William holden: a different kind of hero

William Holden: A Different Kind of Hero
By Sheila O’Malley

“I feel lousy about the pain that I’ve caused my wife and kids. I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency. And I miss my home, because I’m beginning to get scared shitless, because all of a sudden it’s closer to the end than the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me, with definable features.”
– William Holden as Max Schumacher in Network –

William Holden’s face, with its deep crags, blazing blue eyes, and the seriousness behind the straight-up all-American handsomeness, tells the story of the man’s life better than any biography could. David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film writes:

“For Holden, at the end, could look like the most “used” person in Hollywood… The look of pain sustained

two fine films – The Wild Bunch and Network – so that we rubbed our eyes to recall the fresh-faced enthusiast from Golden Boy.”

Even as a young man, with all his simple athletic ease, there was a darkness there, an emotional distance, at odds with his socially acceptable “golden boy” looks. Holden was always a surprise. To me, his journey as an actor embodies a certain kind of American man. You’d never catch William Holden playing a do-gooder. You’d never catch Holden being pious or earnest in his intentions. Bogart played similar types, most famously in Casablanca, where he states, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Of course, the truth is always a bit more complicated, because Rick in Casablanca ends up committing the most selfless act of all, for the good of democracy round the world. And Holden as Sefton, the prisoner of war in Stalag 17, insists over and over again that he is in this thing for himself – if he’s going to escape it’ll be on his own steam, he’ll use the black-market for all it is worth, and if the group goes down, you can bet he won’t go down with it. But slowly you realize that he, with his staunch individuality, his refusal to compromise, his willingness to be misunderstood, is the biggest hero of them all. In regards to Sefton, his favorite character in any of his movies, director Billy Wilder said:

“I liked having him around… The idea of making him a braggart… then we find out slowly that he is really a hero. As he pleads there with that lieutenant at the end, he tucks his head out again, from the hole they have there in the barracks, and says, ‘If I ever see any of you mugs again, let’s just pretend that we don’t know each other.’ And off he goes. And he only does it because the mother of the lieutenant who is captured is a rich woman, and he’s gonna get ten thousand dollars. He’s no hero, he’s a black-market dealer – a good character, and wonderfully played by Holden.”

For those who wish their morality to be black and white, who see the world in an oppositional way (good over HERE, bad over THERE), William Holden will be a deeply confrontational performer. He may do good, but it will come off as bad. He may do good, but he will never wish to be congratulated for it. Holden sticks his neck out for no one. His characters have a deep suspicion towards any group dynamic. He resists consensus politics. He stands apart. He observes, evaluates, holds his cards close to his chest. He is willing to come across as cold if that will preserve his integrity. This is quite a rare quality, not just in actors, but in anyone…



William holden: a different kind of hero