Saturday, December 28, 2013

Antiheroes Never Die 
The Life & Strange Death of William Holden
 
Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
      Born William Franklin Beedle, Jr., the son of an industrial chemist, the man who would soon be called William Holden left Illinois in the late Thirties to become one of the most famous Hollywood stars the world has ever known. By the time the 1980s rolled around he was a divorced father of three living a near hermetic life in a Santa Monica, CA apartment on Ocean Avenue. It would be at this address, the Shorecliff Towers, room 43 on the fourth floor where William Holden's life would come to a tragic end. The Academy Award and Emmy winning actor of over 70 films would leave behind an impressive body of work spanning more than 40 years in front of the camera. His final act however could not have been imagined even by Joe Gillis, the cynical screenwriter turned gigolo he played to such perfection in Billy Wilder's immortal classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). Holden won his only Best Actor Oscar for another Wilder movie, Stalag 17 (1953), which takes place inside a Luftwaffe P.O.W. camp. While the setting doesn't exactly reek of comic potential, the film was a precursor to the television show Hogan's Heroes which had its premiere in 1965. Holden's portrayal of the craggy, opportunistic downed airman, Sefton, is one of the only viable things the film has to offer. As he gets beaten up and left hung out to dry by his fellow prisoners (one of which is the same Nazi spy he's been accused of being), the gears in Sefton's mind slowly begin to turn as he sets a plot in motion to uncover the real rat. It's a near flawless performance, coupled with the knockout one he gave for Wilder a few years prior, and very easy to see why the Academy would choose that particular time to honor him.
as Pike in Sam Peckinpah's iconic The Wild Bunch (1969)
 
Just as comfortable in romantic leads as he was blowing up bridges in another prisoner-of-war picture, this time David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), arguably Holden's two best performances would come late in his career. The first was for director Sam Peckinpah, inspired by the graphic violence and elegant use of slow motion action sequences seen in Kurosawa's John Ford-inspired samurai epics, The Wild Bunch (1969) would provide western fans with a new classic that nearly redefined a whole genre. Holden's tough-as-nails antihero Pike Bishop would prove to be a drastic change of pace as well as an all-time career high. The next heavyweight role he would get would sadly be the last noteworthy one of his long career. In Sidney Lumet's prescient Network (1976), Holden would earn his final Academy Award nomination playing an over-the-hill, jaded television exec who cheats on his wife then has the nerve to confide in her about how his mistress may just be using him. Complex barely begins to describe the character, and Holden made this otherwise self-serving bastard somehow likeable and deserving of our pity. Holden would lose the Oscar to his more flamboyant costar, Australian Peter Finch who died shortly after filming and was the first posthumous winner of the Best Actor award (later achieved by Heath Ledger for Supporting Actor), but everyone (including Holden himself) knew that Holden acted his guts out in that film and deserved to win it.
Network (1976) for which Holden received his last Academy Award nomination
Fast forward to early November, 1981. By this point, Holden had lived quite a full life. In addition to his film and television career (and winning an Emmy for Joseph Wambaugh's The Blue Knight), earning a reputation as a serious ladies man (having relationships with several lovely co-stars including French actress Capucine and Audrey Hepburn), killing a man in Italy in a drunk driving incident (some might say Holden got away with a slap on the wrist) and being best man at Ronald Reagan's wedding to Nancy in 1952, Holden is perhaps best known for being one of the first truly involved and passionate wildlife preservationists on the Hollywood scene. It was a passion he shared with his longtime girlfriend, actress Stefanie Powers and one that would remain central to him all the way to the end.

"Bill" Holden and Batian the cheetah in Kenya
No one knows exactly what transpired on the day Holden died, but his body was found at least four days later (Monday, November 16, 1981) by building manager Bill Martin who hadn't seen the reclusive Holden for several days and let himself into the apartment out of curiosity. Los Angeles County Coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi concluded that Holden (with a blood alcohol level of .22 percent) had slipped getting out of bed on a scatter rug and gashed his forehead open on the edge of a bedside table. It was reported that all of the lights were off except for a television when Martin (with the use of a flashlight) stumbled onto the scene. It appeared to Martin that Holden may have been attempting to put on his robe when he finally became unconscious after obtaining the severe three-inch head laceration. There was a considerable amount of blood, rigor mortis and maggots associated with the body, already in a state of advanced decomposition. Holden's dental records were allegedly ordered for identification purposes.
Holden's autopsy report showing the 3" laceration on his forehead
The Coroner concluded that there was no evidence of foul play. Holden simply fell, or slipped on a rug, and hit his head so hard that he drove the teak nightstand into the wall leaving a three or four inch indentation in the plaster. He likely died from severe blood-loss within 15-minutes. Ironically, there was a phone next to him within arm's reach, and a pool of blood that had incidentally formed in a tissue box. It's entirely possible that Holden didn't realize the severity of his wound, especially in a drunken state, or he was instantly too delirious to call for help. In either case, he may have simply passed out from the head trauma. When former girlfriend Powers heard about the incident, she was on her way to work on the hit television show Hart to Hart. Clearly devastated by the news, and in a daze, she received comfort from her friend and co-star Robert Wagner, but it was to be short-lived. Wagner's own life would take a devastating turn only a couple weeks later, when his wife Natalie Wood (whom he had remarried for a second time) drowned to death (she was terrified of the water) near their yacht Splendour off Catalina Island. Wagner along with actor Christopher Walken were somewhere on board the yacht when the mysterious incident occurred. Powers, still in shock from her own grief stated: "Tell me this all isn’t true." She would go on to set up a wildlife foundation in Holden's name.
with Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954) directed by Billy Wilder
William Holden's final role was in Blake Edwards' S.O.B. (1981), a dark satire centered around Hollywood and the movie industry. In the film, Holden plays a film director and friend to a suicidal movie producer who finally gets his wish and goes out in a blaze of glory. Holden's character with the help of some friends kidnap the producer's body (in a nod to an infamous Hollywood legend surrounding the death of actor John Barrymore and his friends the Bundy Drive Boys) and give him a grand burial at sea. Oddly enough, this would mirror Holden's own last wishes. His will specified that his cremated remains be handed over to the Neptune Society and scattered into the Pacific Ocean. He also requested no official funeral or memorial service be held. William Holden made a good living in Hollywood. His most memorable parts were usually characters who skirted the edge of morality, and did so with a large dose of charm. As for his family, friends and legions of fans the world over, as well as lovers of classic Cinema in general, the memory of William Holden will live forever. But man, what a way to go.

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