William Holden (1918 – 1981) was an unknown in Hollywood in 1938; yet, he was given the desperately sought after lead in boxing movie, Golden Boy (1939). Upon its released, it became an instant success, and so did Holden. This was his screen debut; and, much of his success he gallantly attributed to his co-star Barbara Stanwyck, who took the 20-year-old under her wing. From 1939 to the year of his his death, on April 1st, he sent her flowers as a reminder that he will always be thankful for her friendship and support. This speaks volumes about the character of William Holden.
Unfortunately, my appreciation of Holden came much later in my life. Part of the reason why I didn’t get caught up in the awe-inspiring Holden might be because of my mother. They belonged to the same generation. She was born in March; and, he was born in April of the same year. I avoided most of his movies because I didn’t understand my Mom’s enthusiasm over his work. As a typical teenager in angst, I wanted to distance myself from my mother’s tastes and opinions. During the 60s and 70s, there truly was a generation gap.
To my mother, Holden always appeared young, talented, and engaging
She also saw him as the romantic, handsome actor in a leading role.
I tried to watch one of his movies on television when I was ten years old. I watched Stalag 17 (1953). Realistically, I was too young to understand this WWII war movie. As a kid, I heard so much about him that it was like watching a family member suffering at the hands of his “friends.” When he received a brutal beating for being an assumed traitor, it traumatized me. Now, it sounds silly; but at that time, it was painful. After that experience, I didn’t want to watch any of his movies again. That is, until 35 years later.
When my mother passed away in 2002, I stayed home from work, sick. Needing a distraction from feeling miserable, I turned on the television and began watching Turner Movie Classics (TMC). It was airing Born Yesterday (1950). As I watched it, I thought about my mom and what her reaction might have been as she had watched it. Then, I started to laugh. Eventually, I enjoyed the movie for its own merits.
Like most people, as I have matured, so has my tastes and perceptions. For me, William Holden’s work became an acquired taste. Now, each time when I watch one of his movies, I marvel at how wonderful he is on the screen. Born Yesterday (1950) was the first movie that I truly enjoyed watching. Then, came Sabrina (1954) followed by Stalag 17 (1953), again! He won his only Oscar for his role in this movie. But, the best movie, for me was Sunset Boulevard (1950). However, for this post, I decided to write about the movie that begun my appreciation of all Holden movies: Born Yesterday.
Link for Movie Trailer for Born Yesterday
Born Yesterday (1950) and some kudos too
Judy Holiday was a successful stage actress who played Billie Dawn on stage. She was a newcomer by Hollywood’s standards. It was quite shocking to many people when she won an Oscar for her performance. Holiday’s Oscar completion that year was Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, and Eleanor Parker in Caged, not too shabby to say the least. Holden was also nominated as Best Actor in Sunset Boulevard.
Many of Holden films were acclaimed; but, when it came to winning an Oscar, he described it like this to film critic, Roger Ebert:
Apart from winning for “Stalag 17,” I’ve been the bird in a lot of badminton games where other people won.
As you watch Holiday’s Oscar winning performance, let me assure you that Holiday, herself, is not a “dumb Blonde.” There have been reports that her IQ was 171. I tell you this just in case you confuse the actress with her part in this movie.
Born Yesterday Movie Summary
Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is a self-made tycoon who has more money than he can ever spend with an insatiable appetite for power. His business is in
steel junk. Like all filthy rich men, he has come to Washington D.C. to buy a senator. He brings with him his girlfriend of seven years, Billie Dawn (Judy Holiday). Billie is an ex showgirl who is barely literate. Harry and his 100,000 lawyer use Billie to sign most the business transactions to give Harry protection from his illegal practices
To help smooth out Harry’s reputation in D.C., his lawyer hires a free-lance journalist, Paul Verrall (William Holden), to write a glowing interview about the millionaire. As the lawyer explains, Paul is one of the reporters to watch out for. If Harry “takes him in” then, he has nothing to worry about later.
However, during an initial meeting with the senator and his wife, Billie embarrasses Harry with her lack of social graces and general knowledge about the nation’s capitol. The lawyer asks Harry why not send her home. Harry says he thinks he is in love with the “dumb broad” and wants to keep her around: They enjoy playing Gin Rummy.
