While there are many stars that have appeared in at least three or four movies that have been praised as being among cinema’s greatest, William Holden is one of the small few who starred in more than a handful of movies that have been deemed the best of all time, and I don’t think that’s much of a coincidence. Though he was only Oscar-nominated three times (which doesn’t seem like nearly enough), he starred in nine films that were nominated for Best Picture, and so in honor of his 99th birthday, I decided to chronicle his prolific career through those Oscar-nominated films.
Just one year after his film debut in 1939’s Golden Boy, one of William Holden’s films was honored at Hollywood’s golden ceremony. Obviously still very early in the actor’s career, Our Town was Holden’s fourth film, and it saw him as a small-town boy-next-door, a character that’s unlike the screen persona he formed just a decade later.
Set in the early 20th century, the film begins with Holden’s character George Gibbs as a young boy in his mid to late teens, who focuses his energy on baseball until he begins to develop romantic feelings for his next-door neighbor Emily Webb (Martha Scott), who also has a crush on him. Along with the young couple’s courtship and their contemplations about the future, the film follows the seemingly predictable daily lives of the residents of Grover’s Corners in New Hampshire.
Though Our Town went on to earn six Oscar nominations, it’s become virtually forgotten, especially among William Holden’s filmography. And unlike the rest of the Holden’s films that were Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Our Town was one of ten movies that received the honor that year, ultimately losing to Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood film debut Rebecca. Other notable films that were nominated for Best Picture that year include The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, The Letter, and The Philadelphia Story. Admittedly, the film is not nearly as memorable as others released in 1940, and Holden merely gives a passable performance in the kind of role he was typecast in throughout the 1940s. On the other hand, his screen partner, Martha Scott, got a Best Actress nomination for her work on the film, which was the first of many times this situation would occur.
A whole ten years had passed since William Holden saw any of his films Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, but even though his career had waned a bit in its first decade (plus taking a few years off to serve in World War II), the 1950s proved to be an especially rewarding decade for the actor. While he was far from an unknown actor, his starring role in Billy Wilder’s bitter Hollywood tale Sunset Blvd. launched him to superstardom.
In the film, Holden plays Joe Gillis, a young screenwriter down on his luck until he happens to pull into the driveway of aging silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who refuses to accept her golden Hollywood days are behind her. Norma then takes Joe in to live with her in her mansion to help her write the screenplay for her big screen comeback. But soon Joe’s ambivalence about their relationship and Norma’s unwillingness to let go leads to tragic consequences for all involved.
Despite the film’s cynical outlook on the industry it hails from, Sunset Blvd. was a big hit at the time of its release, and it went on to receive 11 Oscar nominations, including William Holden’s first Best Actor nomination. It was also the fifth film to receive Oscar nominations in all four acting categories, but it also sadly became the second film not to win in any of them. Though Holden gets the film’s top billing, this movie is really all about Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of fading movie queen Norma Desmond. But while her performance is one of the most iconic in film history, the Oscar for Best Actress ultimately went to one of Holden’s other leading ladies that year…
William Holden made four films in 1950, with Born Yesterday being the last one released. In the film, he plays journalist Paul Verrall, who’s hired by tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) to teach his girlfriend Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) proper etiquette for social functions in Washington D.C. While helping her become more socially acceptable, Paul also teaches Billie about history and politics, and soon she becomes more aware of the corruption going on around her.
Just as Sunset Blvd. is all about Gloria Swanson, Born Yesterday is all about Judy Holliday’s wonderful performance. Holliday ultimately won the Oscar for Best Actress that year despite some fierce competition, which, along with Swanson, also included Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for their work in All About Eve (the film that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar). While both films are on opposite ends of the spectrum (one being an especially dark film noir and the other being a more lighthearted romantic comedy), William Holden was able to exemplify his talents as an actor in just a single year, as he serves as an excellent screen partner for his leading ladies, a trend that will continue throughout much of his career.
