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Oscar Profile #88: William Holden

Born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. on April 17, 1918 in O’Fallon, Illinois, the future William Holden moved to Pasadena, California with his family when he was three. He was discovered by a Paramount film scout while appearing in a school play at Pasadena Junior College and given a contract by the studio. After two minor roles, he auditioned for and won the title part of the young man who has to choose between the violin and boxing in 1939’s Golden Boy opposite screen legend Barbara Stanwyck. The film was a huge hit, as was 1940’s Our Town in which he starred opposite Martha Scott who received an Oscar nomination for her performance.

Married to actress Brenda Marshall in 1941, his contract was now co-owned by Columbia, obligating Holden to make films for both studios in which he was repeatedly cast as the affable boy next door.

After time out for World War II service, Holden was once again cast as the boy next door. That changed with his portrayal of the Hollywood gigolo in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, a role he was given after Montgomery Clift turned it down.

In three other major films that year including Father Is a Bachelor; Union Station and Born Yesterday, Holden received his first Oscar nomination for Sunset Boulevard.

With his second nomination for 1953’s Stalag 17 became an Oscar winner and a major star.

He then starred in a number of popular films including Executive Suite in which he headed a cast that included June Allyson, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon and Barbara Stanwyck; Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, during which he had an affair with Hepburn; The Country Girl with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly; The Bridges at Toko-Ri again with Kelly; Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing with Jennifer Jones; Picnic with Kim Novak and Rosalind Russell; The Proud and Profane with Deborah Kerr and The Bridge on the River Kwai with Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins. His share of the profits of Kwai made him a very rich man.

The hits continued with The Key with Sophia Loren; The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne; The World of Suzie Wong with Nancy Kwan; Satan Never Sleeps with Clifton Webb and The Counterfeit Traitor with Lilli Palmer.

His career after 1962 was fairly undistinguished until he made a major comeback in Sam Peckinpah’s violent western The Wild Bunch at the end of the decade.

A major supporting role in 1974’s The Towering Inferno with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen led to one more major triumph in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, Network for which he received his third and final Oscar nomination.

Divorced from Brenda Marshall in 1971, he began a relationship with actress Stephanie Powers in 1972 that lasted until his death in 1981. The two were heavily involved in game preservation in Africa.

Holden had a tragic end. He bumped his head on a table in a drunken stupor on November 16, 1981 and bled to death. He wasnn’t found for four days. He was 63.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), directed by Billy Wilder

Holden hadn’t impressed critics since his early performances in Golden Boy and Our Town a decade earlier, when his career went into the stratosphere with his performance as a Hollywood gigolo in Sunset Boulevard.

The film opens with Holden’s corpse floating face down in silent screen star Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool. Holden’s voiceover then narrates the circumstances which led to his demise.

Holden’s character is an out-of-work writer who pens a screenplay that demented recluse Swanson believes will restore her film career, during the course of which he becomes her lover.

Holden, Swanson, Erich von Stroheim as Swanson’s butler and Nancy Olson as Holden’s naive girlfriend were all nominated for Oscars, accounting for four of the film’s total of eleven nominations. The film won three for Best Story and Screenplay; Musical Score and Black-and-White Art Direction.

STALAG 17 (1953), directed by Billy Wilder

Everyone including Holden believed that his Oscar win for playing the world War II Prisoner of War in Wilder’s comic drama was compensation for not winning for his breakthrough performance in Sunset Boulevard three years earlier, but the performance itself is a good one.

Holden plays a devil-may-care P.O.W. wrongfully thought to be collaborating with the enemy in this adaptation of the Broadway hit. Otto Preminger is also outstanding as the German Commandant.

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), directed by David Lean

Holden was the star of Lean’s high adventure about a mission to blow up a man-made bridge the Japanese have used prisoners of war to build to make it easier for the Japanese to transport goods via rail. Acting honors, though, went to Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa as the egomaniacal British officer in charge and the Japanese Commandant who assigns him the task of building the bridge.

Holden’s share of the profits on the film made him one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood.

THE WILD BUNCH (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah

After a long stretch, Holden had a late career triumph as the head of an ensemble cast that included Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien and Warren Oates.

Holden is the leader of the gang of old-timers out for one last score in Peckinpah’s legendary violent western which split the critics of the day.

Holden was the ninth actor asked to play the lead in the film. Lee Marvin was originally cast, but left the production to make Paint Your Wagon instead. Those who turned the part down outright were Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Sterling Hayden, Richard Boone and Robert Mitchum.

NETWORK (1976), directed by Sidney Lumet

Holden is the voice of reason in Lumet’s prophetic satire of the television business. Faye Dunaway as the loopy programming executive; Peter Finch as the mad news anchor and Beatrice Straight as Holden’s long-suffering wife were all awarded Oscars for their performances, Finch posthumously, but Holden had to settle for his third and final nomination for what many now consider his finest performance.

WILLIAM HOLDEN AND OSCAR

  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) – nominated - Best Actor
  • Stalag 17 (1953) – Oscar – Best Actor
  • Network (1976) – nominated - Best Actor
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