Tuesday, April 17, 2018

This Day in Film History (Birth of William Holden, ‘Golden Boy’ and Gipper Friend)

April 17, 1918— William Holden, who became a box-office star and Oscar winner by playing characters forced to survive by their wits in desperate, even morally dubious circumstances, was born into a comfortable middle-class environment in O'Fallon, Ill. Though born in the same state, he was miles apart psychologically from the fellow actor whose best friend and wedding best man he would become, Ronald Reagan

Holden and Reagan were a study in contrasts throughout their lives. Their career trajectories demonstrate the variety of ways in which fame and posterity treat Hollywood’s leading men.

Suzanne Vega’s song "Tom's Diner" refers to “an actor/who died while he was drinking/he was no one I had heard of." That actor was Holden, who passed away alone, on a throw rug in his apartment, possibly when drunk, in 1981. To me, a fellow baby boomer raised on TV, those lyrics are mystifying, as Holden starred, over three decades, in approximately 70 films, including several among the best-known of their era: Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch, and Network

When Ms. Vega wrote these lyrics, while she might not have heard of Holden, it was a certainty that she would have heard of Reagan, who was in the first year of a Presidency that altered American politics and society. Virtually every obituary of the actor would have mentioned the shock expressed by the President and First Lady Nancy Reagan over the death of the man who had served as best man at their wedding in 1952.

The psychological distance between Reagan and Holden at the end of the latter’s life mirrored how the two began. Although O'Fallon is only a bit more than a three-hour drive south from Reagan’s birthplace in Tampico, Ill., the two could not have been farther apart in terms of their families.

Holden’s parents—an industrial chemist and schoolteacher—provided financial stability and an opportunity to travel abroad. But the sole breadwinner in Reagan’s family was his father, whose job (shoe salesman) and abiding health issue (alcoholism) led to constant moves in northern Illinois.

Though both landed in Hollywood in the late 1930s, it was Reagan who achieved a more secure foothold early on, with high-profile roles in Dark Victory, Santa Fe Trail, and, beating out Holden, John Wayne, and Robert Young, doomed Notre Dame gridiron star George Gipp in Knute Rockne—All American. He scored a special triumph as a happy-go-lucky small-town playboy who becomes the victim of a sadistic doctor in Kings Row, and was high enough in the Warner Brothers constellation that he was seriously considered for the role that eventually went to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. 

Meanwhile, after making a splash in Golden Boy and Our Town, Holden began to be typecast as a clean-cut, innocent young man.

World War II brought a change in their fortunes and, in Holden’s case, temperament. Reagan missed four years in what should have been his prime, sliding perceptibly from “A” to “B” list consideration. His energy was increasingly taken up by politics—first the attempt to stymie Communist influence in Hollywood unions, then in larger national questions. 

Neither man saw combat in the war, but Holden—an Air Force second lieutenant who served stateside on P.R. duties and making training films for the Office of Public Information—was crushed by the loss of a brother killed in action. 

The 1950s represented the zenith of Holden’s career and the nadir of Reagan’s, as one performance style was suddenly in sync with the public while the other lost traction. While never particularly flashy, Reagan was a highly professional actor—well-prepared and amenable to direction. But he didn’t give his directors any unexpected dimension, and his straight-arrow image now seemed vanilla. 

With WWII and Korea darkening the nation’s mood, the path was cleared for a new breed of actors—notably Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Holden—who possessed every bit of the glamour associated with pre-war leading men but also an underside that made them natural anti-heroes. 

In particular, Holden seemed drawn to a particular kind of role: tall, well-built, handsome, charming, intelligent, irresistible to women—but a hollow man who felt or behaved like a fraud. On the big screen, he was Don Draper before he had been given a suit, a martini and a borrowed name.

Holden made the most of this new environment, appearing among the top 10 box office stars six times, as ranked by Quigley Publications' annual poll of movie exhibitors. But in 1954, the same year he strode to the podium to pick up an Academy Award for Stalag 17, Reagan suffered through a humiliating Vegas variety emceeing gig.

Success or the lack of it rechanneled their energies and, consequently, careers. A shrewd deal for acting in The Bridge on the River Kwai led Holden to accept roles merely to keep his hand in a business from which he derived increasingly less pleasure. He could certainly rise to the occasion when presented with the opportunity (as in his Oscar-nominated turn in Network), but alcohol had now ravaged his face and let younger competitors such as Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in a better position to snag choice roles. On one of the foreign trips he'd taken ever since he was a child, he became so fascinated by the wilds of Kenya that he subsequently became involved in a game ranch dedicated to conservation--what he increasingly felt was the most important work of his life.

On the other hand, Reagan—with his career plummeting faster and further down than Holden’s—chose to leave acting behind altogether, in one of the most startling acts of reinvention in American history. 

It is astonishing, where different combinations of circumstance and character can lead people. In spite of a hard-scrabble lifestyle, Reagan grew up with an innate faith in the goodness of his countrymen. The “morning in America” commercial of his Presidential re-election campaign may or may not have reflected economic reality, but it certainly accorded with his faith in what people could do if left to their own devices. 

It was far different for Holden, whose performances, Bruce Bennett noted in a 2008 essay for The New York Sun, “invariably bear an end-of-the-season autumnal sadness.” Each of his characters seldom seems surprised by the world because, having taken a good, long look at himself, he has already been gravely disappointed. 

Materially comfortable in childhood, blessed with more than the normal allotment of good looks, intelligence and talent when he grew up, Holden came to believe he didn’t have what mattered—a profession that ultimately meant anything or people who would be there for him in his last hours alive.

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