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Home Classic Movies William Holden: ‘A Different Kind of Hero’ Film Retrospective

William Holden: ‘A Different Kind of Hero’ Film Retrospective

William Holden Picnic Kim Novak
William Holden in Picnic with Kim Novak.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

At Moving Images Source, Michael Atkinson discusses William Holden in “St. Bill of Illinois”:

As per Atkinson, William Holden was “on the surface one of the Hollywood century’s typical all-purpose leading men, but beneath it [he was] 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.”


Well, the dream wasn’t always crushed – see Born Yesterday, for instance – but William Holden surely had his share of on- (and off-) screen disappointments. The boyish, hopeful young man who starred in Golden Boy (1939) and Our Town (1940) had just about nothing to do with the wrinkled, jaded one who starred in Picnic (1955) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) less than 20 years later.

A film series dedicated to the actor, “William Holden: A Different Kind of Hero,” is currently taking place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. The series runs until July 15.

William Holden, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch in Network

Among the series’ upcoming films are Carol Reed’s middling drama The Key (1958), co-starring Sophia Loren and Trevor Howard; Sam Peckinpah’s violent The Wild Bunch (1969); Joshua Logan’s highly theatrical – but great-looking – Picnic (1955), in which Holden (ineffectually) plays one of those unable to attain the American Dream of social conformity (Rosalind Russell steals the show in that one); Billy Wilder’s weak romantic comedy Sabrina (1954), in which a dyed-blond Holden plays second banana to odd couple Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn; and what is probably Holden’s best film and performance, Sidney Lumet’s over-the-top anti-television (actually, anti-human imbecility) drama Network (1976), in which Holden plays a disillusioned TV executive.

Also, Blake Edwards’ heavy-handed but enjoyable all-star Hollywood satire S.O.B., in which Holden is eclipsed by Julie Andrews’ boobs and Robert Vaughn’s high heels; Billy Wilder’s half-hearted concentration-camp drama Stalag 17, for which a superficial Holden won an undeserved best actor Oscar (in all fairness, none of the other nominees that year were any better); Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Blvd. (1950), with Holden – in a role that should have gone to first choice Montgomery Clift – selling both his soul and his body (to faded silent film star Gloria Swanson) in a failed attempt to attain fame and money; and George Seaton’s undeservedly forgotten The Counterfeit Traitor (1962), an espionage drama in which Holden capably plays the title character. The film, however, belongs to Lilli Palmer, immensely touching as a doomed spy-with-a-conscience.

William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai

“William Holden, A Different Kind of Hero”

Schedule and synopses from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.

Photos: The Kobal Collection, Photofest

William Holden, Clint Eastwood, Kay Lenz in Breezy

Clint Eastwood, US, 1973; 108m
The winning combination of Holden and Eastwood produced one of the most undervalued films of its era. Kay Lenz plays the title character, a disaffected young hippie who hides out on the property of the middle-aged divorcé played by Holden. May-December romances have been a staple of American movies from the start, but they’ve rarely been this subtly drawn. Rather than a titillating diversion, Breezy is a movie about a human exchange between people from different generations, when the gap between them was at its widest. At this point in his career, Holden had achieved a level of eloquence that put him in a class by himself, and this is one of his best performances.
Thu Jul 10: 1:30pm and 6:15pm

William Holden, Geoffrey Horne in The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai
David Lean, UK/US, 1957; 161m
One of the most beloved films of its era, The Bridge on the River Kwai established the beginning of the epic phase in the career of its director David Lean, who is having his centenary year. Lean’s patient storytelling and majestic film form give ample scope, scale and depth to Pierre Boulle’s novel about a group of Allied prisoners of war forced by the Japanese to build the titular Burmese bridge, as well as the three-way psychological chess match that results between Alec Guinness’ punctilious British officer, Holden’s cocky American and Sessue Hayakawa’s Japanese commander. As in all of Lean’s great epics, the contrasts in scale are thrilling – the vast scale of the bridge itself and its construction is constantly and dramatically set against the less tidy human scale and its sweaty, messy war of nerves. The famous score (composed in just ten days!) is by Malcolm Arnold, but its most famous tune, “The Colonel Bogey March,” dates back to World War I.
Sat Jul 5: 3:15pm and 8:30pm

