What makes an actor great? What divine alchemy allows a person, or a studio system, to create the kind of cinematic magic that turns a star into something more than just a passing fancy? I sometimes wonder about that when I consider why some of my former favorite actors fade from my memory while my admiration for others grows stronger. From childhood to adolescence to now, one actor stands out for performances that continue to surprise and inspire me: William Holden.
By my count, I have seen twenty-two of Holden’s films, almost a third of his entire filmography. As a star for more than forty years, he embodied so many different facets of American masculinity prevalent in the twentieth century: wide-eyed innocents and square-jawed Everymen in the first decade of his career, cynics and reluctant heroes throughout the 1950s and 60s, then a variety of complicated older men in the more liberated era of the late 60s, 70s and early 80s. Holden once said that “movie acting may not have a certain kind of glory as true art, but it is damn hard work”; from the perspective of this viewer, he elevated everything he did onscreen into art and, as a result, I am moved to say he might just be my all-time favorite actor. Here are eight clips to demonstrate the depth of those dramatic and comedic abilities that I treasure.
Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder). Simultaneously loving and cruel, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the eternal classics, a portrait of Tinseltown that reveals both the beauty and the ugliness of the motion picture business. Holden’s pessimistic hack of a scribe, Joe Gillis, constantly teeters on the edge between bitter resignation and hope for future success, even as his relationship with former silver-screen icon Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) rapidly destroys his life; it’s a character that only Holden could have played so expertly.
Stalag 17 (1953, dir. Billy Wilder). Holden won the Best Actor Academy Award for his work in Stalag 17, portraying a disillusioned American sergeant in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. His sarcastic character, Sefton, is a loner who antagonizes his fellow POWs in the barracks, leading them to suspect him of being the mole feeding information about the group to the camp’s commanding officer, Colonel von Scherbach (Otto Preminger). In the scenes from 59:32 to 1:08:23, we see Sefton’s comrades grow increasingly resentful and angry, boiling over to the point that they viciously attack him in his bunk.
Sabrina (1954, dir. Billy Wilder). In Billy Wilder’s celebrated comedy, chauffeur’s daughter Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is transformed from mousy to chic after a soujourn in Paris, and when she returns home to Long Island, her plan is to ignite a romance with David Larrabee (Holden), the younger son of the family that employs Sabrina’s father and a guy who had never previously paid any attention to Sabrina.
Picnic (1955, dir. Joshua Logan). One of Holden’s most iconic film roles was as Hal Carter, the drifter whose sexual magnetism completely upends a small Midwestern town in Picnic. Hal woos a lovely young woman, Madge Owens (Kim Novak), who longs to escape the confines of her hometown, and their attraction subsequently drives a wedge between Madge and her family. Nowhere is the electricity between Hal and Madge more apparent than in the “Moonglow” scene, in which those two characters sway sensuously to that popular melody while members of Madge’s community look on.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, dir. David Lean). Another of Holden’s World War II masterpieces, The Bridge on the River Kwai was the first of the “epics” that defined the last three decades of director David Lean’s career. Arguably, it is Best Actor Oscar winner Alec Guinness, as a British colonel who stubbornly adheres to his moral code of military “ethics,” who dominates the narrative, but in one of the film’s most memorable moments, Holden’s Commander Shears has a great, short speech that he delivers to another superior officer about “how to live like a human being” in the theater of war.
Paris – When It Sizzles (1964, dir. Richard Quine). This is one of the weirder footnotes in the careers of William Holden and Audrey Hepburn, made a decade after Sabrina and curiously devised as a screwball comedy tribute to a particular subset of the film industry: screenwriters. (Think of Sizzles as a kooky successor to Sunset Boulevard.) Uneven as the film is, there is immense delight in watching Holden explain to Hepburn, who plays his beleaguered secretary, the how-to guide for telling a typical Hollywood story.
The Towering Inferno (1974, dir. John Guillermin). No 1970s disaster movie came close to the monumental masterwork known as The Towering Inferno, which stuffed just about every big-name actor from that period into a nearly three-hour-long drama filled with action, suspense and even a little romance. Holden plays the contractor who helped design the title structure, a man who realizes too late that cutting corners saved money on construction but will end up costing many people their lives. Post-9/11, the film’s images are more unsettling than ever, and Holden provides the necessary gravitas for his conflicted character.
Network (1976, dir. Sidney Lumet). Shock doesn’t begin to describe the feeling I had when I first saw Network at age fifteen. Even though reality television already existed ten years ago, the film’s vision of corporate-sponsored mayhem on bizarre talk shows was terrifying. Watching the film again last year, I found that the film was simultaneously less unnerving (since reality TV programming is weirder than ever now) and far more of a dark comedy, though I don’t know how much of that perception is based on my age or what screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky intended forty years ago. Nevertheless, William Holden’s final speech to Faye Dunaway – the aging network executive versus the ruthless up-and-comer who orchestrated much of their company’s small-screen revolution – remains a gut punch. Network wasn’t William Holden’s final film, but it was a magnificent late showcase for him. If only we’d had more films like it, and more actors like him.