In Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer, there is a short but memorable scene in which the narrator, Binx, perambulating through New Orleans, spots a genuine film star:
Who should come out of Pirate's Alley half a block ahead of me but William Holden!
Holden crosses Royal and turns toward Canal... No doubt he is on his way to Galatoire's for lunch. He is an attractive fellow with his ordinary good looks, very suntanned, walking along hands in pockets, raincoat slung over one shoulder.
This is 1961. You'd know the "ordinary good looks" from The World of Suzie Wong and Bridge on the River Kwai and Love is a Many Splendored Thing. Big movies, big star, but "ordinary", as in normal and all-American, not so unique that you're freakishly out of place on a city street - as, say, his co-star in Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson, would be. "Ordinary" and extraordinary - because he's a star. "Holden slaps his pockets for a match" - a move you feel sure you've seen him do in Picnic or Sabrina, but he's William Holden, so the "ordinary" move has a careless grace about it. A young man on his honeymoon seizes his opportunity:
The boy holds out a light, nods briefly to Holden's thanks, then passes on without a flicker of recognition. Holden walks along between them for a second; he and the boy talk briefly, look up at the sky, shake their heads. Holden gives them a pat on the shoulder and moves on ahead,.
The boy has done it..! He is a citizen like Holden; two men of the world they are. All at once the world is open to him... His girl is open to him too. He puts his arm around her neck, noodles her head. She feels the difference too...
Holden has turned down Toulouse shedding light as he goes. An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it.
"Heightened reality": The honeymoon couple feel it, and for a moment they feel they might be William Holden and Kim Novak dancing to "Moonglow" in Picnic. Because the trick of the movies is to take the ordinary - a small-town dance pavilion - and make it magical. Holden, for example, back in his own Illinois youth, back when he was that honeymooner's age, was a lousy dancer.
But the aura departed, as did the suntan and the good looks, ravaged by alcoholism. As the president of the news division in Network (1976), Holden is worn and haggard and lined well beyond his fifty-seven years, a man exhausted by life, and drained of it. Half a decade later, he slipped on a rug in his apartment and cut his head on the nightstand. Too drunk to realize the severity of his injury, he lay on the floor conscious for half-an-hour, with a phone within reach and dabbing at his wound with a tissue, and apparently didn't notice he was bleeding to death.Then he lay there for another four days before his body was discovered.
It was a seedy, pitiful curtain for a former Number One box-office star, not to mention best man of the then president, Ronald Reagan, when he'd married Nancy Davis. But there are worse ways to go: Three years earlier, Gig Young, another alcoholic Oscar-winner with "ordinary good looks", shot his bride of three weeks and then turned the gun on himself. Whereas Young was said to have been bitter about his career decline, Holden was largely indifferent to his own stardom - as in that fictional scene on a New Orleans street. He did sour and cynical and self-loathing back when he was Norma Desmond's boy-toy in Sunset, and he wore that as blithely as any of his lighter roles.
William Holden would have been one hundred years old this month - he was born April 17th 1918 in O'Fallon, Illinois, which is in the St Louis area. He seems both older and younger than a century: older, because he died a long time ago now, and younger, because his acting seems modern in a way that that of, say, Betty Grable, with whom he appeared in Million Dollar Legs, doesn't. That was in 1939: He was twenty years old and he had a speaking part (two words: "Thank you"). The year before he'd made his film debut as a prisoner in Prison Farm. His third picture gave him his career, Rouben Mamoulian's film of Clifford Odets' hit Broadway play. Third-billed after Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou, he played the eponymous golden boy, the young violinist who becomes a boxer instead. The studio didn't like Holden's acting and wanted to fire him, but Miss Stanwyck put her foot down, and helped him through it - and for the next four decades, all the way to Blake Edwards' black Hollywood satire SOB in 1981, her golden boy was never out of work.
He made 77 movies, and he's good in almost anything and great in an awful lot. For the first decade he was too golden, too boyish. He didn't like what he called the "Smiling Jim" roles - the boyish charmer who blandly smiles his way out of trouble: "Good ol' Smiling Jim," he'd say. "I hate him." In Dear Ruth (1947) he plays a bombardier on a two-day leave after a lot of action in his B25 over Europe who calls on a girl he only knows as a wartime penpal. That would be Ruth, played by Joan Caulfield. Unfortunately, unbeknown to either party, the letters were all written by Ruth's sixteen-year-old sister Miriam, pretending to be her big sis in order to help the war effort. Further complications ensue. Holden's delightful as the doting flight lieutenant, but he knew it was hokum, because his younger brother had been the real thing - and had been shot down over the Pacific three years earlier. The difference between movies and life - and death.
