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#039. William Holden

Much like Humphrey Bogart of the 1940’s, William Holden tended to play the cool and collected characters (which is ironic, because Holden has been quoted saying, “I hated that bastard”). A cigarette in one hand and a hard drink in the other, William Holden even went so far as to make this persona part of his normal life. Those who are familiar with the AMC series, Mad Men, would tend to think that all men in the 1960’s (or at least all the “cool” ones) seemed to base their vices off of William Holden. After all, he was most famous around the cusp of the beginning of that decade, perhaps as a trendsetter for what we think the 1960’s was like in the professional world. Unfortunately, this lifestyle does eventually catch up with you, and William Holden was not immune. In fact, his death was immortalized in song with the lyrics, “[he] had died while he was drinking.” Despite all this, William Holden was a great actor and this week we’ll cover two of his more well known performances.


The Bridge on the River Kwai
Year: 1957
Rating: PG
Length: 161 minutes / 2.68 hours

In a film about British prisoners of war, William Holden played the lone American. This fact alone is an interesting choice because his character (Shears) is pretty much the epitome of an American, even by today’s standards. Even though all the POWs are being held together, Shears only thinks about himself and he will do what he can to make sure he escapes. There’s never an understanding of the intricate inner workings of a situation in Shears’ world. He sees things from a big picture perspective and drives full force toward accomplishing goals despite any unintended consequences he might bring upon others. Again, little has changed in American perspective since the late 50’s, if you want to use this film as a representative sample.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a good examination of interactions between different nationalities. Not only does the American, Shears (William Holden), think differently than British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), but they both think differently than their Japanese captors. Shears is dead set on escaping the POW camp, while Col. Nicholson is thinking of the long-term morale of his men. When Shears miraculously escapes, Col. Nicholson is already well on his way to proving to the Japanese that not only can the British build the bridge they’re being forced to construct, but they can do it better than the Japanese ever could. Of course, Shears isn’t out of the picture quite yet, as he gets assigned to an elite mission to destroy the bridge that has become the pride of Col. Nicholson. Will Shears succeed, or will the Japanese have an excellently crafted bridge to bolster their war efforts?

Sunset Blvd.
Year: 1950
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

There is a bit of irony in the fact that William Holden won his only Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 in 1954, mainly because he plays a prisoner of war who is quite content on staying in the camp, as compared to his escape-crazed counterpart in The Bridge on the River Kwai (which could be why he wasn’t nominated for the latter). At any rate, Holden was nominated for the award two other times during his career. His last nomination came with 1976’s Network, while his first came with 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. The famous opening scene of Sunset Boulevard features Holden’s character (Joe Gillis) floating face down in a pool. The drama only escalates from there.

Much like the starlets who couldn’t make the transition to the talking pictures (see: Singin’ in the Rain), Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) used to be a goddess of the silver screen. Through a chance encounter, semi- to un-successful screenwriter Joe Gillis just happens to show up at Desmond’s house. As the plot unfolds, we find that Desmond has faded into obscurity despite to her insistence that she has remained great and “it’s the ‘pictures’ that got small.” Amidst a love triangle, Joe is somewhat forced to write a screenplay for Desmond to use in order to get her back in the spotlight. After all, she’s “ready for [her] closeup.”

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 performances to Holden to

Bacon #: 2 (Network / Tim Robbins -> Mystic River / Kevin Bacon)

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2 responses to “#039. William Holden

  1. Ethelyn

    This design is spectacular! You certainly know how to keep a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Fantastic job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

  2. Pingback: End of Act One | Cinema Connections

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