Sunday, March 28, 2010

William Holden

(Originally published in The Outreach Connection on February 19, 2010)

Compared to most movie reviewers, I don’t tend to say a whole lot about the actors; in fact, I often don’t mention them at all. That’s a reaction partly to too many critics whose pieces consist almost solely (apart from turgid plot summaries) of subjective reactions to the performers, and partly to too many frustratingly rootless real-life conversations. If (say) Tom Cruise is in a movie, there are plenty of people whose reaction to the film will basically begin and end with that fact – perhaps because they always found him off-putting, but equally as likely because of the Scientology stuff, or whatever else they read in the tabloids. Others will insist that if Daniel Craig is in a movie, then it must be worth seeing. For the most part, I guess I take it all pretty pragmatically, just as we have to accept the motley crew we jostle up against in daily life. But then readers will know I’m a true auteurist. Inglourious Basterds for instance had some of the performances that delighted me most last year, both from new discoveries (Christopher Waltz, Melanie Laurent) and, equally strikingly, from known quantities who didn’t previously seem to have it in them (Diane Kruger). They should all be praised, and perhaps win awards, but without Tarantino’s kick-ass dialogue and sensitive directing (and brilliant casting instinct), there’d be nothing to talk about. So I guess to me talking about the vessel isn’t as rewarding as talking about the creator (I know, that’s a little reductive).

Classic Stars

It’s different with the classic stars. I could fill this article solely with a list of people I revere, and who thrill me virtually every time I see them. I’ll name a few just to get your imaginations going: Cary Grant (possibly the greatest of all), Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Lemmon, Catherine Deneuve, Henry Fonda, Kim Novak, Alain Delon…that’s a deliberately quirky list! Sometimes I’ll forget someone for a while and then rediscover them – I was stunned recently when I saw my first Lon Chaney movies in years. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie featuring someone I usually don’t think I like and then I’ll say to myself, well, you know, that guy (or gal) was pretty darn good after all. But I don’t write about them here very much because, basically, when would they come up?

I thought I’d mix it up today though, because I was watching Golden Boy, and it made me think about how much William Holden’s meant to me over the years. Nowadays he’s mostly in that category where people might know the name but then struggle to recall more than one or two movies. As with most of his peers, a lot of it’s not particularly worth remembering. But I think Holden was the first actor who really moved me through his career arc. Everyone ages of course, but he aged rapidly and brutally: making The Wild Bunch in his early 50’s, he looked older than many 70-year-olds (especially Hollywood leading man 70-year-olds), and in a way you knew wasn’t just bad genes: his face was weary, ravaged, and often self-disgusted. In his last decade, he chose a fair number of roles where he got to rail against corroded values: Lumet’s Network (his fourth Oscar nomination), Wilder’s Fedora, and his final film, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. In that one, playing a Hollywood director, he delivers his final screen line – “So long pal” – while orchestrating a Viking-style burial at sea for an old friend brutalized by the system.

Angels and Demons

At the same time, the dead friend is a nut, and Holden’s character – for all his cynicism – is his hack collaborator in a stupid venture, and also someone who’s drunk too long and deep from the good life. Many of the greatest stars, of course, gain their resonance in large part from what we know of their off-screen life: often to poignant or tragic effect, as with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and others who died too young. Holden died too young too (he was 63) and yet by then it was already hard to think he could possibly live much longer (not productively at least). When I was getting into movies as a teenager, while miserably wrestling with the point of it all, I found Holden unbelievably relevant, suggesting some bitter triangulation between angels and demons, and utter frankness about what it would all cost.

At that pre-Internet time you could buy big heavily illustrated books about virtually any Hollywood star, and I think the only one I ever bought was The Complete Films of William Holden by Lawrence J Quirk. I still have it. It’s a purple prose kind of exercise: “..(he) drank to forget his ever-increasing inner torment – the torment of a man who did not truly know himself – deep down – and didn’t want to.” His very first film, Golden Boy, already drew on that ambiguity – he’s a hothead whose first passion is classical violin, but then he takes up boxing instead! After that, the younger Holden had trouble finding a niche in the 40’s, until hitting his stride with Sunset Boulevard in 1950. After that he was at the very top for a decade or so, winning an Oscar for Stalag 17, and appearing in Sabrina, The Country Girl, Picnic and The Bridge On The River Kwai. I’ve always loved the way Holden delivered a line – like Morgan Freeman now, seldom forcing it, but often finding some intonation suggesting a richer appreciation of life’s mordant ambiguities. I haven’t seen a lot of the junkier films he made – he’s not the kind of actor whose career seems to demand comprehensive viewing. His very persona suggests a helpless marrying of highs and lows; S.O.B. is an almost mystical intertwining of both.

The Unmanly Art

Some basic facts: he was born in 1918, as William Franklin Beedle Jr., and was found dead in November 1981. Quirk says he’d died nearly a week before, “when he hit his head on an end table in a drunken stupor – and bled to death.” I found that chilling as a teenager, and I think to this day it colors my fears of aging. That’s silly of course, but this is what stars have always done, held out possibilities, complexities, pathways, warning signs. I should rather say that’s what they used to do, because although the greatest stars now may be interesting as phenomena, they’re not very instructive as stories in themselves. Holden supposedly found acting “unmanly,” and I don’t know what he meant by that exactly, but he never communicated any sense of entitlement, never communicated that he was somehow doing anyone a favour by lending his presence. If indeed we’re meant to be learning something now about shedding unsustainable excesses and going back to basics, we could do worse than watch some Bill Holden movies.

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