best film:  The Wild Bunch. William Holden was in four masterpieces but none better than the 1969 Peckinpah fatalistic western. Holden leads the crew of rugged desperados (excellent work from Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Ernest Borgnine as well) on the run from Robert Ryan. Few could do cranky and world-worn as well as Holden and here he’s just perfect as the conflicted, yet moral, outlaw who has seen it all. Network is the best film from Lumet and Lumet was rated as the 40th best director all time (with two other masterpieces) so that’s saying something. Wilder- the 35th best director of all-time, never made a film better than Sunset Boulevard so clearly Holden was in some superb films. The fourth and final masterpiece is Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai. Holden is outstanding (and lead or co-lead) in all four.

best performance: Network. It was to be Holden’s swan song but Finch (and Dunaway) get the showier role/roles. Yet, to me, it’s Holden that walks away with the best performance of the film. Holden is pragmatism incarnate in so many roles—but this one is so authentic. He’s skeptical (and sympathetic to) Finch’s transformation, and cynically pessimistic of the new younger world around him. The scene where he gets to tell Dunaway off is something any actor must life for-transcendent stuff- a tour de force.

stylistic innovations/traits: Holden was at his best when he was playing a contemptuous bastard or antihero. His Oscar win (3 total noms) came for Wilder’s Stalag 17 and he’s dark—jaded. If you contrast Holden here (or in the four performances above it on my top 10 list)  where he’s always in the know with his naive playboy in Sabrina, I think it’s clear where his talents and limitations lay. He could not play dumb as well as someone like Brad Pitt, Warren Beatty or John Cazale. If you look at this filmography it’s a little light for an actor who was around as long as Holden (nearly 40 years) and during that era. There’s only 15 films overall and after those top five performance there’s only Fedora and The Horse Soldiers that really get me excited to discuss his abilities but still- those top 5 are what they are and specifically he’s genius in four masterpieces. I think there’s less than 10 actors you can say that about. What’s interesting about Holden’s career is that he’s essentially from the golden era (debuted in 1939) but it’s really not until 1950 (with Wilder) that he finds his stride at age 42. It’s tough to be young and cynical. Also, his top two performances come during a stretch dominated by the younger age of Hollywood. Wild Bunch is 1969 and Network is 1976 which is an era dominated by De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson. Holden doesn’t crack the top 15 if it isn’t for these two important films.

directors worked with:   Wilder (4) including three of his top six performances and the one missing, is Sabrina, and that film is excellent as well. Rudolph Maté (2) and then once a piece with David Lean, Ford, Peckinpah, Lumet and Cukor.

Top 10 Performances:

  1. Network
  2. The Wild Bunch
  3. The Bridge On the River Kwai
  4. Sunset Boulevard
  5. Stalag 17
  6. Fedora
  7. The Horse Soldiers
  8. The Dark Past
  9. Union Station
  10. Our Town

Archiveable films

1940- Our Town
1948- The Dark Past
1950- Born Yesterday
1950- Sunset Boulevard
1950- Union Station
1953- Stalag 17
1954- Executive Suite
1954- Sabrina
1954- The Country Girl
1957- The Bridge On the River Kwai
1959- The Horse Solders
1969- The Wild Bunch
1974- The Towering Inferno
1976- Network
1978- Fedora