Tuesday, October 11, 2011

William Holden: A Many-Splendored Thing

I’ve always liked William Holden, but the older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve seen of his work, I’ve changed my opinion of him.

I now think he is one of the movies’ finest, most versatile and most underrated actors.

While this is a purely subjective list, here are William Holden films I consider masterpieces, and some of the greatest movies ever made.

“Our Town” (1940); “Sunset Blvd.” (1950); “Stalag 17” (1953); “The Country Girl” (1954); “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957); “The Wild Bunch” (1969); and “Network” (1976).

Just below that are a remarkable list of films that almost made inclusion into the above list, several of which just missed by the taddiest of tads: “Texas” (1941); “Born Yesterday” (1950); “Executive Suite” (1954); “Sabrina” (1954): “The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954); “Picnic” (1955); “The Horse Soldiers” (1959); “The Counterfeit Traitor” (1962); “The Towering Inferno” (1974, and no, I’m not joking) and his final film, “S.O.B.” (1981).

Here's what’s key: Many actors and actresses have an equally long list of distinguished work, but I’m hard pressed to think of another actor who hit so many home runs in so many different genres and types of movies.

From comedy to drama, from western to war, and from social satire to romance, Holden boasts one of Hollywood’s most impressive and all-encompassing filmographies, one that many actors would kill to possess. .

Oh, William Holden made more than his fair share of average movies and quite a few out and out clunkers, including a couple of titles that re-define the term “unwatchable.” I mean have you ever swum through the syrupy morass of “The Christmas Tree” (1969)? Or prayed for death while watching “When Time Ran Out” (1978)? The less said about the hideous “Satan Never Sleeps” (1962) the better.

But that’s OK. Even superstars have to eat. Still, Holden is always worth watching, and I don’t think he gets the credit he should. Like Cary Grant, he makes it look so easy.

In his book “William Holden” (Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, 1976), Will Holtzman astutely points out, “Holden was never a sacred image, and was rarely predictable. He had no tricks or trademarks to tote from picture to picture as an instant index to his character. He was a half generation off pace, too late for the studio-spawned superstars, too early for the stage-trained method actors.

“So Holden followed his own instincts, battled typecasting, and hit up on a blend of technique and repertoire that sired several of the finest performances in motion picture history.”

Looking at the above list, it’s obvious that the 1950s was William Holden’s decade. He fit the image well. As Holtzman suggests, it was probably the perfect decade for him. Not for him the matinee idol heroics of a Flynn or Tyrone Power of preceding decades, Holden’s characters were often cynical and always seeking an edge, giving an audience of what to come in the following decades. Think of his roles in “Stalag 17” or “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

But Holden could also play sincere with the best of them. There’s a reason Robert Wise cast him as an idealistic architect in “Executive Suite” and Sidney Lumet made him the conscience of “Network.”
Smack in the middle of the 1950s Holden had one of his biggest hits, Twentieth Century Fox’s decidedly uncynical “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955).

I watched it the other night and enjoyed myself, though, for me, it would not make the above list of great Holden titles. Still, it’s compulsively watchable.

This movie made oodles and oodles of 1955 coinage, with women in droves likely dragging unwilling husbands and boyfriends with them. But I’d be surprised if they weren’t equally entertained by this love story set in Hong Kong between married, though separated, foreign correspondent Mark Elliott (Holden) and the beautiful Eurasian doctor Hun Suyin (Jennifer Jones, in an Oscar-nominated performance).

It helps enormously that Holden and Jones are both magnificent physical specimens, which we see when they both strip down to their bathing suits and decide to swim across Hong Kong Harbor to drop in on some friends on the other side. The house on the other side looks like something Dr. No would live in, and I think this scene illustrates one of the reasons the film was such a big hit.

Cinemascope cameras allowed new wide screen vistas of exotic cities like Hong Kong. Foreign tourism was still fairly rare. One might never make it to Hong Kong, but audiences could go to their local movie house and experience Hong Kong in all its Technicolor, Cinemascope glory.

And with two stars like Holden and Jones holding center court, few audience members could resist. This is no backlot reproduction of Hong Kong, but the real thing.

