I thought it would be fun to try another monthly series, since I haven’t done that – or much of anything on this blog – in a long while. So, during the month of February I’ll be writing a little something each Wednesday about a man who has long been one of my favorite actors in a low key kind of way, but who has lately become my #1 classic movie obsession – William Holden.
Here he is in New York during the filming of the first movie I ever saw him in, Sabrina. I love this picture! Beautiful city, beautiful car, beautiful man.
In many ways Bill Holden was the quintessential All-American leading man for the 1950s, able to portray wealthy playboys, hardened soldiers, idealistic journalists, ambitious businessmen, and aimless wanderers with equal ease. He acted in war movies and melodramas, as well as in light-as-air romantic comedies and dark film noirs. With his muscular build, strong jaw, deep voice and sensitive yet knowing eyes, Holden embodied much of the post-war masculine ideal. I’ve often thought that Jon Hamm’s Don Draper has more than a little William Holden in him.
Holden was a very versatile actor and one who, once he got away from the fluffy, Mr. Good Guy roles given to him by Columbia Studios in the 1940s, made some very interesting and risky choices. He often played world-weary men with a bit of a cynical edge — or a lot of a cynical edge, as in Stalag 17.
(I’ll be honest, though, I like a lot of those fluffy, Mr. Good Guy roles, too! Meet the Stewarts and Father is a Bachelor, for instance, are very pleasant and fun to watch, even if they aren’t great filmmaking.)
On a shallower note, Holden wasn’t exactly hard to look at! He was incredibly handsome, especially in his movies from the 1950s. He had the most gorgeous, dreamy smile. You can see that swoon-causing grin in this video of him giving Audrey Hepburn her Oscar. How adorable are those two? Super adorable! (More on the love affair between Hepburn and Holden later this month.)
Holden was quite the hunky sex symbol, often appearing on screen shirtless. In Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Sunset Boulevard and many more, if Bill was on screen that shirt was coming off. I can’t exactly complain about that aspect of his screen presence!
Holden didn’t seem to be stuffy, or to take himself too seriously. The episode of I Love Lucy in which he guest stars is my favorite from the entire series, in large part because of how much fun he is in it.
He led a fascinating off-screen life and was an intelligent man with many varied interests. The wildlife foundation which bears his name is testament to just one of those interests. Of course his life had a dark side too – an unhappy marriage, multiple infidelities, and the alcoholism which would eventually lead to a tragic and senseless death at too young an age.
But it’s William Holden’s many wonderful movies and fine performances I want to focus on this month, because ultimately they’re why he should be remembered and celebrated.
For the first William Holden Wednesday of the month I want to talk briefly about two movies from his career, made 20 years apart. Looking at these two films together, you can’t help but marvel at just how much the world and the movie industry changed between the 1950s and the 1970s.
The Moon is Blue (1953)
The Moon is Blue stars William Holden along with Maggie McNamara (probably best remembered for her role in 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain) and David Niven. It’s an innocent little romantic comedy when seen today, but when it came out in 1953 it was terribly scandalous.
The characters use the words “virgin” and “pregnant.” McNamara’s character bluntly asks Holden’s if he has a mistress, and hopes he won’t be too bored with her virginity since she’d enjoy a little affection, even if she doesn’t want to go all the way.
It’s implied that William Holden’s character has slept with his ex-girlfriend, who tries to lure him back by meeting him dressed in nothing but a mink coat. “She has a very pretty chin,” says McNamara, looking at the girl’s picture. “She’s very pretty all over,” says Holden appreciatively.
David Niven is the ex-girlfriend’s playboy father, who is much less distressed by his daughter’s shenanigans than he ought to be. Niven has some great lines in this movie, and he delivers them with his usual polished wit.
The film’s director, Otto Preminger, refused to change the play on which the movie was based in order to clean up the story’s “immoral” words and attitudes, thus forgoing the approval of the almighty Hays office. Watching the movie now it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about. It’s fairly tame and mildly cute, though Maggie McNamara is a little on the annoying side. For me it’s the presence of Holden at his most gorgeous and Niven at his most roguish that makes the movie worth checking out.
Plus, it’s an interesting bit of Hollywood history, since it was one of the first movies to take a crack at the Production Code that had been in effect since 1934. Here’s an excerpt. Don’t you feel faint when the word “virgin” is uttered? Shocking, my dears, just shocking!
Fast-forward 20 years, and oh how things have changed! Breezy, directed by Clint Eastwood, is far less innocent and tame than The Moon is Blue, and yet to my knowledge it caused no great scandal upon its release. On the contrary, Eastwood’s biographer Richard Schickel believed that the sexual content of the film’s love scenes was too tame, which probably led to the movie not being a success when it came out. This in spite of nudity and some frank, if not explicit, sexuality.
Breezy is the story of a sweet-natured, free-spirited 19-year-old hippie (Kay Lenz in the title role) who meets and falls in love with a jaded middle-aged man played by William Holden.
Holden is bitterly divorced and has no interest in committing to another woman or in opening his heart to anyone again. Lenz’s Breezy, on the other hand, is all open heart, full of love and hope in spite of the sadness in her past. Against his will and better judgment, and in the face of ridicule from his friends, the fiftysomething man finds himself falling hard for the wise-beyond-her-years flower child. Here’s the trailer.
Breezy is surprisingly sweet and oddly romantic in spite of the May/December (really more like February/December!) angle. Although Holden’s looks weren’t what they used to be, years of alcoholism having taken their toll, he was still a wonderful actor. It was a brave role for him to have taken on, I think, and his portrayal is touching in its vulnerability. I wasn’t sure I’d like Breezy when I first started watching it, I suppose because I feared a love story about a very young woman and a much older man might be creepy or exploitative. It didn’t strike me that way, however. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
The Moon is Blue is available from the Warner Archive and also airs on TCM now and then. Breezy is available on DVD and streams free for Amazon Prime members. Both are well worth checking out.
See you next week for more William Holden!