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