coming. After his big debut in 1939’s Golden Boy, Holden did a few more decent films, Our Town and I Wanted Wings, but he was cast in a lot of genre films before he went off to war in 1943. After WWII, like many returning actors, Bill had to regain his footing in Hollywood. The big stars, such as Gable, Stewart, and Fonda, had the advantage, of course. But even they had to choose carefully, aware that audience tastes were changing and they weren’t young bucks anymore. Pre-war up and comers like Holden and his pal Glenn Ford were basically back to square one. Ford got lucky when Bette Davis chose him as her co-star in A Stolen Life, her biggest commercial success. Then home studio Columbia chose Glenn as co-star with top star Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Even so, Ford got stuck with just as much fluff as Holden, and became a top star about the same time as Bill.

William Holden's restlessness in the '40s as a second-string leading man
is aptly captured as a frustrated screenwriter in "Sunset Blvd."

William Holden was merely back to doing westerns and playing Mr. Nice Guy. He later said, back at Paramount, the studio guard didn’t even recognize him upon his return. But I think Bill’s post-war slump has been overstated a bit because it makes such a great Hollywood story: William Holden’s decade-long climb to the top! Well, there was nothing wrong with Bill’s acting, for starters. He worked hard to get better, even if the pictures the studios foisted on him didn’t. Then Holden got sidelined by the service. While Bill still got cast in romantic comedies and westerns, more than a few were hits, and Holden was also got increasingly better notices: Dear Ruth, Rachel and the Stranger, and Apartment for Peggy. What’s interesting is that post-war “new” stars like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were actually older than Bill—in Burt’s case, five years older.

After his fill of “Smiling Jim” roles, Holden was just past 30 when he was cast in Sunset Blvd. and Born Yesterday back to back, with Paramount and Columbia studios, respectively. Bill had a dual contract with them from the start.

Was Norma Desmond was expecting Holden's Joe Gillis to sing "Puttin' on the Ritz!"

William Holden’s one-two punch in 1950 was partly luck. Montgomery Clift was originally cast as Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., but dropped out at the last minute when he realized that it was too close to his own relationship with one-time singer Libby Holman. With Sunset Blvd. and Born Yesterday, Holden had the opportunity to show both sides of his persona. As Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., Bill got to show the grittier side of himself. In Born Yesterday, Holden got to display his sense of humor and his flair for light comedy. And while many critics and fans were wowed by Holden’s leading ladies in their signature parts, Bill’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed. Today, William Holden’s natural and modern performances still hold up beautifully.

William Holden's cocks his head as he plunges headfirst into Norma Desmond's life!

Sunset Blvd. is considered one of director Billy Wilder’s very best and is still much shown and quoted today. While Born Yesterday was a greater commercial hit in its day, I think Sunset is a much more fresh film and relevant film today. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has helped keep the original Wilder film in the public’s mind, too. Born Yesterday now feels like an overdressed Broadway play, which I’m sure audiences loved, back then.

How adorable did William Holden look with glasses in "Born Yesterday?"

What’s interesting is that Holden holds his own opposite both Gloria Swanson and Judy Holliday in their great star turns. Bill offers subtle, empathetic support to both stars. Joe’s mixed feelings toward Norma in Sunset Blvd. are wonderfully signaled; Holden’s attraction and charm toward Holliday in Born Yesterday is subtle and believable. And how handsome is Holden in his tux in Sunset Blvd. or his glasses in Born Yesterday? I’d say that Holden’s Paul Verrall and the locations in Washington DC are the two most authentic things about Born Yesterday. Otherwise, it’s a theatrical shout fest between Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday.

William Holden's reporter observing Broderick Crawford & Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday?"

As Joe Gillis, Holden used his own desperation and self-loathing to show what drove the screenwriter, other than that broken down car that lands him at 10086 Sunset Blvd. Holden’s casting was a bit like Elizabeth Taylor, when she was an unlikely star as Martha in Virginia Woolf ,and who looked into her own dark side. Bill was willing to play the role of Joe Gillis with no rationalizing, but his innate decency and empathy made it palatable to audiences.

William Holden wasn't afraid to reflect on his or Hollywood's dark side in "Sunset Blvd."

William Holden’s natural gifts should have shot him straight to the top. And Bill seemed to catch on to the art of film acting early and was known a hard working pro. The vagaries of show business are strange, in that some great talents struggle while others who are less gifted rise to the top with ease. Often heard is it’s a matter of luck. Real life, like the war and supporting a family, also came into play for Holden’s career. Yet at last, William Holden’s potential was realized in 1950, and he was later dubbed “Golden Holden” for some of his most memorable roles in the post-war era.

