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William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being

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William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being

“I feel lousy about the pain that I’ve caused my wife and kids. I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency. And I miss my home, because I’m beginning to get scared shitless, because all of a sudden it’s closer to the end than the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me, with definable features.”—William Holden as Max Schumacher in Network

William Holden’s face, with its deep crags, blazing blue eyes, and the seriousness behind the straight-up all-American handsomeness, tells the story of the man’s life better than any biography could.

David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film writes:

“For Holden, at the end, could look like the most “used” person in Hollywood ... The look of pain sustained two fine films—The Wild Bunch and Network—so that we rubbed our eyes to recall the fresh-faced enthusiast from Golden Boy.”

Even as a young man, with all his simple athletic ease, there was a darkness there, an emotional distance, at odds with his socially acceptable “golden boy” looks. Holden was always a surprise. To me, his journey as an actor embodies a certain kind of American man. You’d never catch William Holden playing a do-gooder. You’d never catch Holden being pious or earnest in his intentions. Bogart played similar types, most famously in Casablanca, where he states, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Of course, the truth is always a bit more complicated, because Rick in Casablanca ends up committing the most selfless act of all, for the good of democracy round the world. And Holden as Sefton, the prisoner of war in Stalag 17, insists over and over again that he is in this thing for himself—if he’s going to escape it’ll be on his own steam, he’ll use the black-market for all it is worth, and if the group goes down, you can bet he won’t go down with it. But slowly you realize that he, with his staunch individuality, his refusal to compromise, his willingness to be misunderstood, is the biggest hero of them all. In regards to Sefton, his favorite character in any of his movies, director Billy Wilder said:

“I liked having him around ... The idea of making him a braggart ... then we find out slowly that he is really a hero. As he pleads there with that lieutenant at the end, he tucks his head out again, from the hole they have there in the barracks, and says, ’If I ever see any of you mugs again, let’s just pretend that we don’t know each other.’ And off he goes. And he only does it because the mother of the lieutenant who is captured is a rich woman, and he’s gonna get ten thousand dollars. He’s no hero, he’s a black-market dealer—a good character, and wonderfully played by Holden.”

For those who wish their morality to be black and white, who see the world in an oppositional way (good over HERE, bad over THERE), William Holden will be a deeply confrontational performer. He may do good, but it will come off as bad. He may do good, but he will never wish to be congratulated for it. Holden sticks his neck out for no one. His characters have a deep suspicion towards any group dynamic. He resists consensus politics. He stands apart. He observes, evaluates, holds his cards close to his chest. He is willing to come across as cold if that will preserve his integrity. This is quite a rare quality, not just in actors, but in anyone… and it is that which elevates William Holden above the matinee-idol 1950s movie star persona that could have trapped him completely.

His struggles with alcohol are well-known, not to mention the horrible manner of his death, and it seems to me that in the crags of his face there is a knowledge that things have somehow not worked out the way he thought they would. You can see the alcoholism on his face—the struggle is apparent. One of the things I think is so special about William Holden is how little he protected himself as an actor. It probably made life a living hell for him as a man, but as an actor it is his greatest gift. I am thinking now of his brilliant portrayal of Max in Network, one of his best performances. It is heart-rending. Max is a sad man. A workaholic, skating along in his marriage. Being pushed aside at work, no longer needed. A man who also has a bit of trouble with drinking. Just a bit, though. It’s hard sometimes for actors to play things so close to them. But Holden wasn’t afraid. He let us see the reality of who he was at that moment in his life—his middle-aged loneliness, sexual insecurity, fear of death. A lot of actors as they get older do not want you, as the audience, to see all that stuff. They still want to be the tough-guy, the hero. It is why Cary Grant retired. He didn’t want to suddenly be the old guy with 4 lines in a movie. William Holden, the golden boy, one of the biggest stars of his day, voted “one of the sexiest stars of the 20th century” in 1995, did not cling to youth. His segue into power-house middle-aged parts is very rare. But Holden was a talent. Always was. His willingness to show the pain of middle age in Network is a courageous act. You realize that the crags on that face are there for a reason. It is evidence of life lived, of experience, of deep compromise, and of “simple human decency.”