As a rising box office star, William Holden made a string of successful films following his breakout year in 1950, including The Moon Is Blue, which earned his co-star Maggie McNamara an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and Stalag 17, which earned Holden his only Oscar win for Best Actor. It was just one year after his Academy Award win that another one of Holden’s films was back in the Best Picture conversation, though like in previous years, his film wouldn’t win Hollywood’s highest honor (which went to On the Waterfront that year).
In The Country Girl, Holden plays Bernie Dodd, a stage director who gives alcoholic has-been Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) a role in his latest musical. Meanwhile, he begins a stormy relationship with the actor’s wife Georgie (Grace Kelly), whom he initially believes is the cause of Frank’s problems. But as he spends more time with the two of them, the dynamics in the marriage become clear.
This was another film in which, while William Holden gives another reliable performance, it’s more focused on his co-stars Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, both of whom earned Oscar nominations for their work in The Country Girl. Kelly, of course, famously went on to win the Academy Award for her performance, and among her competitors was another one of William Holden’s leading ladies that year: Audrey Hepburn in the title role of Sabrina.
The year 1955 was another one which saw two of William Holden’s movies in the Best Picture category, and both films really showed off his stature as the romantic leading man of the decade. In Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, he plays Mark Elliott, an American reporter covering the Chinese Civil War in 1949 Hong Kong, who’s also undergoing a separation from his wife. While there he pursues widowed Eurasian physician Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones). But as the couple falls in love, they encounter disapproval from family and friends for their interracial romance.
Although the film was romantic in nature, William Holden and Jennifer Jones could barely stand each other during the production of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Now at the peak of his career (and his beauty), Holden was the go-to man to pair with Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses, some of which he ended up having personal affairs with. Perhaps knowing of his womanizing ways, Jones purposely put him off by reportedly chewing garlic cloves before performing her love scenes with the actor. Despite their friction off-camera, they still brought some chemistry on-screen, and Jones earned her fifth and last Best Actress Oscar nomination for essentially pretending to be in love with Holden, something that was probably pretty uncommon across movie screens at the time.
Along with Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Picnic was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, which was the only other movie William Holden made in 1955. The actor plays another charming character in the form of Hal Carter, a drifter who visits a small Kansas town of an old college friend named Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), arriving on the day of the community’s Labor Day picnic. Though he was greeted warmly at first, Hal’s welcome quickly turns sour when sparks fly between him and Alan’s girlfriend, town beauty queen Madge Owens (Kim Novak).
While Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing centers on a romance and Picnic features one amongst other dramatic tensions in its storyline, the latter film has what is perhaps William Holden’s most romantic scene, certainly of that year at least. But for Holden, filming the famous Moonglow dance sequence with Kim Novak was a bit of a challenge, despite how effortless it looked on screen. The actor initially didn’t want to do the scene for fear of looking foolish, and even tried getting it cut out of the film by insisting he be paid a “stuntman premium”. But to his surprise, the studio paid him the extra $8,000, and Holden was forced to do the scene… though he performed it under the influence of alcohol.
With Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and Picnic taking up two out of the five spots in the Best Picture line-up, one of William Holden’s films surely had a good chance of taking home the night’s top award. But for the fifth and sixth time, neither of his films that year was deemed Best Picture (with the award going to underdog Marty). It wouldn’t be too long though until one of Holden’s films won that prestigious title…
The Bridge on the River Kwai was the biggest film of William Holden’s career both in scope and acclaim, as it was an enormous success among critics and the public. Being such a major star at the time, Holden was brought onto the film to provide box-office appeal, and as a result, he received the film’s top billing. And while director David Lean had some trouble with most of his actors during the film’s production, he was very fond of Holden and found him to be extremely professional.
Holden plays another one of his trademark cynical characters as Shears, a prisoner in a Japanese camp during World War II in 1943. Soon after a narrow escape, the American soldier joins a plot with the Allies to blow up a railway bridge, which is being built by POWs to aid the war effort of their Japanese captors in cooperation with an obsessive British officer named Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness).