Here’s my other look at Holden, when Bill was cast as Hal in Picnic:

https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2021/08/picnic-1955.html

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

Check it out & join!  https://www.facebook.com/groups/178488909366865/

Call him "Smiling Jim" if you want,
but William Holden's wry twinkle had its charms!

 

26 comments:

  1. And we have Holden reincarnated with the delightful Paul Rudd!

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    1. I've noticed that twinkling resemblance in Paul Rudd, too! Though I understand why Licorice Pizza director cast weathered Sean Penn as a weathered latter day Bill Holden type, I still had to roll my eyes!

      Cheers, Rick

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  2. This is a GREAT piece of writing, Rick - every point is SPOT ON. Excellent analysis of his career, his history, his "ambivalence" you describe so well...

    And while it's tempting to think about Monty in SUNSET BOULEVARD, I think Joe Gillis is his best work, right down to the voiceovers. LOVE that photo you used at the top - perfect ambivalence, for sure (and SO great looking-)

    BIG TIME KUDOs for this piece - a fitting tribute to Holden on his birthday!!

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    1. Hi Kristy, thanks for the kind words! I wanted to be even-handed about Bill, so did some reading up on him, which I really enjoyed. Like so many greats, if drinking hadn't taken control, one can only imagine how much more Holden could have accomplished.
      And as much as I admire Monty and tho he was sort of living his own Sunset Blvd with singer Libby Holman, Holden was better casting, I think.
      I put a lot of thought and work into this one, so glad that you appreciate it!
      Cheers, Rick

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    2. Sorry to disagree, but Wilder wrote the part with Clift in mind, and his particular sensitive approach. Holden was just a bit too macho to be totally believable as a guy who let himself be manipulated by a wealthy older woman. He was still excellent in the role, however.

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    3. Hi, K.E.,
      I like Monty a lot, but preferred that Bill played the role, so we'll just have to agree to disagree.
      Cheers,
      Rick

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  3. Excellent essay, Rick! I saw Golden Boy for the first time fairly recently and was so impressed with Mr. Holden's energy and sensitivity. But it was hard to recognize him as the same actor in Sunset Blvd. and Picnic. But at every stage of his career, he was brilliant. My favorite role of his will always be Hal in Picnic. That movie is filled with heartbreaking characterizations, and his is one of them.

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    1. Hi Mike, amazing that he did "Golden Boy" at around 20 with little prior experience. Just lots of hard work! A natural, I thought. Holden's an actor I've really come to appreciate. Thanks for the kind words, too... put a lot of thought into this one!
      Cheers, Rick

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  4. Yours is a wonderful essay about our Golden Boy. Thank you for the me and insight and research you put into this analysis. You are right: Holden was naturally, supremely talented, yet deeply ambivalent about his gifts. Would you say that his insecurity stemmed partly from his father's insistence that acting was "disgraceful," "undignified," and an "unworthy" career? This possibility breaks my heart! Holden was so good, even in his earliest movies, and that knowledge should have bolstered his confidence and kept him from drinking. Whatever personal demons he faced, on screen he always showed an intelligent and exciting interpretation of his characters, and for that I am grateful. He left 70 memorable movies that confirms it and allow us to witness it over and over.

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    1. Hi Jeanne,
      Yes, Bill came from a rather typical middle class family of the era: strict and with the father expecting him to go into the family business. And even then, Holden was a free spirit. And while he went into show business, Bill turned around and married a woman who was just as rigid as his parents.
      What must have been frustrating was also how routinely Paramount and Columbia cast him after Golden Boy and Our Town, when his talent was so evident. Paramount did the same thing around the same time with the gorgeous and brilliant Frances Farmer and she too turned to the bottle.
      But as you say, Bill finally got a chance to show how good he was in more than 70 movies, a great legacy.
      Cheers, Rick

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    2. No question that Paramount and Columbia undervalued their star and in the 30s and 40's "conscripted" him to mediocre material. However, they didn't count on Holden to elevate that same material to the high level that has over time earned our admiration. Invisible Stripes, Our Town, Arizona, Texas, I Wanted Wings, and The Fleet's In all sparkle because of his presence. And those films stand as a proving ground for his burgeoning talent and screen charisma.

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    3. Absolutely, Jeanne! Bill was a natural and his legacy is proof of that! Cheers, Rick

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    4. I'm intrigued by your statement: Bill "married a woman who was just as rigid as his parents." That's a revelation. Was she really as conservative as they? Not much written about Ardis, but you seem to have a bead on her life. Did she resent his rising star? There are some veiled hints that she carried on her own personal liaisons. I do sympathize over her plight---married to a gorgeous man, inevitably tempted by women, booze, and the bounties of fame.

