The Film Society of Lincoln Center is in the midst of a brilliantly programmed William Holden retrospective. By presenting a series of thematic double features, it seeks to excavate the various and conflicting characteristics that made Holden a remarkable performer. His voice was like ashes and nails, rough with a staccato delivery. His physique was effortlessly perfect (apparently his only regular physical activity was standing on his hands out of the open windows of tall buildings after too many martinis). Over the course of his career, his face aged from golden toned to burnished copper but—even when deeply lined from age and hard living—he never stopped being empirically handsome. Holden was the ultimate movie star; yet this was his greatest humiliation.
Holden was the son of a puritanical business man and the brother of a soldier who died in combat in WWII. According to his family’s and Holden’s own values, his profession was undignified for a man. Billy Wilder, who directed him in four films, observed, “Deep down in his heart he is an inhibited boy who feels very uncomfortable to act. He is the exact opposite of the ham. He was always sort of pushed into acting.” After finding sudden fame in a film called Golden Boy (which became his Hollywood nickname), Holden’s all-American good looks landed him in a series of roles that he dubbed Smiling Jim, a character who gets himself into a tight spot and smiles his way out of it. “Good ole Smiling Jim,” explained Holden to an interviewer. “I hate his guts.”
Wilder recognized and cultivated this cynical self-criticism in Holden, most pointedly in the two critiques of Hollywood on which they collaborated (Fedora & Sunset Boulevard). Wilder essentially drowned Smiling Jim; after Holden made Sunset Boulevard he went on to make many critiques of Hollywood, as well as of his own appeal. In an iconic episode of I Love Lucy (screening in the lobby of the Walter Reade theater) Holden is gawked at by star-seeking Lucy and then gawks right back vindictively. He gave one of his greatest performances in his last film, Blake Edwards’ acerbic S.O.B. (playing tonight), as the only man who dryly keeps his dignity in a manic & sleazy New Hollywood.
Holden’s performances were not the only source of parody of his own fame. In Walker Percy’s 1960 novel The Moviegoer (often labeled an American existentialist work), William Holden is a character in a brief but important scene in which narrator Binx Bolling watches a man’s reality become “certified” by entering into the heightened reality of Holden the movie star. Binx spies a honeymooning couple on the street, and observes that they’re already off to a rough start, probably due to the new husband’s fecklessness. But when they cross paths with Holden, who is in town filming a movie, and the man offers Holden a light, he gains confidence suddenly and fully. “He has won title to his own existence, as plenary an existence now as Holden’s,” wrote Percy.
The Binx Bolling character is searching for truth in a world that seems unreal, especially after his experience in the Korean War in which all the Standard Operational Bullshit (S.O.B. expanded) of civilized life has been cleared away, leaving nothing but intense reality. Holden’s career had a similar drive—or a similar “search,” to use the language of the novel. It’s in Holden’s war films that his performances seem most sincere, particularly The Counterfeit Traitor and Stalag 17. In both these films, Holden plays a man who is initially apathetic to all sides save for that of his own self-interest. Yet what at first seems motivated by selfishness—to the audience as well as to the Holden characters—is ultimately revealed to be motivated by something closer to dignity. By the end of the films, this dignity becomes a search for a truly just morality, which is of course a paradox in war (as well as in much of life). Holden’s silent struggles elegantly illustrate the complexity.
Miriam Bale is a feminist, freelance writer and occasional filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn.