St. Bill of Illinois

The poignant case for William Holden
by Michael Atkinson  posted July 2, 2008
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William Holden: A Different Kind of Hero,
Film Society of Lincoln Center, July 2-15, 2008

Just as Bugs Bunny was always whom we would hope to be but Daffy Duck was closer to the luckless, selfish, short-sighted people we actually are, movie stardom has always been a voyeuristic switch-off between idealized transference and the recognition of our flawed selves. The glamorous and cool former has always crowded out the gritty, painful latter, but the popular career peaks of, say, Edward G. Robinson, Dana Andrews, Judy Garland, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Diane Keaton attest to a spectactorship paradigm that verges on a realist empathic bond, a desire to connect, not to escape. Such is the nature of our intimate, carking, rueful relationship with William Holden, 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.

If Holden represented a kind of socioeconomic mood, it was in temperament only; he began as an upper-middle-class Pasadena kid, and eventually owned homes in Switzerland and Africa. He always radiated the confidence and physical grace of an Ivy League wunderkind, and his timing and pitch were always perfect. Yet in his voice and eyes lurked a crushed dream. On top of that, Holden was a hard, unhappy drinker, his visage taking on such bruising weather that he eventually became a virtual twin to another catastrophic, dark-hearted boozer, John Cheever (they died seven months apart). His career stretched over almost four-and-a-half decades, beginning in earnest with a splashy debut in Golden Boy (1939), but Holden needed the grimness that service in WWII brought him, and he became an irresistibly troubling presence only once the '40s began to fade and the new age of generational warfare and civil unease and cynical realism arrived like a renaissance. The growing pains of the '50s and '60s suited Holden like a hairshirt; he had no Dean-Clift-Brando demographic alliance, but still became a star, seemingly on the strength of just wanting to be left alone.

Holden's fungal aura genuinely began to form in Rudolph Maté's The Dark Past (1948), in which he played a miserable, hair-trigger sociopath who has his wretched childhood dredged up for him by kidnapped shrink Lee J. Cobb, but it was Billy Wilder's camphorous Sunset Blvd. (1950) that seems to have been written with Holden's particular discomfort in mind. Wilder's disinterment of the old Hollywood, and Gloria Swanson's lurid incarnation thereof, got the press and the accolades, but it was Holden, emanating self-disgust in every scene, who gave the film its queasy force. It was still 1950, but everyone could tell just by the look on Holden's face that he was having to sleep with that ghostly woman, that he was a Hollywood whore trading in every gram of worth he ever thought he owned. What other star of the day could've, or even would've, embraced the moral horror of the role? Who else could've elevated shame to a state of being?

The Holden retro at Lincoln Center hits on all of the popular face cards in Holden's deck (he made plenty of minor noirs and forgettable genre films along the way), including the relatively dull Oscar-honored diptych of Born Yesterday (1950) and The Country Girl (1954)—in each, Holden gets the third-wheel straight man part, but at least in the latter he gets to return to Odets. Stalag 17 (1953) was his Oscar moment, but it's a trite movie, and Holden's natural cynicism and self-knowledge is buried under a dumping load of boisterous caricature. Truth be told, Holden's character-role capacities ranged only from narcissistic American jerk to self-loathing American lug, but his best movies are implicit inquisitions into that personality—like Sunset Blvd., like Sabrina (1954) (Wilder was always tempted by Holden's ambiguities), and like Mark Robson's The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) (Holden seemed corrupted in his gut by the scenario's anti-war/anti-Communism muddle).

By the time of David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), a big-budget production looking for a disillusioned American Everyman sickened by his own lack of heroism need only go to Holden. Again, that still-stirring behemoth has attained pop-classic status on the strength of Alec Guinness's rather Swanson-esque performance and Norma Desmond-esque role, and Lean's scope. But Holden is the wet rope in the film's tug-of-war between self-interest and greater good, righteous conflict and pointless bloodshed. His outraged sacrificial lamb hearkened forward, with unsettling accuracy, to the dialogues and images that would arise a few years hence in Vietnam, and gave Lean's somewhat schematic epic an uncomfortable pulse, a gray area of distrust and incertitude that large-scale Hollywood movies had never allowed before.

As Holden aged, his richest vein was the bitter personification of the costs of progress and the loss of frontier—he became, almost inevitably, the angry Old Guard facing melancholy supersession by the young, by modernity, and by the press of time. He was lucky enough that the American New Wave kept coming back to this theme like flies to a carcass, and thus Holden limned the era's prototypical Obsolete American in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), heaving his arthritic bulk through the motions of Western-outlaw action, and deigning to smile, obliquely, only once the face-off with the Mexican Army promised unbridled vengeance and the relief of death. Holden brought uneasy bile to Pike Bishop in ways Lee Marvin, the original star sought and cast for the role, could not have located in his recesses of gravelly coolness. And so the film's Ragnarok climax still leaves a nausea behind, because there was still the unburned coal crumb of hope in Holden's Bishop, suggesting that even in the end he believed life, and America, didn't have to turn out quite this way.

Holden's haggard lion in Network (1976) was as revelatory and lucid a career summary as any star could hope for, circling back to Sunset Blvd. in its vicious showbiz-slut critique, and finally allowing Holden, in large Chayefsky paragraphs and sympathetic close-ups, the time to nakedly show us the "primal doubts" that had always haunted him, and the damage they have done him. Even here, Holden's default face confronted the world with gritted teeth. The frontier that's slipping away isn't merely television's cultural potential, but a sense of grown-up gravity that cannot be peddled or cheapened. Holden is, again, the film's unsettled moral conscience—a role that in the real world requires familiarity with dishonor and calamity—just as he was more than a quarter-century earlier, as a young man, sitting on Norma Desmond's couch and wishing he were anywhere else, the compromised conscience of a new society. 


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Courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest
Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and Ernest Borgnine in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch
Photo Gallery: St. Bill of Illinois


July 2-15, 2008 William Holden: A Different Kind of Hero


William Holden  |  Retrospective  |  Hollywood


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct