If he were still alive, April 17 would mark classic Hollywood icon William Holden’s 100th birthday. Holden is one of the best American actors to ever grace the screen, with a long-running career that exists at the axis of several contradictions: golden good looks yet eyes that suggest a cleverly hidden darkness; a body that speaks to both an easy athleticism and a hard-bitten demeanor. The best directors Holden worked with — Billy Wilder, George Cukor, Sam Peckinpah — knew how to tap into his contradictions. It could have gone another way. Holden could have played it simpler, leaning into his matinee-idol good looks. Instead, his best work delves into this undercurrent of darkness and emotional remove. In honor of his 100th birthday, here are Holden’s ten essential performances that showcase the breadth of his work and artistry.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
This venomously seductive noir was my first introduction to William Holden. And what an introduction. Writer-director Billy Wilder collaborated with Holden four times throughout their respective careers. Wilder understood that Holden works best when the contradiction of his sunny good looks and darkly cynical interior life rises to the surface. Sunset Boulevard is a bitter yet keen-eyed interrogation of Hollywood’s vision of itself, making Holden’s fine-tuned darkness and pessimism such a perfect match, it’s hard to see Wilder’s original choice, Montgomery Clift, in the role. As the failing screenwriter turned reluctant kept man of aging star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Holden is a revelation. Everything he does afterward sits in conversation with this performance. Holden brings poignancy to moments grand (his death scene, as he staggers to the pool that becomes his deathbed with amazing physicality) and subtle (the twinge of disgust and acknowledgment of opportunity when a salesman suggests he use Norma for all she’s worth) with such dimension, I still find something new to admire in this performance.
Rugged, open-faced, golden. Holden seems, at first glance at least, like the picture of a 1950s romantic lead. But Holden is at his best playing with some sense of duality — holding onto a secret while planning a seduction, lying with a bright smile to distract — which is why he usually fails in the typical romantic roles. It’s also why he works so well as David Larabee — the charming cad of a powerful family who vies for the affections of his chauffeur’s daughter, Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) — because this isn’t just any romance. It’s one made by writer-director Billy Wilder (with co-writers Ernest Lehman and Samuel A. Taylor), who knew how to coax the prickly dimensions out of Holden, even in a conventional love story.
Ultimately, what makes Holden’s performance so alluring is a trait necessary for any romance, comedic or otherwise: the heated, sensual looks he gives Hepburn that communicate a world of emotional growth and longing. Holden is luminescent and sly as his playboy ways soften in the face of an unexpected love. Holden’s feelings weren’t completely an act either — he and Hepburn had a brief, passionate affair after meeting on set.
Stalag 17 (1953)
Sergeant J.J. Sefton (Holden), a POW at a German camp, is not who you’d expect to lead a World War II film that blends harrowing drama, sharp character studies, and humor. Sefton shirks any heroic categorization. He’s a proud cynic and loner, willing to trade with his captors to make life a bit more comfortable. He shrugs off any chance to connect with fellow prisoners until he’s suspected of being a spy passing off information to Nazis, which forces him to use his cunning to find the real traitor. Holden, who won a Best Actor Academy Award for this role, clearly relishes playing Sefton. He perfects Sefton’s sullen slouch and quietly sizes up every person, every situation that crosses his path, with uncanny precision.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
A few years after Stalag 17 William Holden returned to a similar wheelhouse in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai, this time as a commander trapped in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. As Commander Shearer, Holden once again plays an essentially solitary soul touched by cynicism who retains his own specific moral code. Here, his physicality is even more finely tuned, able to communicate a range of states — begrudging admiration, sweat-drenched exhaustion, supreme focus. As Winona Ryder put it to AnOther Magazine in praise of his performance: “He took the riskiest parts … He’s the anti-hero in The Bridge on the River Kwai. There is a great scene at the end of that movie, when Alec Guinness is pulling the cord and you see William Holden’s face. I watched it with [Martin] Scorsese and Jay Cox, and we all agreed it’s one of the best moments in cinema, the close-up of William Holden saying ‘kill him.’ The pleading in his eyes is mesmerizing.”
Golden Boy (1939)
Golden Boy — the romance-drama based on a Clifford Odets play — was Holden’s breakthrough a few years into his career. It’s easy to see why. He plays Joe Bonaparte, a promising violinist who yearns to be a boxer, with Barbara Stanwyck acting as his knowing love interest. Holden isn’t completely formed here as an actor or star. His voice is higher, his hair a moppy set of curls, and his physicality carries a level of uncertainty. But there’s a spark of charisma and earnestness that makes him easy to love. Stanwyck fought for Holden’s casting, leading him to later credit her for his success. In a 1978 interview with Roger Ebert, Holden spoke to their friendship: “She went to bat for me in 1938 or I wouldn’t be here today. So once a year I send her flowers, and a note saying I’ll never forget her generosity.”