Then, his lawyer suggests that Harry hires Paul Verrall to not only write an interview about him but to also tutor Billie about Washington and its politics. Unbeknownst to Harry, Paul had briefly spoke to Billie just before as he met Harry for the first time. Harry offers him $200.00 a week and Paul agrees. When Harry asks Paul why he agreed to tutor Billie, Paul says he loves to educate voters about their government. He then admits that he would have done it for nothing (He does not add because he had already met Billie).
Paul later explains to Billie, A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in. He explains further that a democracy is only as good as the people in it; and all the bad in the world is bred by selfishness. Surprisingly, Billie is a quick learner. She and Paul develop a mutual respect for each other while falling in love too.
You naturally feel sorry for Billie because Harry degrades her at every turn. He constantly yells at her to shut up! When Harry wants to prove how “stupid” she is to Paul, he asks her “What is a peninsula?” Billie says, “it is some kind of medicine.”
Later, Paul asked Billie if she knew what Democracy was. She answers, “yeah, that means not Republican.” Later, when Billie begins to question Harry’s intelligence and his illegal practices, he begins to suspect what it is she is actually learning. Billie asks Harry who was Thomas Paine (Common Sense, 1776). Harry does not have a clue. He becomes angry and yells at Paul that he is not paying him to teach Billie about dead people: I am paying you to teach her how to act with live people.
While things heat up between Paul and Billie, things go sour for Harry and Billie. The lawyer persuades Harry to propose marriage to Billie since she owns more of the company, on paper, than he does. Besides, the lawyer warns, a wife cannot testify against her husband in a court of law. This would further protect Harry in his illegal dealings.
Meanwhile, Paul gives Billie books, newspapers, and visits to historical monuments, museums, and government buildings. During it all, they discuss political ideas and the ideas behind the concepts of liberty and equality. Charming Paul is kind and patient as he strives to help her realize there so much more to life and to learn. I really enjoyed the scenes filmed in the D.C. area as Billie is learning about the struggle for freedom. It is in these scenes that we see her begin to discover her own individual power too.
I don’t want to give away spoilers, at least not any more than I have already. I hope you have the opportunity to watch this classic. It is interesting to compare how much has changed and evolved in U.S. politics and in our civil rights since the making of this film in 1950.
Some Closing Thoughts About William Holden
Holden’s movie career span was over 40 years and included over 75 movies. However, not all was Golden, in his life. Despite a few professional setbacks, I also learned that he had some very sad days in his personal life. He and his youngest brother, Bobbie, served in the military during WWII. Robert was a Navy fighter pilot and was killed in action (1944). Much later, in 1966, he was in a car accident where alcohol was involved and a person died. To have experienced these two horrific tragedies would have caused an enormously amount of sadness in anyone’s life. It is not too surprising that he battled with alcoholism for years.
Holden died four months after the release of his last movie, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (1981). Sadly, many people remember his death first before they recall his movies. They recall the tragic circumstances that surrounded it: it was accidental, he was alone, and he was not discovered for days.
Fortunately, there is an overabundance of wonderful things to say about his work and his life. For those who were lucky enough to have known him, he was described as a gentleman who was kind and honest. To his peers, he was fun to work with and was the calming force for many on set. To his fans, he will always be one of Hollywood’s finest actors. To my personal delight, I also learned he managed/ partnered a wildlife preserve in Africa: A man after my own heart.
William Holden always played the worldly, intelligent cynic. A witty hero who was slightly tainted as to not to be confused with a generic Prince Charming or Golden Boy. The characterization of his roles were complex with layers upon layers of good and not so good personal traits. His portrayals were believable enough to convince you that you might have met this person or someone like him, in real life. One of his gifts as an actor was to convey a sense of realism in all of his roles.
I hope you will read more Blog posts about William Holden and his movies. With that, I would like to thank Virginie Pronovost at The Wonderful World of Cinema for hosting The Second William Holden Blogathon.
Use the following link to read more blogging tributes to a great actor and his work.
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