A winning title song also helped. Played throughout as underscore, the famous Sammy Fain and Paul Webster song won a deserving Best Song Oscar that year. Alfred Newman took home the Oscar that year too for Best Original Score, though I suspect Academy members were voting for the song there too. No one ever said Academy members are the most musically literate people in the world.

Director is Henry King, who I’ve also always liked and also consider underrated. His is a lengthy filmography which dates back to silent cinema, but his films are often full of warm, human touches. One of these days I’ll get around to writing about a small jewel of a film called “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain” (1951) with Susan Hayward.

Despite my fondness for King, I wish he had paid a little more attention to possibilities here. There’s a memorable scene with cigarettes which rivals that of Bette Davis and Paul Henreid.

Still attired in their bathing suits, Holden has a cigarette in his mouth and Jones takes one and puts in her mouth. She needs a light. Holden leans over and lights her cigarette in her mouth using his cigarette in his mouth. It’s a pretty erotic scene, but King doesn’t linger on it. Once that cigarette is lit he fades out to a scene of the two of them driving home. It’s a beautifully played scene but I wish King had allowed it to linger a bit longer.

Without spoiling the movie for anyone, Jennifer Jones’s big emotional scene towards the end first struck me as curiously underplayed, but on thinking about it I can appreciate where Jones is going. Her Eurasian background is at odds here – wanting to let her emotions go but also reining them in so she doesn’t make a scene. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received.

(Jones’s exotic looks are such that I think little make-up was required to make her Eurasian. Maybe a Jones authority would know more about that)

There’s good support to by Torin Thatcher and Isobel Elsom as a spoiled couple who think their every wish should supersede everyone else’s. They’re the personifications of the Ugly Americans.

Holden’s performance is fine, but to be fair he doesn’t do much. His Mark Elliott is not one to show feelings, but we do see him relax after falling in love with Hun Suyin. Their cultural differences are brought up, but not much is made of them. Her being Eurasian probably helps, but the film (based on the book by the real Hun Suyin) shows what is changing during these post-war years. We still have a long ways to go, but in the 1950s the initial steps are there.

The final scenes are quite moving and no doubt sent many audience members out weeping into their handkerchiefs. Let the cynics scoff, but there’s something to be said about a film willing to go full throttle on an audience’s emotions and not be ashamed of it. Some may think such an ending could not work today, but they’re wrong. Just think back on a movie like “Ghost” (1990). Audiences like this type of material, but it has to be done right, not contrived and it has to be earned. “Ghost” accomplished this, and so does “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing”.

Back to Holden. Today, we do have a couple of actors like him: Kurt Russell and Dennis Quaid. They’ve both been around for decades and I’m afraid audiences take them for granted. Never flashy or drawing attention to themselves, they consistently turn in good performances in every conceivable genre. Russell especially can switch from comedy to drama to action with the beautiful dexterity of a tightrope walker.

But they’re rarely recognized come awards season and I suspect that when they’re gone audiences will realize how much they’ve been missed.

I remember reading an interview with William Holden while he was filming “Damien – Omen II” (1978) in Chicago. The interviewer asked him why he was starring in an Omen movie. Holden said in his long career he had done everything but horror and porn. He wasn’t about to do porn, so a horror movie it was.

When you think of it, William Holden really did do everything in his career. And nobody did it better.

(Note to readers: I’ve been having tremendous computer problems of late. Aargh! I'm trying my hardest not to use language that would have been prohibited by the Production Code. Even placing the pictures here took twice as long as usual. And, the problems are even preventing me from leaving comments on other's bloggers. (Don't worry, I'm still reading my fellow bloggers.) It's likely I may not be able to moderate comments until the evening. I thank everyone for their patience and understanding until this fixed).


Rick29 said...

Kevin, I agree wholeheartedly that William Holden was undervalued as a fine actor. Of the films you listed, my favorites are STALAG 17 (his best performance in my opinion), EXECUTIVE SUITE (a marvelous, surprisingly introspective acting job), and THE WILD BUNCH (a perfect coda to his career and his last great role...sorry INFERNO). He brought good looks and a light touch, underscored by a streak of cynicism. I think that's why his characters appealed to both women and men. For me, Holden is the main reason that LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING works...well, that and the oft-played title song. It's a very watchable movie, though, like you, I don't rank it among Holden's best. I'm not as fond of Jennifer Jones, whom I always felt was miscast. That said, she and Holden had nice chemistry in their scene together. A fine review...which is what I always find at KEVIN'S MOVIE CORNER.