Unlike the previous six films, which won between zero to three of its Oscar nominations, The Bridge on the River Kwai nearly swept the Academy Awards that year, winning seven of its eight nominations, including the coveted Oscar for Best Picture. This was the highest point of William Holden’s career, but as the 1950s came to a close and a new decade arrived, the quality of the actor’s roles and films had noticeably diminished. Though Holden was able to make a comeback in the 1969 western The Wild Bunch, it would be nearly two decades until one of his films was in some serious Oscar consideration again.
Disaster films were practically unavoidable in the early 1970s, as the movies of the genre always featured a noticeably large cast filled with famous faces. So it was only a matter of time until William Holden appeared in one of them. While the quality of these disaster films often leaned toward the low side, The Towering Inferno is easily one of the best and most entertaining of the genre (though Holden himself referred to the film as “lousy”).
Holden plays construction manager Jim Duncan, who has teamed up with architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) to build the world’s largest skyscraper in San Francisco. On opening night for The Glass Tower, which boasts 138 stories, many dignified guests travel up to the building’s highest level to celebrate. But unbeknownst to them, a fire breaks out in a utility room on the 81st floor due to poor wiring. Now the two men must cooperate with Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) to try to save lives and subdue panic before the disaster gets any worse.
William Holden, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen all wanted top billing for The Towering Inferno. As Holden was now a middle-aged man, his box office draw was eclipsed by his younger co-stars, so he instead received third billing. That’s still pretty good considering who else was in the cast, which included Faye Dunaway, previous co-star Jennifer Jones, and Fred Astaire (who received his only Oscar nomination here, ultimately losing Best Supporting Actor to Robert De Niro in The Godfather: Part II, also the year’s Best Picture winner). Interestingly enough, Dunaway was reportedly a problem on set and often upset Holden and Jones for her tardiness (maybe the two found some common ground over this after their previous outing in 1955?). Holden eventually confronted Dunaway about her behavior and threatened her, and after that incident, she had a perfect attendance record for the rest of production. This, of course, wouldn’t be the only time Holden and Dunaway had to work together…
Two years later, William Holden and Faye Dunaway were able to put aside their earlier clashes and even enjoyed a cordial working relationship during the production of Network, a satire about a fictional television network. In the film, Holden plays Max Schumacher, the head of Union Broadcasting System’s news division. His longtime friend Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is a veteran news anchorman who, after getting his two weeks’ notice, breaks down on live TV with an angry rant, which turns out to be a huge ratings boost for UBS. Ambitious producer Diana Christensen (Dunaway) takes notice of the incident and decides to develop even more outrageous programming, rapidly progressing to unsettling extremes to get viewers.
Network was the last truly great film of William Holden’s career, and it also featured one of his very finest performances. His work in the film earned him his third and last Oscar nomination for Best Actor, though he ended up losing to his co-star Peter Finch, who won the award posthumously. Unlike when Sunset Blvd. received nominations in all four acting categories, three of the acting winners for 1976 were for performances in Network, with only Holden and Ned Beatty losing. One interesting tidbit to note: the three that won Oscars (Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight as Max’s wife Louise) all shared scenes with Holden, but did not share any scenes with each other. Meanwhile, Holden didn’t share any scenes with the nominated Beatty… so I think that proves how much of a good luck charm Holden was for the movies.
After Network (which lost the Oscar for Best Picture to another underdog, Rocky), William Holden went on to make seven more films, with his last being S.O.B. in 1981 before his untimely death towards the end of that year at the age of 63.
David Lean believed William Holden’s talent often went unnoticed, feeling it must have been because the actor made everything look so effortless on screen. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, and as evidenced by just the nine films the Academy recognized as contenders for Best Picture in their given years, Holden was also one of the most generous actors in terms of how he interacts with his scene partners, often making sure not to overshadow their big moments. Some of the movies here have aged much better than others, but the common thread in all of them is Holden’s authentic presence.
I wrote this as a part of The 2nd Golden Boy Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about William Holden in honor of his 99th birthday. Click the banner below to read more posts celebrating the talented actor!