William Holden’s big break came playing a dim young boxer/violinist in Golden Boy, and outside of Barbara Stanwyck, the film is best forgotten. He was as unimpressed by his following string of pretty-boy roles as I am. Everything changed after his return from WWII and Billy Wilder picked him for Sunset Blvd. Time had given his face character and experience had honed his craft. Hard, cynical, broken men became his stock-in-trade and few have done it better. A wild life and excessive alcohol consumption drew those character lines deeper into his face and eventually killed him, but along the way, he became one of the biggest stars of the ‘50s and starred in multiple masterpieces.
An honorable mention for The Towering Inferno, which isn’t a great film, but is fun, and is exactly what it should be.
His best films, starting at #8:
8 – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) — A well-shot, well-acted action film threaded with an examination of obsession and order—both parts works well, though the whole isn’t the grand statement it would like to be. (It’s also thought of as insulting—for multiple reasons—by the real prisoners who were forced into slave-labor.) Holden plays a POW-escapee who returns to blow up the bridge whose construction is being overseen by a British prisoner played by Alec Guinness, and delivers a great performance (if judged purely on Holden’s performance, this would sit several notches higher). The ending rips apart Guinness’s character for no good reason (in the book, he does not suddenly throw off his insanity and realize his mistake) and that drags the film down substantially, but there’s lot of good here.
7 – The Country Girl (1954) — One of the string of behind-the-scenes-in-theater/movies dramas that popped up in the 1950s (and too often starred Holden—Forever Female being a lesser one while a greater one sits higher on this list). It’s the acting that rules here, mainly that of Grace Kelly who pick up a much deserved best actress Oscar. Bing Crosby is good as a drunken washed-up singer, and Holden is at home as the misogynist director who means well, but this is Kelly’s film as the abused wife. The story doesn’t live up to the performances.
6 – The Wild Bunch (1969) — A pivotal film in the evolution of its genre; it was the beginning of the bloody, nihilistic western. Holden’s real-life hard drinking ways had caught up with him, and he looked his age plus a decade, making him the right star to symbolize the end of an era.
5 – The Moon Is Blue (1953) — A romantic comedy of words. Holden is fine, but his work isn’t what got this on this list. The production code-breaking script has a good deal to do with it (it was thought very edgy for the time), but a bigger factor is co-star David Niven. He has the juicier part as the father of Holden’s ex who takes an interest in his new flame, and he runs with it. It is often said to be Niven’s best performance. As a whole this is a smart, fun film that gets too conventional in the end.
4 – Stalag 17 (1953) — I really don’t know how Wilder pulled this off. No one else could have. It’s a dark prisoner-of-war film where the Nazis are taken quite seriously and yet it bounces into pure comedy, before bouncing back into drama. William Holden, in one of three great films he made with Wilder, plays a selfish, cynical hustler who deals with the Germans… And he’s the hero. He won the Oscar for his performance, and he deserved to. [Also on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]
3 – Sabrina (1954) — Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), the chauffeur’s daughter, has a crush on David (William Holden), the playboy of the house. When time abroad turns her into a suitable target for his shallow affections, older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) sees trouble and tries to break things up. Hepburn is an obvious choice for a romantic comedy, but Bogart? But it works. [Also on the Great Actors Lists for Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn and on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]
2 – Network (1976) — Has any film said more about our times? Dark as a Noir, yet funny, Network is a satire, though author Paddy Chayefsky claims it isn’t because it is reality. Holden puts in a great performance as the last of a dying breed of media men, but was beaten to the Oscar by co-star Peter Finch who yelled, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” The astonishing thing about Holden’s career is that this magnificent film doesn’t end up at #1
1 – Sunset Blvd. (1950) — Sunset Blvd. takes on the film world, which it loves and loathes simultaneously, showing how it uses up people. It’s a dark twisted comedy that sees life through a funhouse mirror. It has amazing performances and Wilder’s most interesting cinematography; it is one of the great Noirs. [Also on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]