Kevin Deany said...

Rick, thanks for the nice comments. I agree with all your picks, especially "The Wild Bunch."

I know Inferno isn't one of his best roles, but I think its the best of the big disaster flicks of the 1970s.

I almost included Billy Wilder's "Fedora" in the list, but it's been awhile since I've seen it and wasn't sure if my memory was playing tricks on me. But I remember finding it fascinating the last time I saw it, which was many years ago.

ClassicBecky said...

I was so tickled to see that you are writing about Love Is A Many Splendored Thing I love this movie. It is exotic, beautiful, has 2 of my favorite actors and is true tragic romanticism. Your assessment of it is quite good. One of the best scenes in the movie is Jones realizing that she will continue to receive letters from her lover, even though he is now dead, and then walks through the streets, seeing and hearing nothing. At the hill, she sees him and for a moment my heart took a leap too. It was beautifully done.

Holden is a marvelous actor, and your listing of his movies shows just how versatile and popular he was. I do remember something funny he said about his role in The Towering Inferno: He said "I could have phoned it in." LOL!

He was so good in his more cynical roles, Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17 -- and equally good in roles with pathos, like the Bridges of Toko-Ri (which broke my heart) and Picnic.

Excellent article about a wonderful actor and one of my favorite movies, Kevin!

The Lady Eve said...

This is a really fine tour of Holden's filmography in general and "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" in particular, Kevin.

My own personal favorite of his is "Network," not only for its prophetic satire on the industry I work in but also for Holden's juicy portrayal of a network news exec with integrity (!) - who's also going through a meltdown in mid-life. Over the years Holden had gone from handsome to craggy, and he was fairly rough-looking in "Network"...but there's also something of the proud old lion in him.

Recently read a bio on Billy Wilder who talked about casting Holden in "Sunset Blvd." and "Stalag 17." I hadn't really thought about it before, but "Sunset Blvd." basically re-booted Holden's career in 1950 (it didn't hurt that "Born Yesterday" came out later the same year). With "Stalag 17" (1953) he became an Oscar-winner. From then on he owned the '50s. (Wilder had always wanted to work with Cary Grant and tried to get him for the Bogart role in "Sabrina" - I've always enjoyed imagining Hepburn, Grant and Holden in the film. Also more believable for Hepburn to end up with Grant rather than Bogie - and choose him over Holden).

I'm not a great fan of Jennifer Jones and, like Rick, think "Splendored" could've benefited from a different leading lady. The story is an attention-getter, but I think the Cinemascope/ Technicolor exoticism of Hong Kong along with Holden at his height are the movies strengths.

Great post, Kevin...and so glad you're back. Do you use Internet Explorer? I changed to Firefox when I began having problems posting and commenting and haven't had any problems since...

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, you make a good case for Holden being an actor who deserves more respect and attention than, aside from a handful of performances like those for Billy Wilder, he tends to get from us in the classic movie fan brigade. (I've always wondered what he would have been like in Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" in place of Kirk Douglas, who strikes me as overacting in an obvious role that calls for Holden's more subtle cynicism.) You reminded me of many fine performances that actually are better than the films they're in, like "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" and "Picnic." Holden had some rather thankless roles like those in "Born Yesterday," "Sabrina," and "The Country Girl," where the nature of his part guaranteed that he would be outshone by his costars, yet he performed as earnestly in those roles as in any others. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Network" might also be lumped with those other films, with Alec Guinness's more dramatic character and Peter Finch's more flamboyant one overshadowing his fine work.

