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 but that's just talk.
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. She saved his job. By then he had changed his name to William Holden, the first of many shrewd career decisions. He and Stanwyck became lifelong pals.
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 (fictionalized) 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. Call his bluff but at the same time make a secret concession and you all come out ahead, though history doesn't quite work like that. A year after the crisis the young president had his head blown off and a year after that Nikita was out of office.
Holden has many of the traits of an Aries with Libra rising whose moon is in Cancer and whose dominant Venus is abetted by a thrust of Plato. The emphatic Venus in his chart 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 you 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.
Still, if you look like Bill Holden shirtless in Picnic or The Bridge on the River Kwai, you can't miss. You can be a Swedish industrialist who was neutral until he saw first-hand what monsters the Nazis were, or you can be Humphrey Bogart's high-living younger brother, or a journalist in a convertible in Asia, a corporate vice president who resists bottom-line pressures because he values quality, a TV network executive who's seen it all, the head of a band of hombres who rob trains and ride into Mexico just when cowboys are becoming a thing of the past. But the role that suited BIll Holden best was that of prisoner of war: in Stalag 17, captured by the Nazis; in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a captive of the Japanese in the jungles of Burma.
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 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 he was versatile. He 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 Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis who meets a diva from the silent screen star era and becomes a kept man. Others have remarked that it seems as if his fate as a dead man who can't stop talking epitomizes the role of the writer in Hollywood movies.
Set in a German POW camp in a dreary December in World War II,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 successful exponent of the free enterprise system, a scapegoat, the victim of a vicious beating, a detective, a skillful interrogator, and an expert planner. He turns the tables on the real traitor in the group and devises a means of escape that allows him, the outcast, to become a hero and save 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, playing the sister of the corporate CEO was has suddenly dropped dead, 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. Also in the cast are Dean Jagger, Shelly Winters, and Paul Douglas.See photo of Holden, Stanwyck, and Calhern below: The cigarette smoke lingers in the air. "Is that what you want on your gravestone when you die -- that you raised the dividend to three dollars or four or even five or six or seven?" And at the end of the movie: "Who won?" "We did."
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 a South Pacific beach with an army nurse drinking martinis. Anyone would. And he deserves it. He did his time in the jungle and escaped from a Japanese POW camp run by a sadist. To escape required tremendous luck. And here they were interrupting his lucky life, 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."
What Holden's character has done that makes himself vulnerable to blackmail by British intelligence is exactly what Don Draper does in the Korean War in Mad Men but again I'm not going to give that away here.
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 hat, walks outside, eyes the others, and says, "Let's go." Warren Oates replies: "Why not?" Holden's last word in the picture is "Bitch."
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.
Director Billy Wilder said that Holden was a good citizen, concerned about such things as endangered species. "What he didn't realize was that he was himself an endangered species."
Died drunk in his Santa Monica home on November 16, 1981. In 1982 Barbara Stanwyck received a long overdue honorary Oscar. She said, "A few years ago I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish." -- DL