On this day 100 years ago, one of cinema’s finest actors was born, the great William Holden! He’s easily among my top 5 favorite actors of all-time (maybe even top 3 or 2!); no matter the quality of the movie he’s in, he always turns out a good performance. For his centenary, I’m focusing on the three performances that earned him Oscar recognition: Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, and Network.
SUNSET BLVD. (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder
A down-on-his-luck screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden) is having trouble selling his latest story to Paramount Pictures. While desperate for some money, he happens upon a seemingly deserted mansion, only to find the aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) living inside it. She then hires him to help her develop the screenplay for her big comeback to the silver screen. But soon after, Joe becomes tangled up in Norma’s life and finds difficulty in escaping from her grasp.
Sunset Blvd. served as a major turning point in William Holden’s career for a number of reasons. Though he had been working pretty steadily as an actor since 1939 and had more than 20 films under his belt, his career didn’t really take off until this film noir was released. After the film’s success, Holden’s star power really skyrocketed. This movie also marked the first of four collaborations between the actor and director/writer Billy Wilder. While Holden was far from the first choice to play the starring role, Wilder soon found that he was perfect for the part as they worked together on the film, and the two also became lifelong friends.
The film also, of course, was important for Holden’s career as it earned him his very first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He gives a truly outstanding performance here, especially in having to share the screen with the magnificent Gloria Swanson. He ultimately lost the Academy Award to José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac. But regardless of the loss, his work in Sunset Blvd. is still praised today and is among his most recognizable performances, if not the most famous of his entire career. Fortunately, Holden still had more great performances ahead of him, and it wouldn’t take long for him to be nominated again…
STALAG 17 (1953)
Directed by Billy Wilder
Set in a German prisoner of war camp in 1944, a group of airmen comes to believe there’s an informant living in their barracks after the latest escape attempt fails. The prime suspect is J.J. Sefton (William Holden), who’s known in the camp for frequently making exchanges with German guards for extra privileges. Immediately outcast from his fellow inmates, Sefton sets out to find the real traitor in their midst.
William Holden and Billy Wilder reunited three years after their first collaboration for Stalag 17, and even though they formed a great working relationship and friendship, Holden again wasn’t the first choice for the starring role. In fact, when the script eventually got to him after a few actors turned it down, Holden wasn’t too fond of the character of J.J. Sefton, finding him to be rather unlikable. But he eventually signed on for the movie, and it proved to be a fruitful decision. While Sefton has pretty selfish intentions throughout the film, Holden’s natural charisma really shines through and helps make the character more receptive to the audience.
For his work here, he was awarded his first and only Oscar, though he (and many others) believed his Academy Award was a consolation for not winning previously for Sunset Blvd. It was also an admittedly stacked year in the Best Actor category, which included both Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity, and Holden himself felt either actor from that year’s Best Picture winner should have won the Oscar instead. Still, Holden’s performance in Stalag 17 is award-worthy in its own right, and is especially great for how subdued it is for a leading performance, and serves as one of the prime examples in the actor’s ability to shine through while also not taking the spotlight away from his co-stars. This acting trait is evident throughout his filmography, perhaps the most so in the film which earned him his last Oscar nomination…
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Television network Union Broadcasting System is failing in the ratings, and soon the news division is turned over to the entertainment division in an attempt to revamp the network. In the process, veteran anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) finds out from news division president and longtime friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) that he only has two weeks left on the air. After an angry breakdown on live TV boosts ratings, ambitious producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) decides to keep Beale on at UBS to headline more outrageous programming, which soon heads to unsettling extremes.
Though William Holden’s career thrived throughout the rest of the 1950s following his Oscar win, he didn’t receive his last Best Actor nomination until more than two decades later with Network. Holden was initially listed under consideration for the other leading male role, Howard Beale, but Holden ended up turning it down, opting for the role of Max Schumacher instead. He was also given the edge over other actors in contention for the role of Max for his recent box-office success with the disaster movie The Towering Inferno two years before. While his character in this movie isn’t nearly as sensational as Howard or Diana, the other two leading characters, Max is someone the audience can more easily relate to, as he serves as one of the more level-headed characters in the media satire.
Come Oscar night, Holden famously lost to his co-star Peter Finch, who became the first posthumous winner in an acting category. Two of his other co-stars, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight, also took home Academy Awards of their own, for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. As I noted in last year’s post for the Golden Boy Blogathon, all three Oscar winners shared scenes with Holden, though none with each other. Even though he didn’t take home an Oscar that night, Holden’s performance in Network still remains one of the most well-regarded of his career, especially in the latter part of his career.
These three films are great showcases for William Holden’s talent as an actor, but it’s only scratching the surface of his talent throughout his career. From his film debut Golden Boy to his final film S.O.B., along with so many others in between, Holden always gave a worthy performance on screen.
I wrote this entry as a part of The Third Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Centenary Celebration, where bloggers are writing about the Oscar-winning actor in honor of his 100th birthday. Click the banner below to read more fantastic posts!