While TCM is doing me a big favor by playing a handful of films I have not seen, they left off Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, two of Bill's best films directed by his very good friend, Billy Wilder. Stalag 17 is my favorite. Everyone needs it in their lives. But despite that, their blurb on the site is fantastic.
"Few Hollywood actors have conveyed spiritual and physical pain with the charismatic authority of William Holden." This is very true. Bill started out playing what he called, "smiling Jim" roles. No substance or depth whatsoever. When he came to reign in the 1950s as one of the top box office stars, he transformed into the hardened cynic. But there was still a layer of gruff charm to each of his embittered heroes.You don't have to look further than his portrayal of Sefton in Stalag 17 to see that. It's his performance that anchors the black comedy. And you really can't help but root for him in each of his films. William Holden had a magnetism and naturalness that was so compelling onscreen, and he made it all look so effortless.
Stalag 17 was released in 1953, as was The Moon is Blue, which is being shown in the 24 hour run on TCM. Directed by Otto Preminger, this comedy was instrumental in breaking the Hayes Code. Although tame by today's standards, it was viewed as risqué back then because the script contained words like sex, virgin, and pregnancy. The scandal! Enigmatic Maggie McNamara, who resembled Audrey Hepburn, plays Patty O'Neill, a virginal young actress being pursued by Donald (Holden) and David (David Niven). Patty is cute but also clever. She talks about sex and virginity candidly and surprises the two men. While they attempt to seduce her, she stands her ground and refuses to give in to them. All of this transpires in the most charming and pleasant way imaginable.
I think it's a must see because it is such a funny, refreshing movie, and each of the performances are honest and engaging. Maggie McNamara steals the show, but that doesn't make Bill or David Niven any less enjoyable to watch. It's nice to see Bill in a light comedy. He did really well in comedies, which is evident in films like Rachel and the Stranger (1948), Born Yesterday (1950), which is also playing, and Sabrina (1954).
I would venture to say that few Hollywood actors have enjoyed such a diverse career. Bill's breakthrough role was that of idealistic and vulnerable Joe Bonaparte opposite Barbara Stanywck in Golden Boy (1939). He was just 21. As he matured, the complex and meatier roles followed, as did his popularity among moviegoers. To see him transition from Golden Boy to Sunset Boulevard is truly remarkable. In an 11 year span, which included an absence due to service in World War II, as well as bland movie parts, he had achieved a more mature, darker screen presence.
His all American good looks made him a matinee idol, but as he progressed to the morally ambiguous roles, he remained a movie star with one of the most genuine, beautiful smiles to grace Hollywood then or since. He held the distinction of being both an actor and movie star.
Films I plan on watching are Executive Suite (1954), Picnic (1955), which is an essential and one of Bill's most affecting performances, and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), after a failed first attempt. Others include Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949), Boots Malone (1952), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Wild Rovers (1971). I'm really looking forward to all of them, but Rovers especially because older Bill was still so impressive. He still possessed that magnetism, and though his face was weathered by age and drinking, there were vestiges of handsomeness. And that voice. Instantly recognizable as ever.
I hope people take the chance to salute Bill today by watching the films airing, and by seeing more. He truly was a star for the ages, as Martin Scorsese said, remarkable to the last.
This post is part of a series on Summer Under the Stars, hosted by Sittin On a Backyard Fence (sittinonabackyardfence.com) and Scribe Hard (scribehardonfilm.wordpress.com).