A childhood friend of mine used to do a dead-on but foul-mouthed impression of William Holden. It wasn’t a putdown of the actor, but our own (twisted?) way of paying tribute to a cherished performer. And we had nothing but admiration for William Holden. Even as kids we saw the kind of power and restrained rage he brought to a role. Holden was never over-the-top or stagy, even if my friend’s impersonation was. In fact, I’d have absolutely no difficulty in claiming that William Holden is my all-time favorite actor; yes, I know I anointed someone else with that title but all lists are subject to change.
There’s absolutely nothing dated, awkward, or stilted about his presence onscreen. The work he did in the light and fluffy Sabrina is just as fresh and entertaining as the tremendous and serious work he did in Stalag 17 and Network. Even in the less-inspired movies, Holden makes it worthwhile. The cliché about “getting better as they got older” applies to no one more so than it does William Holden.
I've been watching several of his movies lately: Sabrina, The Wild Bunch, Network and of course, Stalag 17, which was a childhood favorite that was also a family favorite; it was a film the men of the house would all watch together. I’ve been impressed with Holden's choice of roles, especially during the 1950s, when he was among Hollywood’s hardest-working actors. I first took notice of him as a kid, when he decked John Wayne in John Ford’s mixed-bag Civil War-era The Horse Soldiers (how’s that for a description?).
I've come to admire the Holden head of hair, the distinctive voice and the "Golden Boy" looks. I lament the fact that he never got to play detective Philip Marlowe, a role that would have fit the cynical Holden perfectly. Maybe it’s that cynicism that keeps the Holden flame burning. Perhaps that anger and bitterness he carried with him like he was always ready to chuck the whole Hollywood sham that made him rich, famous, and miserable.
Let’s face it: the guy was Joe Gillis, the screenwriter character from Sunset Boulevard and the part that made Holden’s career. Billy Wilder--one of the most cynical Hollywood characters of all time--was the perfect collaborator for Holden. However, whereas Wilder often injected humor to balance his cynicism and is usually thought of as a “comedy” director, it was Holden who made a career out of bringing to life cynical loners in every walk of life. A selection of Holden characters all fit this description: Joe Gillis, JJ Sefton, Pike Bishop, Ross Bodine, Bumper Morgan, Max Schumacher, Tim Culley, and Patrick Foley were all men on the outside, living what they thought was a self-reliant life but who were always broken by the system and who never truly fit in with the world; the eternal outsider. I remember reading in the Bob Woodward John Belushi biography, Wired, about Holden's bitterness concerning Hollywood and what a rotten town it was/is. I read this over twenty years ago, but the sentiment made quite an impression.
I shouldn't have been surprised, though. Even though one didn't expect to read hostile and negative sentiment from a so-called “success story” of Holden's stature. This from the same actor who was quoted as saying, “If that son of a bitch hadn’t died, I would’ve had my second Oscar”, referring to his Network co-star, Peter Finch, who won the Best Actor Academy Award posthumously in the scenery-chewing performance for the ages. The screenwriter for Network was Paddy Chayefsky, another master of the cynicism game.
Holden’s was a career that never dipped or fell far from sight, despite more than a few failures. It’s still impressive how Holden kept turning in brilliant performances as he got older. Holden was robbed when he didn't even get an Oscar nomination for The Wild Bunch, his star power --not to mention his bone-weary tiredness-- carried that movie and I never tire of his performance. It isn't often that I can say that I'm happy Lee Marvin turned down a tough guy role, but in the case of The Wild Bunch, nobody could've done a better job than Holden.
As far as career legacy is concerned, I won't claim that William Holden is "forgotten", but he probably hasn't enjoyed the staying power in the collective memory of movie fans that lavish more attention on Holden’s contemporaries like Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, or Robert Mitchum. I adore those actors but have come to the conclusion that William Holden is the more interesting and even superior actor, yet his ignominious end was a horrible and lonely death much like the kind Billy Wilder, Paddy Chayefsky…or Joe Gillis…might’ve banged out on his typewriter for a Holden protagonist.