Wednesday, April 11

Tarnished Golden Boy

November of 1981 was a bad month for me and my romance with everything that is movies.  In the middle of the month 63-year old William Holden, one of my favorite actors, died.  He seemed way too young and vital to have died, but it was the way he died that got everyone's attention.  At a gathering hosted by his former girlfriend, Stefanie Powers, Natalie Wood, another great favorite of mine, attended.  No one then knew that before month's end, she also would be dead and how she died would also be a cause for much attention and speculation.  It was a depressing month.

When I was a youngster I wanted him to be my father.  I would have offered my own father as a trade-in.  Holden and I were both born in Illinois and moved to California.  He got to do both of them before I did.  I thought he was drop-dead good-looking with one of the finest speaking voices I had ever heard.  When I see his films today, I think the same.

He and his folks and two brothers moved eventually to South Pasadena where he grew up.  He was a prankster and a daredevil and never really much of a student.  He didn't have any great plans for his life and more or less drifted into acting because someone had heard that gorgeous voice.

He wound up with a movie contract at Paramount Studios and a few years later that contract was shared with Columbia Pictures, quite an unusual circumstance.  In these early days he was blond and skinny and energetic.  His career began gloriously as the title star of 1939's Golden Boy, based on a play of some distinction, playing a violinist who wants to become a boxer.  John Garfield and Tyrone Power were both considered for the role but Holden wound up with it.  He would be adored all the rest of his life by his co-star Barbara Stanwyck.  Into the production the honchos were unhappy with his work and wanted to sack him but Stanwyck would have none of it. 

Interestingly, most of his work all through the 1940s was lightweight stuff.  He did a lot of silly comedies (mostly nonexistent in his later career) and other movies that don't measure up to his later work.  One of my favorites, however, was 1948's Rachel and the Stranger, about early American colonial life.  Loretta Young was an indentured servant who married him but he didn't love her and Robert Mitchum was a friend who was ready to step in.

The year 1950 is the one that brought him super fame and the entire decade and the movies he made put him at the top of the heap.  From the 1950s to nearly the end of his career, getting William Holden signed on the dotted line could guarantee financing, top directors and the best co-stars.  He would be a star for 40 years, making some of Hollywood's greatest films. He was named one of the 10 top stars of the year six times.   He would forever be called Golden Boy.

Holden had acquired a serious drinking problem, very serious.  Lots of marathon Hollywood drinkers could lay off the sauce while working but Holden was not among them.  He drank and drank and drank.  Not always easy to pinpoint why drinkers start drinking, it has often been said that Holden did it to make acting more tolerable.  He disliked the profession in many ways... he found the waiting around intolerable and basically thought it was sissyfied for a man to act.  He was, however, a sucker for the money and for the travel.

Two of 1950s best actress Oscar nominees had William Holden as their leading man.  When Montgomery Clift declined appearing opposite Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., Holden stepped in to play a gigolo to an aging Hollywood star.  We first see him face down in a swimming pool.  Even though he was dead, his character narrates the action which was so clever and added much to the success of the film.  Then he made Born Yesterday with Judy Holliday.  He was a journalist hired to smarten up a gangster's not-so-ditsy-after-all girlfriend.  His character served as her straight man and to take her to new places in her learning.

By the time he made Stalag 17 in 1953, Holden had made 30 films.  Here he was in a German prisoner of war camp and suspected of being a snitch.    He won the Oscar for his portrayal.  Funny thing for me was I didn't think he should have won; I thought it should have gone to Montgomery Clift or secondly Burt Lancaster, both for From Here to Eternity.  But Holden was good in the film and would be nominated again for even better work.

Also in 1953 he appeared in The Moon Is Blue, a not very good comedy that is noteworthy because it is considered to be the film that broke Hollywood's long-standing production code where a film had to adhere to certain standards or be unreleasable.  Director Otto Preminger's challenge was widely hailed and Holden's name stayed in the public's consciousness.

It could be said that 1954 was one of Golden Boy's golden years.  Five of his films were released and we will detail some things about three of them.  First came the excellent Executive Suite where several managers of a company vie for the top job that is available because of a death.  He headed a large and impressive cast including his second and last film with his buddy Stanwyck.  June Allyson played his wife and went public with the fact that she and Holden did not particularly get along.  Other heavyweights such as Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Douglas and Dean Jagger were along for the ride.  Shelley Winters was also in the film and would detail her affair with Holden in one of her biographies.

Part of Holden's accelerated drinking surely came as a result of the troubled marriage he had with actress Brenda Marshall and his serial womanizing.  While he stayed married to her for many years after the marriage turned sour, he likely felt a great sense of unworthiness for ignoring her and his family.  He had two serious romances, the first with Audrey Hepburn, his costar in Sabrina.  He was over the moon for her.  (He and costar Humphrey Bogart, playing brothers, hated one another.)  The Holden-Hepburn romance was more public than either of them would have liked to admit.  He wanted to chuck everything to marry her but he had had a vasectomy and she wanted to have children.  He took to the bottle with a renewed vengeance.  They would, however, always remain friends.  Truth be told, he would pretty much remain friends with all of his girlfriends, including the next one.

Grace Kelly was his co-star in two back-to-back films.  First was the Korean War drama The Bridges at Toko-Ri and then The Country Girl for his frequent director George Seaton.  In the latter Kelly was married to Bing Crosby who was an alcoholic and director Holden wanted for a starring role in a play.  He might have coached Crosby on the alcoholism.  Grace Kelly, like Hepburn, wanted to marry him but in this case it has been said that her Catholicism would prove a barrier.  Their romance would capture the attention of Confidential magazine, the ragmag of the day.