The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Mark Robson, US, 1954; 102m
George Seaton and William Perlberg produced this excellent adaptation of James Michener’s novel about a Navy pilot in Korea coming to terms with his own impending death in combat, directed by Mark Robson. Holden’s Lt. Brubaker shares as much of his sudden realization of mortality as he can with his wife (Grace Kelly) and his sympathetic commander (Fredric March), but his knowledge is ultimately private and very lonely. Holden’s feeling for this character is never less than gripping, whether he’s in the cockpit, lying in bed with his wife and trying to explain the difficulty of the bombing run over the bridges at Toko-Ri, or walking out on deck and confronting his own non-being on the horizon. A powerful if painful film, beautifully rendered in Technicolor.
Sat Jul 5: 1:00pm and 6:20pm

William Holden, Klaus Kinski in The Counterfeit Traitor

The Counterfeit Traitor
George Seaton, US, 1962; 140m
Holden’s partnership with George Seaton and William Perlberg arguably reached a peak with this harrowing, carefully crafted and detailed adaptation of Alexander Klein’s novel about Eric Erickson, a real Swedish-American businessman coerced by British intelligence into spying on the Nazis. Unlike many American films that deal with the period, the details of everyday life during the war seem accurate (the film was shot in Germany, Sweden and Denmark). While there are some nerve-wracking set pieces, the entire film achieves a refined moral suspense: how far should people go to fight for their cause? Do you always have to become as ruthless as your enemy? It’s one of Holden’s most finely etched portraits, of a man receiving a brutal education at the hands of his friends, his enemies and his supposed allies. With an excellent cast that includes Hugh Griffith as the smiling, merciless British agent, Lilli Palmer as Holden’s contact in Germany, and, in a bit part as a tubercular escaped Jewish prisoner on the run, Klaus Kinski. The excellent color cinematography is by Jean Bourgoin.
Sat Jul 12: 4:10pm and 9:30pm

Escape from Fort Bravo
John Sturges, US, 1953; 99m
In this relatively unknown and underrated western set during the Civil War era, Holden brings abrasive force to the role of the ruthless Captain Roper, known for his harsh treatment of the Confederate prisoners of Fort Bravo, Arizona. Eleanor Parker is Carla, the woman recruited to soften him up and pave the way for the escape of Captain Marsh (John Forsythe). Spurned in love and eager for revenge, Roper and his men track down Marsh and Carla and bring them back through hostile Mescalero country. Partly shot on location in Death Valley, Fort Bravo is a beautifully crafted action movie, shot by the legendary D.P. Robert Surtees (in glorious Ansocolor!) and flawlessly directed by John Sturges.
Sun Jul 6: 3:30pm and 8:00pm

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

William Holden, Marthe Keller in Fedora

Billy Wilder, France/West Germany, 1978; 114m
Holden’s final collaboration with Wilder was this adaptation of Thomas Tryon’s novel Crowned Heads – for both actor and director a return to Sunset Boulevard territory with 30 more years of moviemaking experience behind them. Holden is the producer who invades the privacy of a Garbo-esque former star named Fedora (Marthe Keller), who stays miraculously young thanks to the special treatments provided by her doctor (Jose Ferrer). The film is just as bitter about Hollywood as the earlier film, if not more so (Wilder has a good time ripping the then-modern moviemaking community to shreds). But it’s a more becalmed film made from an old man’s perspective. Wilder worked with many of his most valued collaborators, including his writing partner of many years I.A.L. Diamond and his legendary set designer Alexandre Trauner, not to mention Holden himself. Together they give Fedora a deliberately archaic feel, and create a bittersweet elegy to the Old Hollywood.
Wed Jul 2: 4:00pm and 8:30pm

Barbara Stanwyck, Lee J. Cobb, William Holden in Golden Boy

Golden Boy
Rouben Mamoulian, US, 1939; 99m
Clifford Odets’ 1937 drama about an Italian-American boy torn between music and the fight game was originally produced by the Group Theatre, with Luther Adler as Joe and Frances Farmer (transplanted from the movies) as his girl – as well as Morris Carnovsky, Elia Kazan, Bobby Lewis, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Ritt, Howard Da Silva, Karl Malden, and Julius Garfield (who would soon change his name to John). While not as groundbreaking as Awake and Sing or Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy further established Odets as the premier dramatist of the great American melting pot. This Hollywood version is smoothed out and ethnically neutered, but it’s still powerful. Holden had only two walk-ons to his credit when he was cast as Joe, and he is very good in the role that made him a star – raw, passionately intense, heartbreaking, beautiful. However, at a certain point in the production, the filmmakers lost confidence in their young lead; his co-star Barbara Stanwyck insisted that Holden stay on, for which Holden always felt a debt of gratitude. Strangely, despite the fact that many members of the Group had migrated to Hollywood and were testing for their movie debuts, only one of them was cast in Golden Boy: Cobb, in the role of Mr. Bonaparte (for which he was too young), originated by Carnovsky.
Mon Jul 7: 2:30pm and 6:30pm

