Vintage Hunk: William Holden

By: Mike McCrann

William Holden was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1950s. He was also one of the most handsome men to ever appear on film. He was also an unfortunate alcoholic whose last years were a cruel mockery of his earlier fame.

Born William Beedle, the future William Holden grew up in Pasadena California. After some early theater work, Holden got his first big break playing the starring role in Golden Boy in 1939. His co-star was Barbara Stanwyck and she became his lifelong friend as she kept him from being fired off the film. Stanwyck spent hours working with Holden to improve his performance and he never forgot her kindness. After starring in the hit Our Town, Holden left Hollywood for the Army Air Force.

Holden returned from the war and for the next few years made pleasant films for both Columbia and Paramount. Although some of these films were huge hits (Dear Ruth and Apartment for Peggy with Jeanne Crain), Holden was basically just a handsome leading man. But in 1949 he got the cinematic break of his life.

William holden6 A few weeks before filming, Montgomery Clift walked out of the co-starring lead in Billy Wilder's great film Sunset Boulevard. After years of playing "smiling Jim" roles, Wilder picked Holden to play the tough, sexy, down-on-his-luck writer Joe Gillis who takes an unfortunate wrong turn off Sunset Boulevard. The film was a great hit and although Gloria Swanson deserved got most of the acclaim, Holden gave a wonderful performance and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He deserved to win but lost to José Ferrer in the hammy film Cyrano de Bergerac. Try watching that turkey some day!

Holden was now a full-fledged star. His films in the '50s included Born Yesterday, in which he teaches Judy Holliday the meaning of democracy, and Stalag 17 for which he won the 1953 Best Actor Award under the direction of Billy Wilder. This was a "make up" award as most people then and now think either Burt Lancaster or Montgomery Clift should have won for From Here To Eternity.

William holden4 Holden followed this triumph with Sabrina, again with Wilder and a radiant Audrey Hepburn; The Country Girl with Grace Kelly; and the classic Picnic with Kim Novak. Picnic was a huge hit and the dance with Novak is one of the classic moments of the decade. In truth, he was about ten years too old for the part but he was still incredibly sexy.

Even though Holden was married to actress Brenda Marshall, he was romantically linked to a number of his leading ladies including Hepburn and Kelly. He and Marshall were finally divorced in 1971, and Holden had long term relationships with actresses Capucine and Stefanie Powers.

Holden made a fortune from his percentage of the classic Bridge On the River Kwai, and late in his life he had great roles in The Wild Bunch and Network, for which he received a final Best Actor Nomination.

William Holden3 One of Holden's great moments came on TV with his classic appearance on I Love Lucy when the cast traveled to Hollywood. I think this episode is the funniest of all the classic Lucy in Hollywood shows. William Holden's facial reactions as he watches Lucy's putty nose catch fire are hysterical. ("That California sun makes the skin so supple." ) Lucille Ball is brilliant and Holden is a perfect foil for her antics.

Unfortunately, Holden's later years were a downward spiral caused by his alcoholism. Despite his love for his animal preserve in Kenya and his relationship with  Powers, Holden could not control the demons within. In November 1981, alone and drunk in his Santa Monica apartment, Holden fell and hit his head on a night table. Medical reports said that he was probably conscious for about 30 minutes but did not or could not summon help.

In 1982, when Barbara Stanwyck received her honorary Academy Award, she gave an emotional speech in which she talked about Holden. Holding up her award, Stanwyck tearfully referred to her "golden boy." There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

William Holden was a big star and and fine actor. He was also one of the really beautiful men in Hollywood.