Let’s talk about William Holden!
My latest Old Hollywood crush is William Holden. This all came about because of an Instagram post celebrating his birthday last month. Which led me to an impromptu William Holden filmfest.
First up – Sunset Boulevard. Can you believe I’d never seen it? This is the first real film noir I’ve seen. Everything I knew about the genre came from comedy sketches. Which is why I’m embarrassed to admit that I was laughing a bit at Holden’s melodramatic voice-overs. And the witches’ coven I watched with didn’t help either! But once we got past that, I fell in love with the movie. The atmosphere, Gloria Swanson in her over-the-top glory, and of course, Holden. Everything about it was so perfect, it left me stunned when it ended. Honestly I couldn’t think of any other actor who could have played Joe Gillis. Is it awful that I think he’s a perfect gigolo? But also – SPOILER ALERT – my first reaction after seeing the first scene at the pool was “Oh my God he dies?!?”
Next – The Bridge on the River Kwai. Oh, this one’s got everything I need – war and William Holden. (I don’t support war, I just love war movies.) I thought I’d seen this before, so I was surprised at the shocking ending. SPOILER: “He dies again?!? Whyyy?” Maybe I didn’t finish the movie the first time I saw it. I do remember thinking at the time that Holden seemed out of place in the whole story. He was the lone American in a camp of British POWs, and I thought that the story stalled whenever it shifted from Guiness and the POWs’ plight to Holden’s story. You know what else I didn’t get the first time? How stupid Guiness’ character was. Thank God I’ve grown up a bit so I got it this time. Holden’s isolation was part of his character, and what made the last part of the film more heartbreaking. He survives the camp, makes a miraculous escape, only to be forced back in and die at the hands of his comrade! As James Donald says at the end, “Madness! Madness! Madness!”
I needed something positive after that, or at least a movie where he doesn’t die. Good thing the next on my list was Stalag 17. Not only does he not die, the movie itself is a masterpiece. It’s a compelling story with great dialogue, also set in a POW camp. The prisoners suspect that one of their number is a spy, and they think it’s poor old William Holden. He gives a wonderful performance, with just enough cynicism and jadedness to make you question his loyalties until the end. This is his Oscar-winning role. To be honest, it would have made more sense if he had won for Sunset Boulevard, not because he wasn’t good in Stalag – which he was! It just felt that his role as Joe Gillis was more layered and complex. Although, what am I saying? His J.J. Sefton was pretty complex too. It just wasn’t as flashy. At least his stature was validated by that Oscar, which doesn’t happen for a lot of legends.
Of all the movies in my Holden filmfest, the only one I hated was Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing. I’m sorry, but it was melodramatic from start to finish, and I never understood how and why they fell in love. They just suddenly were. I did not like Jennifer Jones at all. If I’d had a drink every single time she said she was Eurasian, I would have been rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Why, Jennifer? Why? Why did you feel the need to say that over and over? I think we got it the first hundred times. Although I have to say that the last half hour of the movie got pretty interesting, because it wasn’t all sap and sentimentality. So if you sit through the first hour, it gets better! I know I’m in the minority here because the movie was nominated for Best Picture, but I still didn’t get it. At least Holden didn’t follow Jones’ lead and wallow in the shmaltz. From what I’ve seen of his movies, I think this is his strength – he brings the right amount of world-weariness to his characters that makes them relatable and likable.
You may be wondering why Sabrina isn’t on this list. I’ve seen it so many times, but in my mind it’s always been an Audrey movie. Also he played a cad, so, no. I might include it when I write about Audrey though.
While I was scouring the internet for more information on Holden, I came across an article about Suzanne Vega’s song “Tom’s Diner”. I love that song because it’s so fun and so 80s. What’s the connection between Suzanne Vega and William Holden, you ask? Well! Apparently, the verse
I open up the paper
There’s a story of an actor
Who had died while he was drinking
It was no one I had heard of
is about Holden! Did everybody else know that? Because it was a shock to me! I’d been singing that verse all this time not thinking it was about a real person. And Suzanne, really? You’d never heard of Holden before? Seriously girl. She has since said she regrets that verse, but the damage has been done. I can’t listen to that song now without thinking how Holden’s tragic death was belittled.
Still, I’m so glad I finally found out about this great actor. I feel smarter just having watched his movies, and I’m sure I’ll watch Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 again. But “Tom’s Diner”? I think it’ll take a while.