William Holden, Constance Towers, John Wayne in The Horse Soldiers

The Horse Soldiers
John Ford, US, 1959; 115m
John Ford’s Civil War drama was based on the historical Grierson’s Raid, in which a Union colonel drove his men into enemy territory to destroy the railroad line to Vicksburg. John Wayne is the Grierson figure, Colonel Marlowe. Holden is the regimental surgeon who is in perpetual conflict with his commander, and Constance Towers is the Southern belle who is taken hostage for the duration of the campaign. The film has an unusual autumnal feeling, and it is beautifully shot on location in Louisiana by William Clothier. It also has one of the most stirring scenes in Ford’s entire body of work, in which a company of boy soldiers recruited from the military academy to replenish the depleted Confederate army marches proudly off to war.
Sun Jul 6: 1:00pm and 5:30pm

William Holden, Sophia Loren in The Key

The Key
Carol Reed, UK, 1958; 134m
Like all great actors, Holden explored certain themes and emotional registers across the years – disillusionment, arrogance, cockiness, and the strangeness of recognizing one’s own mortality. It’s present in The Bridges at Toko-Ri, in The Wild Bunch (Manny Farber wrote that Holden’s acting in the film had “the smell of death”), and in this underrated World War II drama by Carol Reed, written by the still-blacklisted Carl Foreman. Holden plays a Canadian sergeant who is assigned to command a tugboat that rescues damaged ships. After a dangerous mission, he goes with his old friend Chris (Trevor Howard) to a London flat the latter shares with a woman named Stella (Sophia Loren). The key to the flat, originally given away by Stella’s fiancé the day before their wedding, is passed along from man to man, every one of whom reminds Stella of her lost love. Holden and Howard give haunting performances in this beautifully engineered melodrama, shot in crisp black and white CinemaScope by Oswald Morris.
Sat Jul 12: 1:30pm and 6:50pm

William Holden, Capucine in The Lion

The Lion
Jack Cardiff, US, 1962; 96m
One of Holden’s greatest passions was the African continent; he established The Mount Kenya Game Ranch in the mid-’60s, which he often referred to as his greatest accomplishment. This unusual and little known 1962 film was made as an expression of love for Kenya and its wildlife population in particular. Holden plays Robert Hayward, a divorcé who travels to Kenya at the behest of his ex-wife (Capucine, one of Holden’s greatest loves off screen). They are both concerned about their daughter Tina (Pamela Franklin), who has developed a bond with a full-grown lion. Holden is excellent in the role of the quietly anguished Hayward, and Franklin was a magical child actress. The film is magnificently photographed, which comes as no surprise: it was directed by one of the greatest color cinematographers in the history of the medium, Jack Cardiff. With Trevor Howard as Franklin’s stepfather.
Sun Jul 13: 1:30pm and 6:00pm

Glenn Ford, William Holden in The Man from Colorado

The Man From Colorado
Henry Levin, US, 1948; 100m
This disturbing postwar western, about a returning Union colonel (Glenn Ford) who orders the massacre a group of surrendering Confederate soldiers and progresses to become hanging judge in the Colorado Territory, spoke to the charged situation for returning World War II veterans more than the historical past. Ford’s Colonel Owen Devereaux is a damaged man, and his war buddy Captain Del Stewart (Holden) watches Devereaux’s terrible progress in horror, as he victimizes almost everyone dragged before his bench. This is one of Holden’s less complex performances, but he’s a winning counterbalance to Ford’s believable viciousness. The Man From Colorado is one of the best and least known of the western noirs made in the wake of the war (Pursued, The Furies, Devil’s Doorway), and it was shot in striking Technicolor by William E. Snyder.
Thu Jul 3: 2:15pm and 6:15pm

Faye Dunaway, William Holden in Network

Sidney Lumet, US, 1976; 121m
Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s now classic look at the future of television entertainment not only anticipated reality TV but also the numbers-based world of infotainment as we know it. Peter Finch, who died before he could collect his Oscar for best actor, is Howard Beale, the anchorman who unleashes his fury on his own network and their corporate owners after he’s laid off and is subsequently re-made as the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” Faye Dunaway is the tautly strung programming director who dreams up the idea, Robert Duvall is the corporate doomsayer, and Holden plays the news director who witnesses the whole train wreck in progress with sad detachment. Network is filled with powerhouse encounters, but the scene where Dunaway works herself into a rapid-fire orgasm at the middle-aged Holden’s expense might be the movie’s sadly comic highlight.
Thu Jul 10: 3:45pm and 8:30pm

