How William Holden aged with dignity onscreen

On a moonlit evening in a movie theater, a couple walks in smiling. She’s snuggled into the crevice of his chest and shoulders. For them, they are the only ones in this crowded theater. They are happy and the audience forgets the major difference between them that is staring at them right in the face. He’s in his fifties, she’s 17. But none of that matters to them in that moment until the man is confronted by his acquaintances who are of his age.

In the 1973 film Breezy, audiences were treated to a different kind of William Holden. Breezy came out four years after The Wild Bunch and audiences were growing accustomed to the older William Holden. Unlike his contemporaries such as Cary Grant, William Holden wasn’t about to retire and would have eleven more pictures left in him after Breezy was completed. Like Holden was in his hey-day, in his later years he was a risk taker. He wasn’t afraid to show his wrinkles, he instead found character in the blemishes that were the result of age and years of hard drinking. He wasn’t afraid to show the good, bad, or the ugly in any film role and he judged scripts by their content.

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In Breezy, Holden portrays jaded real estate agent Frank Harmon. We meet Harmon the morning after a one night stand arranging a taxi for his ‘lady of the evening.’ When she insists he call her, it’s apparent the idea never crossed his mind. He writes her number down and after she leaves, he crumples it up and throws it away in a dish. Harmon is unfeeling and has no interest in getting involved romantically with anyone, he’s only in for the physical. Later that morning, a free spirited hippie arrives at his car just at he’s about to leave for work. He tells her doesn’t pick up hitch hikers hoping she’d leave him alone but she doesn’t take no for an answer. She gets into the front seat of his car and he’s left to deal with her. The moment is a snapshot of the changing attitudes the country was facing at the time the film was made. Breezy, the character, represents the counter culture of the 60’s while Harmon is the establishment. She is carefree and believes in the good in everyone, he is in his later years living his life in routine.

Eventually Harmon’s cold heart is warmed by Breezy and the two embark on a love affair. Her youthful charm breaks down Harmon’s barriers but at one point their age gap is too much for him. Holden plays the complicated Harmon perfectly. He’s what holds the picture together. Many actors would balk at this opportunity. This isn’t a sexy role, at times it’s very awkward but that’s the beauty of it. It’s an honest examination of two very different people who find comfort in each other. He reacts to his feelings in fear because he doesn’t believe there’s a future between them while she is willing to dive headfirst.

breezy_posterPromotional materials for the film stated Breezy would continue the “Holden Romantic Tradition” seen in such films as Sabrina, The Moon is Blue, and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing but Breezy was unlike anything he’d ever done at this point in his career. The film features Holden’s first onscreen sex scene something the actor did not like. For Holden, he believed sex was a private matter unfit for public consumption. The scene, while tame by today’s standards, is quite awkward. It’s not because Holden is old, it’s because Holden’s character finally surrenders to his feelings for Breezy. Holden is able to convey the honesty of his character’s feelings. Out of his personal darkness, he’s come alive because of Breezy. His surrender has opened him up to this new relationship. Later in the film, we see Harmon deal with the objections of his friends and society to this May December romance. In Harmon’s transformation, we see the beauty and strength of William Holden as an actor. I appreciate Holden so much more when examining his later career than I did with his legendary hits because it showed that Holden was always able to remain true to himself.

After watching Breezy, I watched four out of the eleven films he made after it in his life. I chronological order I saw Network, Damien: The Omen II, The Earthling, and S.O.B. Each of these films are so different than the films I know and love of Holden’s body of work but he stands out in each of them in the only way Holden can. Holden was never a showy actor. Like Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, and Robert Mitchum, Holden showed the sides of humanity we come to take for granted when we watch films. We recognized certain ‘Oscar winning roles’ because of the lengths actors took in superficial terms such as crying onscreen, losing weight, and donning prosthetics but with actors like Holden we tend to overlook them because they make acting seem so effortless. In each of these films, his characters are complex men. In Network, we see Holden fall for a younger woman but also speak frankly about confronting death and show guilt for leaving his wife whom he was just unfaithful to. The scene with Beatrice Straight in which Holden reacts shows just how masterful he was as an acting partner. The guilt and sadness in his face reveal the happiness of his once beautiful marriage that has now deteriorated. We don’t hate Holden’s character for the awful thing he did, we understand his pain and the pain he’s inflicted on his wife.

In The Earthling, Holden plays Patrick Foley, a dying man who returns to where his parents settled in hopes of spending his final days there in peace. Foley ends up meeting a young boy whose parents died in a freak accident. Reluctant at first to deal with this kid (played by the adorable Ricky Shroeder), Holden teaches him the art of survival in the Australian outback and the two grow an unforgettable bond. In Damien: The Omen II, Holden’s only horror film he is the elder statesmen in a top-notch cast of legends that include Lee Remick and Lew Ayres. He is the glue holding that film together as a sophisticated businessman whose nephew may or may not be the anti-christ. In S.O.B. while everyone else is going balls to the wall crazy in hilarious antics, Holden is in the background holding everything together as a film director. You never forget he’s there and he never treats the material as if it’s beneath him. He is fully committed in each of these films.

Unlike Bette Davis or Robert De Niro (as we see him now), Holden had the unique ability to age gracefully on screen. He found dignity in strong characters even if the overall material wasn’t the greatest. I can’t imagine Holden being in a film like The Nanny or Bad Grandpa but I’m happy we have this body of work in his later years that show just what a consummate professional he was. Today’s acting world needs more William Holden’s but thanks to the technology, we’ll always have our Golden Boy.

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This post was a contribution to the Golden Boy Blogathon in celebration of Holden’s birthday. For more entries, click here.

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7 thoughts on “How William Holden aged with dignity onscreen

  1. Simoa says:

    What a beautiful post! Really makes me want to rewatch Breezy, which I didn’t quite understand, but appreciated all the same. You’re so right about how acting was effortless with him, how he did age gracefully, showing different sides of humanity.

  2. Julia says:

    Wonderful post, Diana. I 100% agree with you about his effortlessness and full commitment to his roles. He wasn’t acting; he was being. I think it’s no coincidence that the three actors who won Oscars for NETWORK all shared scenes with him. The scene with Beatrice Straight in breaks my heart every time. Don’t get me wrong, Straight is amazing, but that scene wouldn’t work as well as it does without Holden. His reactions are pitch-perfect; any less commitment would have made her look like she was overreacting. The pain they share is real, and it makes you hope that they work it out.

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