Ben's Top Pick for April
Star of the Month: William Holden - Mondays in April
When William Holden died in his Santa Monica apartment in November of 1981, the sense of loss in the industry was profound. Not only was an enormously talented actor gone too soon, but the manner of his death distorted the tenor of his life.
Holden died of a head injury and the blood loss that followed after he tripped on a rug and fell, hitting his head on a night table, likely while drunk. He was alone. He died days before he was found. It was an inglorious end to a glorious career. "To be killed by a vodka bottle and night table," said Holden's friend and collaborator Billy Wilder, "what a lousy fade out to a great guy."
We'll have 34 Holden movies in April, 15 of them in prime time, co-hosted by Stefanie Powers, Holden's romantic partner and traveling companion for roughly the last decade of his life. And I think the context Stefanie provides will give you a degree of insight into that great guy, as well as an appreciation for the breadth of the quality work Holden produced over 42 years in the business.
Of course, Stefanie and I discuss Holden's magnificent collaborations with Wilder: we have two of their films together from the 1950s, Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, each one a signature Bill Holden performance. We'll have many of the other hits, too, including Born Yesterday, Picnic, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Wild Bunch. But we'll also see Holden at the start of his career, opposite Lee J. Cobb and Barbara Stanwyck in Golden Boy, his screen debut, for all intents and purposes. I find Holden virtually unrecognizable in Golden Boy. He's quite good - the star quality is clearly there - but he's so exuberant and impressionable, without any of the world-weary sensibility that informed Holden from the 50's onward. No matter what the role, you always knew Holden was playing the smartest character in the movie.
Think of Network, the last great movie Holden made. In a film dominated by the self-serving excesses of the other characters, mostly Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch, but even Ned Beatty in his brief but unforgettable role, Holden is the movie's moral compass, even when he's behaving immorally. He's the only character who sees the big picture. And Holden always seemed to get the big picture.
We have two of the movies he shot in Hong Kong as well. Holden loved Hong Kong. That's where his romance with Stefanie really started. But you can see in those two movies - Love is a Many Splendored Thing, with Jennifer Jones and The World of Suzie Wong, with Nancy Kwan - the effects of alcohol on his physical appearance. They're separated by only five years, but in the World of Suzie Wong, a much better picture, I think, Holden looks 15 years older.
On the night we have his debut performance in Golden Boy, we also have Holden's second picture with Stanwyck, Executive Suite, made 15 years later, an undervalued look at corporate greed, directed effectively by Robert Wise. Holden's relationship with Stanwyck was clearly meaningful to both of them - he credited her with saving his career before it even got going when nerves kept him from delivering any kind of a performance in Golden Boy. She stuck up for him when the studio wanted to make a change and worked with him at the end of the day in her dressing room, often leaving her husband Robert Taylor in the hall pacing as they ran lines. You can see their genuine connection for yourself in a couple of YouTube clips, the first at the Oscars® in 1978 , when he surprised her with an emotional and heartfelt thanks for looking after him 39 years earlier. The second came four years later, again at the Academy Awards , less than six months after Holden's death in that Santa Monica apartment. Stanwyck, who never won a competitive Oscar®, was given an Honorary Academy Award. And she concluded with a tribute to her friend, the man Billy Wilder wanted people to remember. "I loved Bill very much and I miss him," she said. "He always wished that I would get an Oscar®. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish."
by Ben Mankiewicz