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    5. Hey Jeanne, there's definitely two sides of the story, for sure. He was a bit of a wild child since he was a boy. But in a couple of bios, Ardis has been depicted as a killjoy, the opposite of the kind of wife you'd think Holden had. I often wondered why they stayed married so long, as they were pretty much apart starting in the '60s. Religion? Guilt on his part? Someone needs to write the definitive Holden bio.
      Cheers, Rick

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  5. That was a great and very informative artice, Rick! Many parts in your text prove why Holden was a valuable actor. Coincidentally, yesterday I gave another shot at Born Yesterday which I had only seen once before and a long time ago. While it's not a masterpiece like Sunset Boulevard, I liked it much better than the first time and I would even say that Holden's performance has become one of my favourites. Thanks so much for taking part in our blogathon!

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    1. Thank you, Virginie!
      Perhaps I will give Born Yesterday another try! Bill was the charming balm of that movie,
      Cheers, Rick

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  6. Bill really had to work hard to reach the pinnacle of his success, but I think even when he had it- he didn't let fame change who he was as a person. I think part of the charm of Bill was he never believed in his own hype, being a no BS type of guy- and today that quality is resonated with the public, even more so than back then. Yet at the same time, you see the honesty, the charisma he naturally possessed and that added in with his pull no punches attitude makes him enduring today. So many people out there can be good looking blokes- but what you can't change is personality- and Bill had both! It's so sad the way Bill went out in real life, and while I wasn't alive when he passed away, reading the manner in which he died crushed me! He was a brilliant person, actor, conservationist, world traveler- yes with demons- but don't we all have them? IN Sunset- I think you really feel Joe's frustrations play of Bill's real life frustrations within the industry. Yet at the same time you can separate Bill from the character- its a real testament to professionalism and his acting. In Born Yesterday- I fell in love with the elevator scene- Love in an elevator- when he kisses Judy Holliday- I JUST LOVE IT- PLUS BILL IN GLASSES: SWOON!
    Thank you so very for paying tribute to Bill's golden year!!! -Emily

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    1. Thanks, Emily!
      I think Bill could have just as easily been a star today, he was so natural.
      And maybe in this era, Holden could have gotten a better hold on his demons.
      Holden was the whole package!
      Cheers, rick

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  7. Thanks, Rick, for a lovely essay on a true Golden Era star. I shall never forget the spontaneous and heartfelt tribute he payed to his co-presenter (and co-star in Golden Boy), the great Barbara Stanwyck, at the Fiftieth Annual Academy Awards. It was so sad when she accepted her long overdue Honorary Oscar a few years later in 1982 that he was gone, but she still remembered and thanked her "Golden Boy." And thanks to you, Rick, we won't forget his towering talent and charm in such wonderful films as Sunset Blvd. and Born Yesterday. Cheers~

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    1. Hi Victor,
      Thank you, and I'll always remember Bill's tribute to Barbara at the Oscars. One of those memorable Oscar moments... good ones, that is!
      And yes, sad that Bill went the way he did, but we're lucky we had him for awhile.
      Cheers, Rick

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  8. This was a very good read, thank you. Bill will always be my favourite actor. Luckily he left us with a great body of work. He always gave strong, quality performances, with that deep beautiful voice, he was the real deal. It is a bonus, to see rare interviews of him on You Tube, if your lucky enough to come across one. He always struck me as very humble, forthright, but had class all the way. Bill had real star quality and charisma. Beautiful to look at, he was utterly handsome. He proved to be a man ahead of his time with regards to Conservation, his legacy in Africa is testament to that. He was intelligent and well travelled. To me its still sad how he left us, but who doesn't have their crosses and demons to bear? He choose to deal with this privately and alone. I cannot really pick a favourite role, I love all of them for all sorts of reasons. I would much rather watch a performance from Bill than the modern day productions, its just not the same. Always xx

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  9. Sadly his problem was alcohol brought on by failed love affairs with his actresses. His last film was Blake Edwards SOBin1981.Blake Edwards knew this and tried to keep an eye on him, unfortunately he fell over drunk in his house and hit his head on a table and bled to death as no one came to see him for several days.

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  10. Wow, this is a terrific post! I loved every word. You hit the nail on the head when talking about Holden's appeal: "he was empathetic and real." It's not hard to find a good looking actor, but it's like searching for a needle in a haystack to find one that is humble and genuine. Holden was all of the above. It warms my heart that audiences still love him for it.

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    1. Thank you for the praise, I found what little has been written about Bill and tried to research the gaps, as well. Holden is due for a serious, full-bodied bio. I think Bill's natural acting and non-star attitude continues to bring him new fans. I truly enjoyed writing what I hope is an even-handed piece on William Holden. Thanks again, Rick

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  11. This was fascinating! I agree with you about Holden being a very natural actor. He seemed to be immersive without being method, but you still forgot you were looking at William Holden.

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