Kelly won an Oscar for The Country Girl and Holden presented it to her, as is the custom.  But she was not the first choice for the role or even the first one signed.  That was Jennifer Jones, who had to bow out due to pregnancy.  But Jones would be Holden's next leading lady for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, 1955's highest-grossing film with a popular title song to help sell it.  Holden accepted the role mainly for its Hong Kong locations.  He had a great love of traveling and would spend many future years outside the United States.  Despite being a superior true-life love story, Holden and Jones didn't particularly get along.  I was crushed to hear it.  Aren't you?

In 1956 he made two more superior movies.  The first was widely admired and the second unfortunately not well-known.  Picnic also contained a popular song of the day. Holden as a young stud drifter (actually too old for the part) who wanders into a small Kansas town and romances his best friend's sexy girlfriend Kim Novak causing female hearts to flutter.  Their dance at the picnic was the stuff of erotic dreams.  Holden rarely played a bad guy but his character was mean as hell to Deborah Kerr in the WWII drama The Proud and Profane.  It is one of my favorites of his roles. 

His love of making money was coupled with a shrewd sense of business.  He finagled some delicious deals that turned him into a multi-millionaire.  That started with 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai... still another film with a memorable song.  David Lean's epic WWII fictional drama about the building of a railway garnered Holden another Oscar nomination and I think he should have won over his costar Alec Guinness.  It was a big important movie, but Holden's interest probably again stemmed from the bucks and a chance to visit Ceylon.  Arguably it was his last great film for years to come and in my opinion he had only two truly great films yet to make.

The World of Suzie Wong (1960) was successful and got him back to Hong Kong.  His once exceptional good looks had started to wane mainly due to the booze and it was obvious in this film.  In the early to mid 60s he played a priest in Satan Never Sleeps, a spy in The Counterfeit Traitor, a concerned father in Africa in The Lion, a playwright in Paris When It Sizzles and fighting the Japanese in Malaya in The 7th Dawn.  I loved them all and not one was particularly successful.

The Lion, as noted in earlier posts, started his great love affair with  Africa and his love affair with the beautiful Capucine, which continued through their next costarring venture, The 7th DawnParis When It Sizzles was a very difficult film for Holden to make due to costarring again with Audrey Hepburn.  His bouts with the bottle and downward spiral on this film are legendary.

He was still to make 18 more films, none bad but none worth a shout out here, except for three.  The Wild Bunch (1969) is famous for its depiction of violence.  If 1967's Bonnie and Clyde opened the door for the new violence, The Wild Bunch certainly kept the momentum going.  I call it an opera to violence.  Holden was the leader of a group out for vengeance.

He made two films with a lot of people.  Faye Dunaway was one of them and they were not the closest of friends when they filmed 1974's king of the disaster movies, The Towering Inferno, among a large and glittering cast.  God, I thought it was fun.  In 1976 they teamed up again in one of the technically best films ever made, Network.  Written by the brilliant Paddy Chayeksky, it was a blistering indictment of the television industry with Holden as the head of the news department.  Again he was nominated for a richly-deserved Oscar but lost to costar, Peter Finch, also richly-deserved.  It astonishes me to this day that Network lost the best picture Oscar to Rocky.  Hollywood, hang your heads in shame.

In his later years he had his youngest girlfriend Stefanie Powers who shared his love of Africa and the animals and the travel.  Booze would get in the way of any permanency.

It can be cold in Santa Monica, California, in November.  That winter breeze lumbers up over the palisades but Holden was alone and warming himself with vodka high in his apartment complex.  A large empty bottle was found along with a nearly full one.  He apparently slipped on a throw rug and went down, severely hitting his head on a table.  Several bloody tissues were found near his body.  He obviously had the time and wherewithall to tend to his wounds but too drunk to realize how serious it was.  It is presumed he passed out and then bled to death.  His body was not found for four days afterward.  How sad is that?

The evils of booze.  Over the years he had tried drying out and any number of remedies but in the end, he couldn't master it.  How tragic.  What a damned shame.  Seeing this gifted but reluctant actor up there on the silver screen, in all those great films, one would not guess he had so many demons.

Two years after his death, Bob Thomas wrote a wonderful but too brief biography called, what else, Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden (St. Martin's Press).  Stefanie Powers also wrote a book, One from the Hart (Simon & Schuster, 2010), which includes chapters on her time with Holden.

I thought he was a wonderful actor, one of the best there ever was.

Favorite Film #43


  1. Haven't checked in for a while and then...caught Tarnished Golden Boy. Damn, that was a fine story.

    Thanks for the entertainment.

    1. Aw, aren't you nice? The check is in the mail.

  2. Yes, truly a wonderful actor. When Picnic reached Italy I was still a teen ager and ,like most of my friends, we tried hard to find a shirt like the one he wears in the movie, with the sleeves rolled up,: We did not realize that the shirt we were looking for in the film
    was filled with Bill chest!
    Yes a wonderful actor, a handsome man and, even though he did not wear Versace or Armani he was extremely elegant. The first film I saw was the perfect Sunset Boulevard; the second one was a little pleasant thing: Force of Arms. Yes, a wonderful actor.
    Ciao. Carlo