When I think of William Holden, two images come to mind. One is his swan-dive into the pool in Sunset Boulevard, and the other is his desperate dehydrated scrabble through the dirt and rocks in Bridge on the River Kwai just before being rescued. Billy Wilder always had great praise for William Holden as an athlete (“Physically, he was first-class.”) Wilder could ask Holden to do anything physical and Holden would leap right in, with a ballet dancer’s understanding of what his body could do, and how he could make it come off right.

In that last scene in Sunset Boulevard (all one take), he comes out of the house holding his suitcase. He is leaving. He is done. But Norma Desmond is not about to let him get away. She runs out after him and shoots him in the back. If you have a second, go back and watch that death spiral: Holden stops, his back arched from the shot, but he keeps walking, a bit stunned now, and she shoots again. He crumples over in pain, turns to face her, she shoots again, and, propelled on by the bullet blast, he spins wildly, turning around completely and falling over into the pool. It is one of my favorite scenes ever, and I am lost in admiration for Holden every time I see it. It is completely real. His imagination is so fearless, and—very important—his control of his body, his athleticism is so complete that he is able to create a death ballet to perfection, in one take. He makes it look easy.

I was joking with an actor friend once—we were talking about all the different “methods” of acting and how silly labels can be. Why limit yourself to just one? How about just going with what works? I said, “I am partial to the ’Bang Bang You’re Dead’ school of acting.” When you watch little kids shoot each other in the backyard for fun, and their little 7-year-old bodies go catapulting around the grass, falling in glorious swan-dives, it’s amazing how free they are, how unselfconscious. It is also incredible how realistic these “deaths” are. Because there is no question of “how” to do it. It’s make-believe. William Holden, spinning and falling into the pool, is the best example of “Bang Bang You’re Dead” acting that I can think of. Even though he’s, you know, DYING… it makes me smile every time I see it, because of his sheer belief in what he is doing, and his physical skill that makes it come across as realistically as a little boy playing cops and robbers in the backyard. It is my favorite kind of acting.

In David Lean’s masterpiece Bridge On the River Kwai, Holden plays Shears, a prisoner of war (again), and (again) a guy who is singular, set apart, somewhat cynical, and yet grudgingly admiring of Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson and Nicholson’s commitment to the ideals of his service. Shears is a wheeler-dealer, bribing the guard to let him have sick leave, keeping his soul somehow separated from the situation he is in. Yet at the same time, when the British soldiers begin to argue about how they are being treated (that the rules of the Geneva Convention are not being followed), Holden says, with a sly and somewhat dark grin, “I’m just a slave.” No heroics for him. No ideals for him. Later in the film, he shouts at another character:

“You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pillsthey go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman… how to die by the ruleswhen the only important thing is how to live like a human being.”

And yet, of course, by the end, Commander Shears reveals himself to be the most heroic of all. Perhaps because he was able, somehow, in the midst of war, to remember “how to live like a human being.” At one point, he does attempt to escape and it is believed that he is shot and drowned. But he floats down the river and finds himself stranded in the jungle, empty canteen strapped to his ankle, with no way of survival. The sun beats down. Holden is filthy, you can barely tell it is him. His clothes are in rags. He can barely walk. He has gone mad with dehydration and sun exposure. Everything he has experienced is there in his body language. You can feel his lightheadedness, you can feel how his knees are about to go. You ache for a drink of water. He senses a shadow over him—something is not right—and he looks up and sees an enormous paper bird, cawing at him, looking as though it is about to attack.

Panicked, he scrambles through brambles and brush, his urgency and fear palpable in every muscle, his body alert and yet desperate and flailing. He looks up, and again, there is the paper bird, looming in on him, cawing. Holden crouches beneath a tree, screaming up at the vision out of a nightmare, his hands protecting his face and torso in a way that calls to mind a little boy shielding himself from a larger opponent on the playground. It’s vulnerable. He’s no longer a big man with a sculpted body. He has been reduced. The paper bird is revealed to be a kite, being flown by a kid in a nearby village. With his last ounce of strength, Holden starts to crawl towards the village and finally collapses, flopping over onto his back in a faint. It is a tour de force of physical acting. I think that kind of moment is under-rated, because it does look so easy and so inevitable. Of course Shears would be half out of his mind in that moment, of course he would mistake a kite for a demon bird coming to get him, of course it all makes sense. But it is Holden’s job to make that real for us, it is Holden’s job to not hold anything back, and he doesn’t. In a movie full of great iconic moments, that bit under the sun with Holden flailing through the brush screaming and cringing might be my favorite.

