April 17, 1918 – William Holden:
I’m a pretty fair interpreter of a certain kind of contemporary character. I’m not a classic actor, dealing in tragedy. Most actors have a specific corridor, and within the limits of that corridor they travel the course of their career.
Holden was only 63-years-old in November 1981 when he was found dead by an apartment manager, not floating face down in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool. He had been dead for four days. He lived full time in Palm Springs but kept an apartment in Santa Monica. The coroner’s report said Holden was alone and intoxicated in his apartment when he slipped on a rug, lacerating his forehead on a teak bedside table, and then bled to death. He was conscious for at least half an hour after the fall and likely failed to realize the severity of the injury and did not call for help. There were rumors that he was suffering from lung cancer, which Holden denied at a 1980 press conference. His death certificate makes no mention of any cancer.
Here is where I wax a bit about Holden’s bare chest. When I was a teenager, I found that one of the best things about watching a Holden film from the 1950s through the 70s was a very probable chance he would be in some state of partial undress. In fact, in candid snapshots of him having his real-life adventures, I found that he’s often shirtless in those also, or at least unbuttoned, wearing shorts, and barefoot. He seemed to enjoy being a natural man, though I had heard that he was obsessed with showering, too. Well, maybe that’s the thing; you take a shower four times a day, and you tire of putting on a new set of clothes each time.
This is true of other Hollywood stars of his era and even earlier; onscreen, he often has a hairless chest. In Picnic (1955), because he was a bit too old for the character he played, the bare chest made him look younger. He also has a hairless chest in Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957). Yet, in Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Bridges Of Toko-Ri (1954) and Paris When It Sizzles (1964), he is deliciously hairy. I don’t remember what his chest hair was doing in The World of Suzie Wong (1960), but I think the reason we saw less of him undressed in that film is because audiences might figure out just what a man does with a call girl, and that would be very bad.
Funny about Hollywood; they took the hair off men’s chests but added it to so many of their heads.
His performance as Gloria Swanson‘s ill-fated lover in Sunset Boulevard is probably his best-known role; it brought him his second Academy Award nomination. His performance in Network (1976) was his third. In S.O.B. (1981), Blake Edward‘s satire of Hollywood, we get to see Julie Andrews‘ hairless chest, and Holden’s especially fine final performance.
Holden was for many years a sort of grownup boy-next-door type, but his acting developed a fine cynical edge in The Bridge On The River Kwai, Sunset Boulevard, and especially Stalag 17 (1957). Holden:
For me, acting is not an all-consuming thing, except for the moment when I am actually doing it. There is a point beyond acting, a point where living becomes important. When you’re making a movie, you get up in the morning and you put on a cloak; you create emotions within yourself, send gastric juices rushing up against the lining of your stomach. It has to be manufactured.
He was born William Franklin Beedle Jr. in O’Fallon, Illinois. His father was a chemist and his mother was a teacher. The family moved to California when he was very young, and he attended school in Pasadena. At junior college he took a course in radio drama and made his first stage appearance at the Playhouse Theater. He impressed a talent scout who persuaded Paramount Pictures to cast him in a tiny role in Million Dollar Legs (1939) with Betty Grable. He had one line: ”Thank you”. Paramount encouraged him to change his name to William Holden.
He had his first starring role the same year, in Golden Boy opposite Barbara Stanwyck, playing a promising violinist who wants to be a boxer. The supporting cast includes Lee J. Cobb as the Italian immigrant father of Holden’s character, even though Cobb was just seven years older. Holden’s performance in Golden Boy made him a star.
The producers were initially unhappy with Holden’s work and tried to dismiss him, but Stanwyck insisted that he stay. Thirty nine years later, when Holden and Stanwyck were presenters at the 1978 Academy Awards, he interrupted their reading of the nominee list to publicly thank her for saving his career.
He made more than 50 films; not all were hits, and Holden tried to set certain standards both for himself and for the movies for which he agreed to appear. He was handsome, but not in a classic way. He came across as an average guy, except just a bit better than average. He became one of the most popular male movie stars of all time, respected by the critics, co-stars and directors. Director Billy Wilder said that he was the best film actor of his generation.
Holden found kissing on film especially embarrassing. While making Picnic he informed director Josh Logan that he could not perform the sexy Moonglow dance with Kim Novak unless he could have a few drinks to relax him. And so, Holden was tipsy while shooting the famous scene.
In 1941, just eight months after his marriage to the actor Brenda Marshall, Holden enlisted in the Army Air Force; he served more than three years. After his discharge he returned to Hollywood but went two years without an offer of a job. But, then he made 13 films in the next three years. His roles were varied. They included a psychopath in The Dark Past (1948) and the young writer who becomes the emotional property of an aging silent film star in Sunset Boulevard.
Holden had a nimble way with comedy, with a light touch in films such as Born Yesterday (1950) with Judy Holliday, Forever Female (1953) with Ginger Rogers and The Moon Is Blue (1953). He won an Oscar for Stalag 17 as a WW II prisoner of war who inevitably becomes a hero despite himself.
He looked good in clothing also. Off-screen, Holden was the symbol of the normal nice guy with a long marriage and two children who enjoyed working around the house. He was a favorite with the press and with the studios where he worked, although he sometimes was suspended for refusing scripts he believed to be below his standards.
A wholesome charm was his trademark, but starting in the late 1960s, roles such as the outlaw in Sam Peckinpah‘s violent The Wild Bunch (1968), he acquired a new, hard-edged persona. Holden also became a much more private person, refusing in interviews to talk about his politics, his family, or why he lived abroad so often. In 1971, he said:
I always resented the ground rules of 30 years ago, when you did anything to get your name in the paper with Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons.
Holden was best man at the wedding of his friend Ronald Reagan to Nancy Davis in 1952; however, he never talked to the press about politics.
In 1963, Holden divorced his wife. During the filming of Sabrina (1954), he had a brief but passionate affair with Audrey Hepburn. He met French actor Capucine when they starred in the films together The Lion (1962) and The 7th Dawn (1964). They had an affair that lasted several years which ended because of Holden’s drinking, although they remained friends for the rest of his life.
In 1972, Holden began a nine-year relationship with actor Stefanie Powers. Powers is an animal lover and the relationship led to their joint involvement with wildlife conservation. Powers is president of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation.
Holden was cremated, and his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean near Malibu. In accordance with his wishes, there was no funeral or memorial service.
Now, do you like your gentleman’s chest to be hairy or smooth?