William Holden Salute at Lincoln Center

Posted on July 15, 2008 at 10:00 am

The Film Society of Lincoln Center completes its salute today to one of my favorite movie stars, William Holden. Michael Atkinson writes on the Museum of the Moving Image’s wonderful Moving Image Source site that Holden was:


on the surface one of the Hollywood century’s typical all-purpose leading men, but beneath it the keeper of poisoned secrets, and a living embodiment of America’s postwar self-doubt and idealistic failure. He seethed with disappointment as a persona, and we all knew what he meant. Holden was the anti-Duke, an avatar of hopelessness, shrouded in the smiling physique of an all-American boyo. For every high school football star turned pot-bellied gym teacher, every prom queen turned food-stamp mom, and every good-hearted B student turned Cracker Barrel waiter, Holden was the walking, talking, growling truth, in a sea of showbiz lies.

Holden was terrific as a romantic leading man in early movies like “Dear Ruth” and tweaking that role slightly for “Sabrina,” where he was the irresponsible younger brother to Humphrey Bogart’s wealthy businessman, both attracted to the chauffeur’s daughter played by Audrey Hepburn. He was a good choice for a character who is the essence of America, George Gibbs in Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town.” But Holden was at his best showing the complexity, insecurity, and disappointment of the post-WWII era. Sometimes his character triumphed over it; sometimes not. In “Executive Suite,” his idealistic executive competes against a green-eyeshade number-cruncher (Frederic March) for the top corporate job. In “Picnic” he had one of his most memorable roles as a college football star who had lost his way. He arrives in town to meet up with a wealthy friend from school and tries to pretend that he has been as successful as everyone expected. In this scene, one of the most famous moments ever put on film, a dance with his friend’s girlfriend, the prettiest girl in town (Kim Novak) has an intimacy that changes both of their lives.

I am a big fan of “Born Yesterday,” where Holden played a Washington journalist hired by a thuggish businessman to “educate” the businessman’s former showgirl significant other (Judy Holliday). In “Sunset Boulevard” he was a struggling screenwriter who is corrupted by a demented former star. Holden won an Oscar for “Stalag 17,” playing a prisoner of war, and he was nominated for another for his performance in “Network” as a television news producer. In these roles and others what made him so compelling was that he showed the tension between his characters’ cynicism and idealism in a way that expressed part of the essence of the American spirit.

And this is for you, Alicia! Holden’s appearance in my very favorite episode of “I Love Lucy!”

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13 Replies to “William Holden Salute at Lincoln Center”

  1. My favorite William Holden role is the one he won the Oscar for: “Stalag 17.” Though he was pretty darned good in “Sunset Boulevard,” too. Seems like he was at his best at playing cynics and antiheroes. That’s a wonderful quote from William Atkinson.

  2. Alicia, that is my very favorite episode ever! The one where she sets her fake nose on fire!! That was actually not in the script — I suppose you could call it spontaneous combustion. And Lucille, the pro, just went with it. Her expression was priceless. I will add the clip to the post.

  3. Great idea, Nell. I love that episode, too. Lucy sure nailed our celebrity-mad culture.

  4. He was perfect in Sunset Blvd. Holden will always be my image of the perfect dream man. Goodness, he was so handsome! Too bad he had lost his looks by the time he did Network. I met him when I was 9 years old at the LAX airport. My parents were waiting for a flight to Texas and my mom almost choked on her hot dog. This was 1971, Mom loved him in Picnic. She nudged my dad and said, hon that’s Bill Holden. I said, you mean the guy who was on I Love Lucy? I knew that because that has always been my favorite Lucy episode. She said yes and my dad, mom and I walked across the terminal to introduce ourselves. He was alone, smoking a cigarette, and enjoying a drink. I only knew him from that show. I was not aware of his movies at my young age of 9. My mother introduced him to me and said this is your biggest I Love Lucy fan. He smiled and said that was fun, wasn’t it. He patted my head and thanked us and went down the terminal. To think that Holden patted my head with those hunky hands of his!

  5. I have read the article about my stepfather. Some things written about him seem accurate and others less so. He was not a person of hopelesness and despair, although at times he was boyish and insecure. He was a great father to me and I loved him very much.
    Recently I wrote my memoir titled Growing Up With William Holden. In it I account for the time period in which I lived with him from the age of three till I went to college. Those were the most successful and turbulent years of his career. The comments by readers, so far, are very positive.

  6. William Holden-a great actor. Stalag 17 my favourite. Executive Suite, he delivered his lines with magnificent square-jawed vehemence. There are many who suffer insecurities but give us so much in spite of their lonely times. Bless him.

  7. Thanks for the comment! He is one of my all-time favorites. I love the two movies you named and I have a special fondness for “Dear Ruth,” too.

  8. Virginia Holden,
    Thank you for your memoir about your step-father and for your comments. He was a great actor. I just purchased the new Centennial Edition of Sunset Boulevard and it remains my favorite movie of his. Condolences on the death of your step brother Scott.

  9. Thank you so much, Virginia and I look forward to reading your book, and thanks to the other commenters as well. I am very pleased to see the interest in this magnificent actor.

  10. Hi Ginny,
    Still remember the barbeque at your home where your dad grilled hot dogs for us next to the pool. We all loved your dad and were thrilled when he received the Oscar for “Stalag 17.” I ordered your book and can’t wait to read it. Also got your dad’s bio. Anxious to read them both. Sunset Boulevard, is still my favorite.

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