Wilder’s penultimate film and final collaboration with Holden is often harshly compared to Sunset Boulevard. Both films deal with the nature of stardom and critique Hollywood mores, albeit from very different perspectives. Holden plays Barry “Dutch” Detweiler, a faded Hollywood producer who gets caught up in bringing a mysteriously still-youthful star out of retirement. Fedora is an imperfect film, but the solidity and weight of Holden’s performance brings an intriguing layer to Wilder’s consideration of Hollywood’s obsession with youth. Fedora brings into focus the scope of Holden’s career and one of its most indelible aspects: how you can track the contradictory way American actors of this caliber wrestle with their beauty and aging.
Born Yesterday (1950)
Judy Holliday, playing the brassy, curious trophy girlfriend who wises up, is the crown jewel of this George Cukor comedy. But her work is undoubtedly bolstered by William Holden as journalist Paul Verrall, who is hired by her loudmouth tycoon fiancé to tutor Billie (Holliday) out of her ignorant ways so she can fit better into Washington, D.C. high society. Most actors with Holden’s star power refuse to let a woman take the lead, even when it is demonstrably her story. But Holden knows this is a vehicle for Holliday. He softens and actively listens. He’s the perfect scene partner for the madcap genius radiating from Holliday. It’s subtle but charming work. As Sheila O’Malley writes, “One of the reasons it works so well is because of Holden’s quiet decency, and simple, rather shy charm. He’s perfect. A perfect Henry Higgins to Holliday’s Eliza Doolittle. He does not condescend. Ever. He looks at her and senses her animal intelligence, her curiosity, her desire to learn more, and so he sets about teaching her.”
Picture it. William Holden and Kim Novak, arguably at the height of their beauty, in an overheated, small-town romance in gorgeous Technicolor shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Hal Carter (Holden) is a failure several times over — a former football star turned college dropout and Hollywood star turned drifter. What I especially love about Holden’s performance is how he reacts to the gazes of others — those in lascivious awe of his good looks, others who look at him warily due to his status. Sometimes he matches these gazes with a smirk or glare. The standout scene comes over an hour in, as Holden and Novak dance. The way he pauses and drinks her image in is overwhelmingly sensual and seductive. Holden wears his failure like a scar, making sure people don’t get close enough to notice. He carries himself with a practiced machismo, but his woundedness and shame over his failures often bleed through.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
William Holden was not an actor who aged gracefully, which can be blamed on the years of alcoholism that was a factor in his rather depressing death in 1981. By the time he starred in Sam Peckinpah’s brutal, magnificent Western The Wild Bunch as Pike Bishop — the leader of a gang of aging outlaws aware, to various degrees, that their glory days are behind them — he wears his history in the grooves of his face. The film has many pleasures to admire and consider, but it is Holden’s performance that brings me back to it again and again. The deepened crags in his face and coarse voice seem a lifetime away from his sexy visage about a decade earlier, adding an eerie, existential resonance to the film. Holden, unlike many aging stars (Tom Cruise, I’m looking at you) doesn’t fiercely hold onto being the figure in the spotlight. He isn’t the dashing hero refusing to let go of the past. Instead, he looks at his legacy and aging dead on. In doing so he grants his character the immense weight of history and loss.
Director Sidney Lumet’s Network, a satire of a fictional television network, is a stunning work in which every facet, from Paddy Chayefsky’s script to the stellar acting, work in concert to create a masterpiece. Holden was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, but his co-star Peter Finch nabbed the award for his much more hysterical, tragic role. Holden gives the more subtle, layered performance as the news division president Max Schumacher, who is cheating on his wife with Faye Dunaway’s craven, emotionally hollow exec. Holden is able to play everything, from uproariously drunk to knowingly pathetic, in ways that speak to his decades in front of the camera. His best scenes are with Dunaway, in which he’s moves with an awareness that he is no longer the man he once was, with a blend of sadness, regret, and understanding. As critic Sheila O’Malley notes about his performance, it takes courage to consider aging this way and Holden proves throughout his career to be an actor of remarkable courage. In his book, Making Movies, Lumet shares an anecdote that captures Holden’s presence wonderfully:
“The most moving example of how much of themselves actors must pour into a character happened on Network. William Holden was a wonderful actor. He was also very experienced. He’d done 60 or 70 movies by the time we worked together, maybe more. I noticed that during the rehearsal of one particular scene with Faye Dunaway, he looked everywhere but directly into her eyes. He looked at her eyebrows, her hair, her lips, but not her eyes. I didn’t say anything. The scene was a confession by his character that he was hopelessly in love with her, that they came from very different worlds, that he was achingly vulnerable to her and therefore needed her help and support.
On the day of shooting we did a take. After the take, I said, “Let’s go again, and Bill, on this take, would you try something for me? Look into her eyes and never break away from them.” He did. Emotion came pouring out of him. It’s one of his best scenes in the movie. Whatever he’d been avoiding could no longer be denied. The rehearsal period had helped me recognize this emotional reticence in him.
Of course, I never asked him what he had been avoiding. The actor has a right to his privacy; I never violate his private sources knowingly.”