I’ve been indulging, as I do every now and again, in a mini William Holden film fest. I first fell for Holden’s charms when I saw him in Born Yesterday. I think what intrigued me most about Holden is his voice; it has a rough, gravelly quality that contrasts significantly with his polished good looks and that dazzling smile. Good looks aside, the quality of Holden’s acting and range has always impressed me. Holden was equally adept at playing comedy as he was drama. I think it’s easy to equate Holden with the hard and sarcastic cynic that he played to perfection in films such as Stalag 17, but when you see a number of his earlier films, you realise what perfect comedic timing he had. Here’s a list of what I watched over the past week:
Born Yesterday (1950). One of the things I admire about Holden is that he seemed perfecly ready to accept playing second lead to a strong female character, in this case, the incomporable Judy Holliday. Holliday dominates every scene, out shining even the deliciously-blustery Broderick Crawford. Holden plays his character with intelligence and that wry humour that was his trademark. The dialogue is intelligent, witty, and sophisticated; some of the many elements that seem to be missing from so many comedies today.
Sunset Boulevard (1950). This is in my list of top five favourite films. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this film, and it never gets old. Billie Wilder is one of my favourite directors: He combines cynicism with wit, humour, and crackling language. This film was a major turning point in Holden’s career, as most of his previous efforts were mostly light comedies with little substance. This film demonstrated the cynical and wry persona with which Holden was to become so closely associated. The list of superlatives for this film is simply too long to list. Once again, Holden sits back and lets Gloria Swanson lead the show; his character’s self loathing is almost painful to watch. It’s a credit to Holden that he can make what is essentially a weak and rather callow man actually sympathetic to the audience. I can’t think of too many actors of his time who would have overcome public perception and ego to play a gigolo.
Stalag 17 (1953). Holden’s Oscar-winning tour de force performance. In many ways, this film presents the persona with which so many of Holden’s characters were to be associated. Of course, it’s impossible to watch this film without thinking of Hogan’s Heroes, which borrowed so blatantly and unashamedly from this film, which is why I like the TV series so much. The film has a wonderful ensemble of actors, some a little annoyingly over the top, perhaps, but the combination works well.
Picnic (1955). I watched this begrudgingly to please a friend of mine. I’ve always wondered why this film is so popular and why it receives high ratings in a number of fora. Yes, it looks lush: Beautiful cinematography and colour palettes, with a gorgeous Kim Novak. The story, however, is trite and, perhaps more importantly, Holden is simply wrong for the role. Holden was too old for the part, and his boyish and callow behaviour and energy just don’t sit right with the naturally elegant and sophisticated Holden. The film has always struck me as an overwrought soap opera. I understand that Holden expressed discomfort with this role and how poorly it suited him.
Honourable mentions, but not watched this week: The Wild Bunch (1969), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and, of course, Golden Boy (1939).