When Holden was denied his sense of dark irony and self-deprecation (Love Is a Many Splendored Thing comes to mind), he did not fare as well. He needed his distance. He needed his smirk. It was an essential part of his persona. But in Born Yesterday, watching him go toe to toe with the genius Judy Holliday, you get the sense of how much range this actor really had. He’s wearing glasses (they suit him), a suit, his haircut is conservative, but he’s nobody’s fool. He’s not the biggest Alpha Dog in the room, but he also has the intelligence to look at Judy Holliday and realize he has hit the jackpot, in terms of the woman for him. There’s more to be said about that movie, and about Holliday in general—it’s really her movie—but one of the reasons it works so well is because of Holden’s quiet decency, and simple, rather shy charm. He’s perfect. A perfect Henry Higgins to Holliday’s Eliza Doolittle. He does not condescend. Ever. He looks at her and senses her animal intelligence, her curiosity, her desire to learn more, and so he sets about teaching her. She eats it up. He’s in love with her, but he doesn’t pounce. He sits back, and waits for the right moment. It’s a beautiful performance.

One final word about Sunset Boulevard: It was difficult for Wilder to cast the part of Joe Gillis. Holden was not his first choice. Montgomery Clift was offered the role and he accepted it. But very close to shooting, he backed out. Clift was, at that time, “courting” an older woman, or, more likely, being “kept” by her. The role was too close to home (at least this is what Billy Wilder surmised), and Clift didn’t want that side of himself revealed. Wilder had seen Holden in Golden Boy and admired it very much, so he offered Holden the role. It’s one of those historical “what if” moments: I would be very interested to see Clift’s version of Joe Gillis, but, frankly, I can’t imagine anyone else but Holden in the role. He’s fearless. It still has, to this day, the potential to shock. To see a man like that (a hunk, really) behave in such a passive, objectified manner makes me uncomfortable. I want him to tell her to get lost! He’s put himself in such an undignified position and I don’t like it! The movie creates an unbearable tension, and Holden walks that line to perfection. At first he resists. He thinks she’s a nutbag, and he’s got other fish to fry. He’s a writer. He has his OWN stuff to do. But slowly, the web of comfort and ease she provides traps him. Sure, he has to make love to an old withered woman, but isn’t that a small price to pay for 20 pairs of gold cuff links and a new suit any time he wants it? I can understand why other actors would have shied away from such material, but kudos to Holden for recognizing that Joe Gillis was it for him, Joe Gillis was the role. Actors are lucky if they get one role like that in a lifetime; they just need to have the wherewithal to recognize it when it comes along. Apparently, when Holden won the Oscar for Stalag 17, he threw it across the room, because he knew they were really giving it to him for Sunset Boulevard, and that pissed him off.

William Holden, with his handsome face, beautiful body, and perfect deep voice, could fit in anywhere. He was an ideal. Someone who looks like that could feel at ease in most situations. Doors open if you are that type of man. But Holden had an abyss of… something inside of him: loneliness, dissatisfaction, cynicism, grief, whatever it was. And Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard allowed him to tap into it, to show it to us. I can’t even name it—I just know that I watch him in that role and it is a revelation. Without Joe Gillis, the rest of Holden’s career would not have been possible. Sunset Boulevard is a dark fairy-tale that shows us our deepest contradictions. Holden was always a contradictory figure and, as he got older, those crags in his face just deepened, the grooves of contradictions within him becoming stronger, more acute, irreconcilable. We all have contradictions within us that we want to either overcome or accept. But it takes a rare actor who can show that, who can stand there in Network, full of loss and fear and disappointment, and say, nakedly, “I’m beginning to get scared shitless.” That takes guts.

William Holden had physical guts. He shows that time and time again in his performances. But he had emotional guts, too. An unusual combination, and one I treasure.

House contributor Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.