Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Sardonic Hero

I've been thinking of William Holden this week. Haven't you? Holden was one of the biggest box office stars of the 50s, though his career spanned many more decades. He had great success playing the sardonic hero, illustrated perfectly in his first Oscar nominated role, in Sunset Boulevard. He won the award three years later for playing another sardonic hero in Stalag 17. But earlier in his career, he played some heroes with actual sincerity, as in his first starring role as Golden Boy, and in his performance as the juvenile George in Our Town. He had some success in comedies as well; he played opposite Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, and went blond to romance Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina.

The first time I saw Holden may have been in the Irwin Allen all-star disaster flick The Towering Inferno. I probably wondered who the hell this old dude was, hiding behind those huge glasses. He was in the twilight of his career by then, and didn't look all that healthy, even for his age. Bill battled alcoholism throughout his adult life, even killing someone in Italy in 1966, while he was driving drunk. His long-term relationship with Stephanie Powers late in his life did not give him the impetus to seek treatment; he died in 1981 as a result of a fall in his Santa Monica apartment; he was drunk at the time.

But in the midst of what seemed to be his gradual decline, William Holden appeared in Network. I remembered that fact when I was researching my obit for that film's director, Sidney Lumet. Bill played the moral center of the film, and lots of people have forgotten he was even in the thing. The film's other stars Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, even Beatrice Straight, all had showy moments in the movie, while Holden was the character who reacted to the outlandish goings-on. I think playing that kind of low-keyed, reactive role is much harder than the more extreme ones, and is often overlooked. My theory panned out when Bill lost the Best Actor Oscar to his costar Peter Finch. Finch was nominated for his spectacularly flamboyant performance as a newsman going mad, and cinched the award by dropping dead during the voting period.

You may wonder, what does all this have to do with this week's Dance Party? After all, William Holden never appeared in a musical, never even sang a song in public, as far as I can tell. But he does appear in one of the more seductive dance sequences in American film. The movie is Picnic. In 1955, Bill was reluctant to take on the role of the drifter who causes a lot of sexual panic among some sedate ladies in a small town on Labor Day. Holden was 37 at the time, and the young sexpot with whom he was paired, Kim Novak, was only 23. He shaved his chest and hoped for the best. He was also worried about the dance scene which is one of the cornerstones of the film. Director Joshua Logan took him to some roadhouses in Kansas, where the film was being shot on location, and he practised to jukebox tunes. The actual shooting of this week's Dance Party was complicated by bad weather, so several of the shots had to be recreated on the Hollywood sound stage, where it's said Holden was dead drunk. He was clearly flat-footed and without natural rhythm, but once Kim Novak joins the scene, you may need a cigarette afterwards. In this sensual clip, you'll glimpse not only co-star Novak, but also Susan Strasberg, Rosalind Russell, and Arthur O'Connell. Sunday is William Holden's birthday, so in his honor, and because he really deserved to win the Oscar for Network, here's some moonglow: