Born in O'Fallon, Illinois, on April 17, 1918, William Franklin Beedle was the most energetic kid in his class. He was popular among the boys because he was a good teammate in sports. The girls liked his good looks. His teenage years coincided with the Depression that brought his father, a chemist, to his knees. "We didn't talk about it much at home. We walked. My father was not big on talking. My father liked to walk. I liked walking with him." According to some accounts he came from a wealthy family whose fortunes brought them to Southern California in the 1930s. The peripatetic young man played clarinet, sang in the school chorus, and got his big break when Barbara Stanwyck took a liking to him on the set of Golden Boy in 1939. By then he had changed his name to William Holden, the first of many shrewd career decisions.
It has been said that William Holden is the greatest celebrity born on April 17 the closest competitor being Khrushchev. It would be nice to have a movie of Khrushchev with George C. Scott in the title role and with William Holden as the hard-drinking, poker-playing American secretary of state who didn't go to Harvard but averts war because his poker instincts tell him that Khrushchev would back down unless you didn't give him a chance to back down. Firing first was always a mistake with a potato farmer. An embargo will do the trick. We don't even have to use that word. We can call it a quarantine.
A hunk with Kim Novak in Picnic -- all he had to do was take off his shirt -- Holden has many of the traits of an Aries with Libra rising whose moon is in Cancer and with a dominant Venus abetted by a thrust of Plato. The fact that his Venus is in Pisces -- plus his Venus square Jupiter and Venus opposition Mars, with Venus in the fifth house and the Moon in the tenth -- suffices to explain why an able lad with rugged good looks would succeed in his chosen profession, as you would, if you turned twenty three the year Pearl Harbor was bombed and were blessed with courage, honor, leadership qualities, and a high libido, unless life threw you a curve ball in the form of a lousy marriage or some other trace of trouble in Tahiti that will someday blow up like a huge aerial photograph to expose the places that were bombed in the war.
To understand why Bill Holden became a great movie star, emblem of masculinity, and hopeless alcoholic, you must understand that his brother, Robert, a fighter pilot, was killed in combat in World War II. Holden himself served in the army for three years, 1942-1945, and by all accounts served valiantly. Yet he suffered in silence the guilt of the unworthy survivor.
What William Holden brought to the movies was a masculine ideal. He was a grown up, sometimes a wise ass but never a fool, who had what it takes to make it, whether "it" was an escape from or into danger, but could as easily be found face down in a swimming pool, dead from the start like the narrator of "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950. In that movie Holden played a Hollywood screenwriter and in retrospect it seems as if his fate as a dead man who can't stop talking epitomizes the role of the writer in Hollywood movies.
Stalag 17 won him the Academy Award in 1953. Look at all the things he is in that all-male movie: a loner, a shrewd guy who knows the odds, a scapegoat, the victim of a vicious beating, a detective, a skillful interrogator, and an expert planner, He turns the tables on the real spy in the group and devises a means of escape that allows him, the outcast, to become a hero and saved a doomed man from frostbite.
In Executive Suite he is the executive most likely to succeed because he is dashing, decisive, has a conscience and a vision, and is married to June Allyson who plays catch with their son. He has a natural ally in Walter Pidgeon, the world's greatest number two man. Barbara Stanwyck unexpectedly throws in her lot with him, and he carries the day against Fredric March, an antagonist who sweats too much and whose chief ally, Louis Calhern, is unreliable. A pleasure to see them all at work, with elegant Nina Foch as the executive secretary. The cigarette smoke is still in the air.
Holden plays not a cynic but a skeptic and a pessimist whose pessimism is validated in The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean's greatest movie in my opinion. Shears would much prefer to lie on the beach with an army nurse in the tropics. Anyone would. And he deserves it. He did his time in the jungle and escaped from a sadistic Japanese POW camp. He had beaten the odds. And here they were blackmailing him into returning there by parachute with the insufferable hale-and-hearty Jack Hawkins, the Oxbridge-educated Brit who is able to speak seven languages competently. Also on the mission is a Canadian solider, a kid really, capable enough but with a thing about killing. They have to bomb the bridge that the crazy English major Alec Guiness is helping the Japanese construct. I will not give away the explosive climax, but the last word in the picture, spoken by James Donald, is "Madness."
I have written elsewhere about "The Counterfeit Traitor," as fine a movie about espionage as has ever been made. In "The Wild Bunch," Holden and pals Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson, ex-pal Robert Ryan, and old fogie pal Edmund O'Brien, preside o'er the slow-motion death of the west. Cars have made horses defunct, and machine guns can wipe out the whole lot of them plus innumerable Mexicans in uniforms led by a heartless slob with a vicious streak. The outlaws may be on the wrong side of the law, but they are on the right side of political history. The men know they will die. But they do not falter. After Holden finishes his business with the whore, he puts on his gun belt and his ha, walks outside, eyes the others, and says, "Let's go."
Holden was married to the beautiful Brenda Marshall. He served as Ronald Reagan's best man when the Gipper wed Nancy Davis in 1952. In Italy in 1966 he was charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. This added another reason for drunken depression.
Holden was Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, George Gibbs in Our Town, Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, Stefson in Stalag 17, Shears in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Eric Erickson in The Counterfeit Traitor. It was downhill after his work as Max Schumacher in Sidney Lumet's Network brought him admiring notices in 1976.
Died drunk in his Santa Monica home on November 16, 1981. DL