William Holden, Martha Scott in Our Town

Our Town
Sam Wood, US, 1940; 90m
When Sol Lesser, an exhibitor and producer of low-budget films, bought the rights to Thornton Wilder’s 1938 meditation on American life and death in Grover’s Corners, he was assuming the stewardship of one of the key works of American theater, if not American culture. Lesser made every effort to preserve the play’s integrity, and his first order of business was to hire Wilder himself to write the screenplay. He went on to hire the finest talent he could find – a score by Aaron Copland, production design by William Cameron Menzies, Bert Glennon as the D.P., and a cast that included Frank Craven as the Stage Manager, Thomas Mitchell as Dr. Gibbs, Beulah Bondi as Myrtle Webb, Fay Bainter as Mrs. Gibbs, Martha Scott as Emily and Holden, in only his third significant screen role, as George. Many felt that he was both too good-looking and too old for the role, but he gives a touching performance, perfectly matched by Scott’s luminous force.
Mon Jul 7: 4:30pm and 8:30pm

Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, William Holden, Cliff Robertson in Picnic

Joshua Logan, US, 1955; 115m
Joshua Logan’s film version of the William Inge stage hit set hearts aflutter for years to come, and contains one of Hollywood’s most iconic moments: the slow, serpentine dance of desire between Kim Novak’s Madge and Holden’s Hal, a drifter who has arrived in the heart of the Midwest to stir things up right before the annual Labor Day picnic. The scene is wonderful (as is the song they’re dancing to, “Moonglow”), but so is the rest of the movie, as Logan and his cast potently realize Inge’s trademark oppositions between sexual repression and awakening, youth and age. Novak is in her vulnerably ethereal prime, and this is probably Holden’s most sexually magnetic performance. With Cliff Robertson as Hal’s old frat buddy, Betty Field as Novak’s mother, Susan Strasberg as her sister and Rosalind Russell as the schoolteacher. Shot in Technicolor by one of Hollywood’s greatest cameramen, James Wong Howe.
Sun Jul 13: 3:30 pm and 8:00pm

Audrey Hepburn, William Holden in Sabrina

Billy Wilder, US, 1954; 113m
The third Wilder/Holden collaboration was this adaptation of Samuel Taylor’s Sabrina Fair, with Audrey Hepburn as the titular chauffeur’s daughter who is sent to Paris to become a lady. She returns to romance with the Larrabee brothers, played by Holden and Humphrey Bogart. The tone of this romantic comedy classic is more sweet than bitter, and often close to incandescent. If Sabrina belongs to Hepburn and Bogart, Holden’s blithely superficial millionaire playboy is one of the brightest stars in its comic firmament – with his dyed blond hair and lighthearted manner, he lights up the screen whenever he appears. With John Williams in a very touching performance as Sabrina’s father.
Mon Jul 14: 1:30pm and 6:15pm
Tue Jul 15: 3:35pm

William Holden, Larry Hagman in S.O.B.

Blake Edwards, US, 1981; 122m
Blake Edwards took three decades of frustration and insanity in Hollywood – his harrowing misadventures with 1970’s Darling Lili in particular – and processed it all in this bitingly funny comedy about a producer (Robert Mulligan) who makes a desperate attempt to salvage his big-budget family movie by adding sexually provocative material featuring the squeaky clean star, who is also his wife (played by the “squeaky clean” Julie Andrews, who starred in Darling Lili and was, and still is, the real Mrs. Edwards). With the exception of Sunset Boulevard and The Player, no film about Hollywood is more acerbic, a register in which Holden, who plays the director, was without peer. With a terrific cast, including Larry Hagman, Robert Loggia, Robert Preston, Craig Stevens, Robert Vaughn, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters and a very young Rosanna Arquette. The films most hilarious sequence (which we won’t give away) is based on a hilarious tall tale told by director Raoul Walsh.
Fri Jul 11: 1:00pm and 6:15pm

Don Taylor, William Holden in Stalag 17

Stalag 17
Billy Wilder, US, 1953; 120m
Holden’s second film with Wilder is this rich, beautifully constructed P.O.W. story, which confidently walks a fine line between comedy and suspense (it became the basis for the long-running TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, starring the ill-fated Bob Crane). Sefton (Holden) is the camp cynic, always ready to make a buck off his fellow prisoners and refusing to take part in anything that would put himself in danger. When he is suspected of being a traitor, he gets busy trying to find the real culprit. Who but Holden could have pulled off this complex role? Who else could have endowed Sefton with such abrasive wit and charm? He won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor, and this is one of his defining roles. With Wilder’s pal Otto Preminger as the camp commandant, Colonel von Scherbach.
Mon Jul 14: 3:45pm and 8:30pm

