“I check the newspaper, there is a story about an actor who died while he was drinking. It was nobody I knew. I turn to the horoscope and start looking for the jokes.”
In this opaque way the death of william holden in Tom’s Dinner, one of the early hits of singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega. It was written in 1982, a year after she saw the cover of the New York Post where it was reported that Holden’s body had been found lifeless on November 16, 1981.
But beyond his death, William Holden had been a Hollywood figure with great movies, awards, romances and scandals.. It went from the classical period, with the system of the big studios, to the cinema of the seventies. A true star, with ups and downs.
Born in 1918 in O’Fallon, Illinois, and the eldest of three brothers, one of whom was killed in action in World War II, Holden’s real name was William Franklin Beedle Jr., impractical for a career in acting. Still, he tried to take it until, in a bizarre twist, assistant director and talent scout Harold Winston renamed it after his ex-wife’s last name: Holden.
The actor had his first major role with none other than Barbara Stanwick in The conflict of two souls (Golden Boy, 1939). Holden was grateful to Stanwyck for the rest of her life for the encouragement she gave him.
In the era when film studios were little more than football clubs with contracts and transfer markets, Holden was shared between Paramount and Columbia.
After a few movies, including a first meeting with Humphrey Bogart –More news on this later– Holden was, at the age of twenty-five, summoned to the Second War. There he served as a lieutenant in the Air Force, but the most important thing was his role in training films.
There is a whole subgenre of films of this type, not to mention those of a hygienic nature, sometimes directed by first-rate authors such as john ford: search sex hygiene (1942).
After running over and killing a person while drunk, his registration was only removed for eight months.
Suitable for all service
Even without being a successful figure, what made Holden attractive to the studios was his versatility: he could act in a gangster one, like in a western or a romantic one. And the genres continued.
But still, Holden hadn’t achieved stardom.
Everything changed in 1950: Holden became permanently linked to Billy Wilderone of the greatest directors and screenwriters in history.
We say definitely, because a previous Wilder project from 1940 set in Nazi-occupied Poland, with Holden assigned to star, fell through when he went off to film a Western. But this didn’t stop Wilder from putting in one of Holden’s best performances in twilight of a life (Sunset Blvd.).
In Ed Sikov’s biography of Wilder, it is said that the first option was tortured and also wasted (in this case, more prematurely), Montgomery-Clift. Although Clift, after getting engaged, got off because he had just filmed a movie with an actress older than him, and he did not want to repeat the experience with silent film star Gloria Swanson.
Wilder was warbling, but there the option for Holden arose. He realized that the problem with Holden had been a sequence of mediocre films.
They built a long and intimate friendship. The opening scene, with the corpse of Joe Gillis (Holden) floating in a pool, is one of the most important in Hollywood.
Holden, who narrates the film from the afterlife, was the screenwriter and eventual gigolo for a silent film actress completely left behind by talkies. There Holden got his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor., But lost. She was in a very bad mood. “It was a judicial error, Bill. You should have won it tonight,” Wilder told him.
Then, Holden already drank more than necessary.
Wilder and Holden met to hell 17 (Stalag 17, 1953), the adaptation of a play that, coincidentally, had been directed by the person who beat Holden at the Oscars: José Ferrer.
In this film about American Nazi prisoners of war, Holden had an amoral but leading role that finally gave him the Osc awardar.
Wilder liked that his friend was well removed from the Actor’s Studio method: “If a scene requires me to ask a girl if she needs two lumps of sugar in her coffee, it doesn’t come to me asking if Grandma is supposed to be on the side. as a father she is a hysterical nymphomaniac. And if she wears underarm deodorant.”
The artistic and human bond between the director and the actor led to a third film the following year, by far the most problematic of the duo: Sabrina.Another adaptation from the theater, based on two brothers who fight for the love of the young protagonist, played by audrey hepburn: Humphrey Bogart was 54 years old, Hepburn thirty years younger.
Holden’s character couldn’t hold her love in front of the camera, but he did it off. They had a brief romance, marked by Holden’s twists and turns with alcoholism (which had led him to fight on set with Bogart, another alcoholic), who entered rehab not for the first time to dry out.
Hepburn and Holden also had differences over his refusal to be a father. Although she already had three children by then, she told Hepburn that she had had a vasectomy.
On the artistic side, Wilder and Holden would only meet again in 1978, for the undervalued fedora.
Before that, in 1957, Holden had two achievements with the same work. The first, artistic: she co-starred with Alec Guinness in a great David Lean film, The bridge over the River Kwai (The Bridge on the River Kwai). The second, financial: had the lucrative deal to go to ten percent of the profits.
Audrey Hepburn wanted to have a child with him, but Holden, who already had three, told her that he had a vasectomy.
hell so feared
The sixties were not a very successful decade. His addiction brought him to a rock bottom: In 1966, in Italy, drunk at the wheel, he caused the death of another driver.. She got it cheap: her license was only suspended for eight months.
The actor made an impact again in 1969, in Sam Peckinpah’s twilight western the wild gang (The Wild Bunch). In the lead, Holden played the criminal looking for one last big hit.
What he needed off-screen was a big hit to resume his star status. And this legendary film gave it to him.
He also tried TV movies, where in 1974 he won an Emmy for best actor for The Blue Knight.
That year, he shared the bill –and the blockbuster– with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in hell in the tower (The Towering Inferno).
But the real hell was his alcoholism. The drink cost him relationships, although his last partner, Stefanie Powers, was with him from 1972 until his end.. With her, he developed an interest in wildlife.
By 1976, Holden had one last great moment of glory left: networks, directed by Sidney Lumet, where he and Faye Dunaway were the main stars. Holden was last nominated for an Oscar.
Except for the aforementioned meeting with Wilder, Holden’s star was, once again, on the wane. His last film, edited four months before his death, however, was made under the orders of another great: Blake Edwards, who directed it in SOB.
The writer Francis Scott Fitzgerald said that there were no second acts in American lives, and Holden had already had at least three.
Said director Billy Wilder of Holden’s unusual death: “Being killed by a bottle of vodka and a nightstand. What a bad end for a great guy.”
sad, lonely and final
Holden’s end was as tragic as it was absurd. Drunk in the bedroom of his home in Santa Monica, California, he slipped on a rug and hit his forehead on the nightstand: he slowly bled to death.
Had he not been alone, he could very possibly have been saved. I was 63 years old.
“Being killed by a bottle of vodka and a bedside table. What a bad end for a great guy ”, lamented Billy Wilder.
Meanwhile, in New York City, a young singer-songwriter saw the news in a newspaper and decided to make it part of one of her first songs.
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William Holden: the star who died alone and bled to death
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