That was an interesting observation about the 50s being his greatest decade. It did seem to take him a few years to mature as an actor. But then he made that giant leap in "Sunset Blvd." and never looked back. Still, I've seen a couple of early performances that indicated what he was capable of. You mentioned "Texas," which I saw recently and which I thought was a great showcase for him. I saw "Arizona," another early Western, a few nights ago and thought he was also excellent in that. Unlike so many of his early pictures, those allowed him to be something more than a pretty face with not much personality. You also mentioned "The Horse Soldiers." I thought he was very good in that and easily held his own with John Wayne. It's a shame he didn't do more pictures with John Ford. "The Wild Bunch" was, of course, a comeback of sorts. But I thought he was also excellent in another Western he made the next year, "Wild Rovers," directed by, of all people, Blake Edwards.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks to everyone for writing.
holds up very well today.

I have friends who don't care for old movies as they find the performances too artifical, grand and theatrical. I don't agree with them, but I think they would respond to Holden's more natural technique, far more than other actors of that period.

R.D., that's a fascinating idea about Holden playing in "Ace in the Hole." He would have been great in it, and thanks to Holden's well known disdain of the press, I think he would have really sunk his teeth into it.

I too wonder why Holden never did more films with John Ford apart from "The Horse Soldiers" (a film which, for me, gets better with each viewing). I know Ford liked to use the alot of the same people from film to film, and I wonder if they didn't get along (from what I've read about Ford. a very likely occurrence).

Eve, I love the idea of Cary Grant starring in "Sabrina" and if he had it would have been one of the most sublime comedies of the Fifties cinema. Like many others, I do think Bogart is miscast, and his presence does bring the film down.

BTW, you are correct, I was using Explorer and tried to download Firefox but its not taking. I'll find a 10-year-old kid who probably knows how to fix it.

Becky, I love that scene too and I was watching it mouth agape in silent admiration. What a scene. (I probably looked like Woody Allen watching "Casablanca" at the beginning of "Play It Again Sam.")

Caftan Woman said...

Every once in a while I'll put on something like "Executive Suite" for the hundredth time, not because I need to see the movie again (which is committed to memory), but because I need to watch Bill Holden. He is so solid, yet at the same time so vulnerable.

I thoroughly enjoyed your article examining the actor, and the movie "Love is a Many Splendored Thing". Unlike other posters, I am a fan of Miss Jones and while I don't consider this movie her best, the performance does have a place in my heart. (Struggle to suppress a sob.)

I totally agree with your comments regarding Kurt Russell. I sincerely expected a nomination for him for "Miracle" when he played Herb Brooks. I'm always sincerely expecting something like that from the Academy, but we never seem to be on the same page.

Kevin Deany said...

C.W. "Executive Suite" is going to be on TCM on Oct. 22 as part of a Nina Foch tribute. I plan on taping it since I've been watching a lot of Holden titles. I really liked it the two times I've seen it and look forward to seeing it again.

Yeah, isn't Russell great in "Miracle." I saw that a second run theater and the auditorioum was filled with kids and their coaches from the local hockey leagues. The kids were well behaved but they were really getting into the movie. Their enthusism extended to the rest of us in the audience. It was a really fun experience.

And I agree, Russell should have been recognized by the Academy for that performance.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I love this line: "The house on the other side looks like something Dr. No would live in..."

I'm going to think of this every time I see this movie from now on. Thanks very much.

Interesting point by the biographer who notes Holden is too young for the Golden Age bunch and too old for the "method" bunch. He really did carve his own niche, and a really very fine actor.

"Love is a Many Splendored Thing" may be cotton candy to some, but those location shots, and the glimpse in the political morass that was building over China make it worth while. So do Jones and Holden.

Lovely post, thanks.

Laura said...

Kevin, I very much enjoyed your post and thoughts on Holden, as well as the underrated Russell and Quaid. What a track record Holden had in the '50s!

I wanted to mention that the commentary track on MANY-SPLENDORED THING is really superb, probably in my all-time top five favorite commentary tracks. It definitely increased my appreciation of the film.

Also wanted to second your comments on I'D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN, a really uplifting film with a sincere, authentic style.

Best wishes,

Kevin Deany said...

Laura: Thanks for the heads up about the commnentary on the DVD of "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing." I'll give it a listen the next time I watch the movie.

Jacqueline: Thanks for writing. I was really struck by that home off Hong Kong Harbor, though I would hate to the window washer on it.