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

William Holden in the Streets of Laredo

Streets of Laredo
Leslie Fenton, US, 1949; 93m
Holden is Jim, one of a gang of Texas outlaws that includes Lom (MacDonald Carey) and Wahoo (William Bendix). Jim and Wahoo are lured into the Texas Rangers while Lom keeps up the bandit life, and they are drawn into a series of increasingly dangerous conflicts. This small-scale western – based on material originally conceived by King Vidor, directed by Leslie Fenton and written by Charles Marquis Warren (an excellent director of westerns himself) – is a perfect example of the genre in its purest state. It has a singing integrity and a wonderful purity, and it is beautifully crafted throughout. It is also lovely to look at, shot by Ray Renahan in rich Technicolor. One of Holden’s final roles as an innocent youth.
Thu Jul 3: 4:15pm and 8:30pm

William Holden, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder, US, 1950; 110m
One of the great enduring classics of postwar American cinema, Sunset Boulevard also marks the emergence of William Holden as we came to know him. No longer the callow youth of the ’30s or the buttoned-down man of the ’40s, Holden had developed some interesting seams and cracks in his face, and he started to cultivate an edgy, downbeat side of which there are only inklings in his earlier performances. And that voice, speaking Billy Wilder’s caustic dialogue and narration, became one of the most recognizable of its era. This was the first of four times Holden and Wilder worked together, and together they made beautifully melancholy music.

Of course, Wilder’s send-off to the Hollywood of the silent era also belongs to Gloria Swanson’s immortal Norma Desmond; to a heartbreakingly stoic Erich von Stroheim as her butler, driver, former director and husband; Nancy Olson as Holden’s writing partner and lover; and a host of other actors in small, vivid roles, including Buster Keaton, Francis X. Bushman, and, very much as himself, Cecil B. DeMille – not to mention that astonishing mansion on Sunset Boulevard itself. But perhaps more than anything else, it’s the duets between Holden and Swanson that make the movie such a powerful experience.
Wed Jul 2: 1:45pm and 6:15pm

William Holden in The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah, US, 1969; 134m
The great Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece and one of the key films of the late ’60s, The Wild Bunch stars Holden as the leader of a gang of bank robbers near the Mexican border in the 1880s looking to make one last score. They’re also trying to outrun their own inevitable fate, which will be delivered by their former ally Deke (Robert Ryan). Peckinpah’s film is majestic in so many ways. Visually speaking, it’s a remarkable window on the American past (thanks to D.P. Lucien Ballard) – every shot teems with life, yet is tinged with an elegiac beauty. Peckinpah’s vision is vast, dense with incident and complexity of character, and a truly tragic sense of existence. And the performances are remarkable, from Ryan to Ernest Borgnine as Holden’s old friend Dutch, to a tremendous supporting cast that includes Peckinpah regular L.Q Jones, Strother Martin, Emilio Fernández, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and the great Albert Dekker. At the center of the movie is Holden, making his entrance into modern American cinema and creating in Pike Bishop one of its most lasting characters. “Whether it’s too violent or not I simply don’t know,” said Peckinpah. “I tried to make it as tough as I know how.” Pauline Kael famously and aptly declared that The Wild Bunch was a “traumatic poem of violence, with imagery as ambivalent as Goya’s.”
Fri Jul 11: 3:30pm and 8:45pm
Tue Jul 15: 1:00pm

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Annette Cloer -

I can’t stop watching his films over and over again.I fell in love with him, when I first saw SABRINA, I was still a very young girl, he could have been my father. I promised, if I ever have a daughter, I wouldname her Sabrina, so I did. Interesting enough I fell in love with a man, who was a Bill Holden type, blue eyes, brown hair, a GermanAR Force officer, only he was not as tall as my movie love. Now, 15 years after the death of my husband, 37 years after the death of Bill Holden, I discover him newly, I own many DVDs of his films, I watch them nearly every day. I love very much the very sensitive and touching BREEZY, but of course PICNIC; LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDOURED THING and even those from the early days, when I even was not born yet. He is my all time best and beloved movie actor, from whom I even got several autographs on pictures from his film. My parents used to own two cinemas in Germany and I even was a projectionist, part of his films I know by heart. I could cry about his very sad shape at the end and his terrible lonely end, but I habe the films and in them he is still beautiful and alive.

Carlo -

He should have been awarded an Oscar just for existing!

paula esquidar -


Giuseppe -

Holden’s Oscar for Stalag 17 was undeserved, “but none of the other nominees that year were any better.” Are you crazy??!! Monty Clift in “From Here to Eternity”?! His performance deserved it…and should have won it!


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