Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.38.4: GOLDEN BOY, by Bob Thomas (1983) BR

V038-04_goldenboyFWilliam Holden (nee William Beedle of Franklin, Illinois)) always seemed to me to be playing men who were not necessarily who they wanted to be—always stuck in a persona and circumstances that made them testy and cynical.   His first real role was that way, the Golden Boy (1939), the young boxer who wanted to be a musician; he was the architect who wanted to be a painter in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) [1] , he played Sefton, the guy everybody detested in Stalag 17 (1953), and the recalcitrant Cmdr. Shears in Bridge on the River Kwai.   He made his first big impression as screenwriter-stud Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950), his resonant voice describing how his character came to be floating face down in a swimming pool in that now classic shot from then pool bottom.


I took a more than casual interest in Holden when I wrote about a couple of his romantic roles a few years ago for a conference in Hong Kong. The conference was on Western perspectives of Hong Kong in film and cinema and I took my theme as “Love With a Proper Gweilo ,” [2] about failed romances between Western men and Asian women.   Holden’s characters had a tendency to fall for Asian beauties, so I used him as a model of Western men with that inclination, even proposing that there might be a psychological condition I called “William Holden Syndrome.”   He was, in many respects, the perfect American for such movie roles because he remained seemingly untouched by locale.   I wrote of him in 2000:


“With his handsome features, unadulterated “American” character, self-assurance, and taint of cynicism, William Holden was the ideal casting for the American abroad.   As a journalist ( Love Is . . .), soldier ( Bridge on the River Kwai), or an architect seeking a more artistic muse ( The World of Suzie Wong ), Holden is always his own man, always unwilling to be confined to the accepted norms and social conventions, and always afflicted with some recondite psychic angst.   Of the latter, it can now be made public, he was of course, himself suffering from the syndrome that bears his name.   Holden was always the “American abroad,” even in his native country; a condition that made him the archetype of the man of the world, the model for “the proper gweilo .”

“But sufferers of this syndrome are up against some daunting odds, at least if those odds are to be based on the films and novels that are most often responsible for, and subsequently about, their condition.   Why is it that the romance they find is so often doomed?   “Looking for love in all the wrong places” might be their theme song, because the Orient, as represented in the novel and the film at least, seems to be a place fraught with perils for Occidental men of a romantic-adventurous temperament.”


Later, I read what Thomas wrote of his expatriatism:   “Bill Holden made no effort to learn the languages of the country he lived in or visited.   It was not his style.   He brought an American curiosity to foreign lands, but it did not extend to studying the languages or exploring social issues.   He was ever the traveler, moving on to another place when his curiosity was fulfilled.”   It all comes through in his foreign movies.


No wonder Holden had seemed the perfect model for the eponymous syndrome I created for him, not just in the roles he played, but in what turns out to be his off-screen persona as well. He became what we call an “ex-pat,” buying homes and other properties in Keyna, Hong Kong, and establishing (for tax purposes) a home in Switzerland. Somewhat of a political conservative (though not a vocal or active one), he was skeptical about government, and apparently as cynical in his personal life as he was in the roles he played. He played them convincingly, and won an Academy Award for one of his most cynical roles, in Stalag 17. Such types became his métier.  But they were also his demon.


Holden was so internally-conflicted, and rootless, he was unable to give his commitment to anyone or anything. He all but abandoned his wife and children, became a compulsive globe-trotter, and had few deep friendships and love relationships. He was apparently never faithful to his wife, had affairs with his leaqding ladies, and later in life seemed to need women more as companions and care-takers, although he seemed to resent having to rely on anyone.   His children barely are mentioned in this book.


Holden was one of those actors who was never comfortable with “playing” life (his friend, John Wayne, was another), thought acting somewhat sissified and faux, and yet could not quite achieve a satisfactory reality outside of it either.   His brother joined the Air Force in WWII and was killed in the Pacific; Bill joined up, but never left the States.   Like Wayne and other actors, like Ronald Reagan, he “played” soldiers, but never was one. [3]   He always felt guilty about it.   He also cared little for the Hollywood life, and especially the studio executives, such as Columbia boss, Harry Cohn, who he felt were exploiting him.   He could be reckless, doing dangerous stunts and he drove cars like as maniac.


William Holden held the conflicted elements of his person together with alcohol.   He began drinking and smoking to relax himself before going before the cameras; he never stopped, except in brief periods to dry out in hospitals from his chronic alcoholism.   It ruined his relationships, and aged him prematurely.   He always looked older than his age in his movies, and the booze really showed its effects in his later pictures, like Network, where he was playing the cynic for the final time.   Eventually, it killed him.   At least that is what the coroner concluded when they found his body in his apartment in Santa Monica on November 16, 1981. He apparently had fallen in a drunken stupor, hitting his head on a coffee table and died some time later.  He was only 63. There was no Joe Gillis VO to tell the details.

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.14.2007)

[1] See DCJournal Archive, 7.2: “If You Knew Suzie . . .”     4.13.2004

[2]   in Luk, Thomas Y.T. and James P. Rice, Eds., Before and After Suzie: Hong Kong in Western Film and Literature , (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2002), Pp. 31-45

[3] Reagan later conjured up a false military career.   Carl M.Cannon wrote in The Atlantic Monthly recently (January/February, 2007): “ Ronald Reagan told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, in separate Oval Office visits, that as a young soldier in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, he had filmed the liberation of Nazi death camps; Reagan never served in Europe at all, though his work involved handling footage shot by military cameramen and war correspondents.”