best film:   The Wild Bunch. William Holden has four (4) films to choose from at the top – in chronological order there is Sunset Boulevard, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch, and Network. The 1969 fatalistic Sam Peckinah western stands alone at the top (and is the sole top 100 film). Holden leads the crew of rugged desperados (excellent work from Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Ernest Borgnine, and an unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien as well) on the run from Robert Ryan. Few could do cranky and world worn as well as Holden and here he is just perfect as the conflicted, yet moral, outlaw who has seen it all. Network and Sunset Boulevard are right there – but Sidney Lumet and Billy Wilder did not quite have the talent Sam Peckinpah did (though they both had much longer careers spanning decades). The fourth and final film near the top for Holden is David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai. Holden is outstanding (and lead or co-lead) in all four.


The Wild Bunch (1969)  is doggedly nihilistic, immaculately photographed (Lucien Ballard as director of photography) and perfectly performed by the talented ensemble of actors – led by Holden here with dialogue like “$10,000 cuts an awful lot of family ties”. This is a colossal achievement for Holden (and to a slightly lesser extent Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Edmond O’Brien with that memorable laugh – there is a little Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre there).


best performance: Network. It was to be Holden’s swan song, but Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway get the showier roles. Yet, it is Holden that walks away with the single best performance of the film. Holden is pragmatism incarnate in so many roles – but this one is just so authentic … naked. . He is skeptical (and sympathetic to) Finch’s transformation/mental state, and cynically pessimistic of the new younger world around him. The scene where Holden gets to tell Dunaway off is a scene any actor would kill for – gut wrenching stuff – a tour de force.


Holden as the veteran television executive Max Schumacher – Holden is at his best when he is skeptical of everything and everyone.


stylistic innovations/traits: William Holden was at his best when he was playing a contemptuous bastard or jaded hero. His Oscar win (only three total nominations which is light) came for Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 and he is self-centered, burnt out, angry.  If one were to contrast Holden in his big four performances where he is always in the know ,with his naive playboy in Sabrina, it is obvious where his talents and limitations lie. He could not play dumb as well as someone like Warren Beatty or John Cazale. What’s interesting about Holden’s career is that that he is essentially from the golden era (debuted in 1939) but it is really not until 1950 (with Billy Wilder – who proclaimed him the ideal motion picture actor) that he finds his stride. So he was in his twenties in the 1940s but did not have much of a career to speak of.  It is tough to be young and sardonic – so stepping back and looking at his career in total – to finally find himself at that age makes sense.. 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, Hackman, Hoffman.


Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai. In three of Holden’s best roles, he shares the screen with actors giving louder performances (Alec Guinness here, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Bouldevard, Peter Finch in Network) – but it is Holden that walks away with the more nuanced performance.


directors worked with:  Billy Wilder (4), Rudolph Maté (2), Rouben Mamoulian (1). George Cukor (1), Robert Wise (1), David Lean (1), John Ford (1), Sam Peckinpah (1), Clint Eastwood (1). Sidney Lumet (1)


Holden in Sunset Boulevard. The four films with with Wilder (especially Boulevard and Stalag 17) changed the trajectory of Holden’s career.


top five performances:

  1. Network
  2. The Wild Bunch
  3. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  4. Sunset Boulevard
  5. Stalag 17


archiveable films

1939- Golden Boy
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 Soldiers
1969- The Wild Bunch
1973- Breezy
1974- The Towering Inferno
1976- Network
1978- Fedora