William Holden: A Biography (2009) – By James L. Neibaur

It can be assumed that most younger people may only know William Holden, if at all, via his noted appearance on I LOVE LUCY in a classic Hollywood episode that has been rerun constantly since its first telecast in 1955. At that time, Holden was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, at an even greater level than, say, Matt Damon, George Clooney, or Tom Hanks might be today.

Holden’s delightful comic turn on the Lucy program was especially amusing for those of us familiar with his strong dramatic work in such classics as SUNSET BLVD. (1950), STALAG 17 (1953), PICNIC (1955), or BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957). But he was equally at home doing light romantic comedy, as demonstrated in BORN YESTERDAY (1950) or SABRINA (1954).

However, along with being a top star who had his pick of any script being offered during the 1950s, Holden had his share of personal problems, including depression and alcoholism. Those who knew him indicated he was a very private man who never would open up about his problems. Yet he continued turning in fine performances, and working hard to establish wildlife preservation.

A new biography by MIchelangelo Capua from McFarland and Company publishers attempts to delve into this reclusive, private actor’s life based on solid research and interviews.

Less is known about Holden’s earlier films like GOLDEN BOY (1939) in which he plays a concert-level violinist who chooses a career in prizefighting, much to his father’s chagrin; or INVISIBLE STRIPES (1939), a typically tough Warner Brothers gangster drama with Humphrey Bogart and George Raft. But more film enthusiasts are aware of his latter-day performances in Sam Peckinpah’s seminal violent western THE WILD BUNCH (1967) or the caustic NETWORK (1976) opposite an Oscar winning performance by Peter Finch.

Capua’s text on GOLDEN BOY recounts how Holden was on the verge of being replaced on the film after only a week, and that co-star Barbara Stanwyck interceded on his behalf. The text tells us how Holden’s star was on the rise from that point, and how his acting continued to improve to the point where he quickly evolved from fun musicals like THE FLEET’S IN (1942) and B comedies like YOUNG AND WILLING (1943) and found himself in stronger roles and films like Henry Levin’s MAN FROM COLORADO (1949) and Leslie Fenton’s STREETS OF LAREDO (1949) upon returning from service in the military. This led to Billy Wilder casting him in SUNSET BLVD.

In later years, Holden thanked Stanwyck publicly. According to Terry Ellsworth, a friend of Stanwyck’s:

"It was the 50th anniversary of the Oscars. 1978. Holden stated:

‘Before Barbara and I present this next award I’d like to say something. 39 years ago we were making a film together and it wasn’t going very well because I was going to be replaced. But thanks to this lovely woman, her generosity, her professionalism, and above all her integrity and interest, I’m here tonight.’ She looked stunned and surprised and said ‘oh, Bill’ and they embraced to loud applause. Four years later, Stanwyck received her Honorary Oscar, just a few short months after Holden’s death. After receiving it to a standing ovation she gave her thanks and then said: ‘Four years ago, I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar and so tonight my Golden Boy you got your wish,’ and she held it aloft with tears in her eyes.I think both were the only times she was ever so personal in public as that was not her. They were devoted to each other and Holden always credited her with his career. His nickname for her was simply "Queen." Miss Stanwyck said that night that she was stunned he thanked her the way he did and almost couldn’t continue. It meant a lot to her. She also said that for 41 years he sent her two dozen roses on the anniversary of the start date of that picture. I know a little part of her died after he was gone.

Holden was still active at the time of his sudden death. A script was lying on his bedside table when he was found dead in his apartment in 1982. After slipping and falling, Holden hit his head on the corner of the bed frame, causing a gash that reached to his skull. Trying to stop the bleeding with towels, Holden bled to death in about thirty minutes. His blood alcohol level was 0.22 percent, indicating he likely had eight to ten drinks prior to the tragic accident.

Michelangelo Capua’s book gives us real insight into William Holden’s life and career, allowing us a sad understanding of the person’s difficulties and a heartfelt appreciation of the fine cinematic work he left behind.

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