The Film Society of Lincoln Center completes its salute today to one of my favorite movie stars, William Holden. Michael Atkinson writes on the Museum of the Moving Image’s wonderful Moving Image Source site that Holden was:
on the surface one of the Hollywood century’s typical all-purpose leading men, but beneath it the keeper of poisoned secrets, and a living embodiment of America’s postwar self-doubt and idealistic failure. He seethed with disappointment as a persona, and we all knew what he meant. Holden was the anti-Duke, an avatar of hopelessness, shrouded in the smiling physique of an all-American boyo. For every high school football star turned pot-bellied gym teacher, every prom queen turned food-stamp mom, and every good-hearted B student turned Cracker Barrel waiter, Holden was the walking, talking, growling truth, in a sea of showbiz lies.
Holden was terrific as a romantic leading man in early movies like “Dear Ruth” and tweaking that role slightly for “Sabrina,” where he was the irresponsible younger brother to Humphrey Bogart’s wealthy businessman, both attracted to the chauffeur’s daughter played by Audrey Hepburn. He was a good choice for a character who is the essence of America, George Gibbs in Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town.” But Holden was at his best showing the complexity, insecurity, and disappointment of the post-WWII era. Sometimes his character triumphed over it; sometimes not. In “Executive Suite,” his idealistic executive competes against a green-eyeshade number-cruncher (Frederic March) for the top corporate job. In “Picnic” he had one of his most memorable roles as a college football star who had lost his way. He arrives in town to meet up with a wealthy friend from school and tries to pretend that he has been as successful as everyone expected. In this scene, one of the most famous moments ever put on film, a dance with his friend’s girlfriend, the prettiest girl in town (Kim Novak) has an intimacy that changes both of their lives.
I am a big fan of “Born Yesterday,” where Holden played a Washington journalist hired by a thuggish businessman to “educate” the businessman’s former showgirl significant other (Judy Holliday). In “Sunset Boulevard” he was a struggling screenwriter who is corrupted by a demented former star. Holden won an Oscar for “Stalag 17,” playing a prisoner of war, and he was nominated for another for his performance in “Network” as a television news producer. In these roles and others what made him so compelling was that he showed the tension between his characters’ cynicism and idealism in a way that expressed part of the essence of the American spirit.
And this is for you, Alicia! Holden’s appearance in my very favorite episode of “I Love Lucy!”