Sunset Boulevard, which killed off Holden's character in its famous opening scene, also killed off Smiling Jim. The director, Billy Wilder, was intrigued by his leading man. He was athletic - "Physically, he was first class" - and in life he had always been reckless: As a teenager, he would jump on a dare five-foot metal-spiked fences, and ride his motorbike down the street standing on the saddle. Yet in his chosen profession he was a shy man who found both acting and being an actor embarrassing - at least compared with his brother's job. "Deep down in his heart he is an inhibited boy who feels very uncomfortable to act," Wilder recalled. "He is the exact opposite of the ham. He was always sort of pushed into acting." After a while, he figured out a way to push himself. Heading off to the studio each morn, he'd call ahead and alert his assistant: "Warm the ice cubes." Booze loosened him up, spectacularly: Lubricated by sufficient martinis, his party piece in Hollywood was handstands at open windows of tall buildings or clambering out to hang from them upside down. But drink also liberated his acting, enabling not just the beautiful death ballet he gives Wilder in Sunset, but the dry, controlled, knowing, ironic persona that's such a marvelous contrast with Swanson's extravagant manner.
"I'm too young to get good parts," he'd complained to Joel McCrea. "I need lines in my face, like you and Coop." "They'll come, Bill," said McCrea. "They'll come." They came sooner than expected, also liberated by the booze. The "ordinary good looks" grew extraordinarily craggy but the blue eyes still blazed. Most actors fight the onset of age; Holden accelerated it. In 1969, Sam Peckinpah put him in The Wild Bunch as the leader of a gang of superannuated outlaws, out of time in every sense in the American west of 1913. Holden's character Pike took a bullet in his leg, which gives him pain when he gets on and off his horse. As he swings up to re-mount, the stirrup snaps and he hits the dust again. He's laughed at by his men, but he tries again, and Peckinpah keeps the camera on him as he rides off into the proverbial. It's defeat and dignity, weakness and resilience, all tied up and bearing the burthen of the years, and mostly conveyed by the tremendous acting of William Holden's back.
I like him especially in David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai, the lone American in a top-notch British cast - Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, the great character actor James Donald. But Holden is vital in a way that the token Yank in Brit war movies usually isn't (except for box-office purposes). The film is a kind of meditation on Englishness pushed to absurdity, on what's cricket and what's not, and in what service the upper lip should be stiffened: To Colonel Nicholson, commanding the Allied prisoners in a Japanese camp and ordered to construct a vital river crossing, honor obliges them to build the Japs a bridge the men can really be proud of, long after this war is over; a bridge built to English standards even in this rotten heathen jungle. To Major Clipton, the camp doctor, Nicholson is insane: He's divorced "playing the game" from the object of the game.
Holden's character, Commander Shears, is not pukkah. In fact, he's not a commander, not an officer - just a guy who snaffled an officer's uniform prior to capture because it would get him better treatment in the camp. Jack Hawkins' Major Warden knows that, and doesn't care, because he has Shears in mind for a commando raid to destroy Nicholson's bridge. En route, Hawkins is wounded, cranks up the stiff upper lip, does the decent thing, and tells Holden to go on without him. The American is not impressed: "You make me sick with your heroics," he sneers. "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 rules - when the only important thing is how to live like a human being."
That's a very American speech, at least when you're delivering it to Jack Hawkins. And yet in the end he has the stiffest upper lip of all, staggering from the river determined to get to Nicholson and depress the detonator. Not all Holden's finest moments are final moments - he's terrific with Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday - but he nevertheless had a particular skill for the point at which fellows who "live like a human being" meet a premature end. It was never better than in Billy Wilder's audacious opening of Sunset Boulevard - the body face down in the pool, as the disembodied voiceover explains, yes, that's me and I'm dead, but even though I'm a stiff, I'm going to be narrating this movie. The critic David Thomson, a champion of Holden's, wondered if Wilder got the idea for that because film itself is a transcendence of death: You wait a few years and everyone in it is dead, but they're all still up there on the screen walking around, talking, swimming, shooting, dancing, kissing ...forever.
It's a fine thought, although not really the point of Sunset Boulevard, in which, for Norma Desmond, life after stardom is a living death. What would William Holden have told us had he been able to provide the voiceover as he was lying there on his apartment floor for Santa Monica for four days? "Killed by a bottle of vodka and a night table," remarked Wilder. "What a lousy fadeout for a great guy."
What, you wanted a happy ending? See Smiling Jim.
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