William Holden and Billy Wilder : A Frendship Behind Masterpieces

Once in a while, the wonderful world of cinema creates matches made in Heaven (or wherever) when considering working collaborations between people in the film industry. We can think of actors and or/actresses who collaborated on many occasions due to their obvious chemistry, their power to make us laugh, or make a romantic comedy a classic. We can think of duos like Myrna Loy and William Powell, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, John Wayne and Claire Trevor. However, those magical cinematographic teams sometimes involve people working behind the camera (think Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann) or both a cast member and a crew member. That latest idea interests us for today’s article because it’s about William Holden and Billy Wilder, their teamwork and friendship!

I am writing on that subject for The 5th Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Celebration hosted this weekend by Yours Truly, The Flapper Dame and Love Letters to Old Hollywood! As usual, writing about William Holden is a treat. Add Billy Wilder, one of my most favourite directors, to the lot: it becomes a double treat.

When thinking of Billy Wilder and William Holden, the first thing that’ll come to people’s mind is the four films they made together, more exactly Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954) and Fedora (1978). However, the idea is not to review the four films, as some of the blogathon participants are already doing so, and it’s not the article’s point. Instead, it’s to discuss their behind-the-scene context and how the two men’s friendship evolved while collaborating. Since we didn’t see them together, it’s a friendship that becomes easy to forget, contrary to William Holden and Glenn Ford’s friendship (another interesting topic!). However, if I could just say a quick word on those four films, is that I recommend you to see them all. Of course, Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 are masterpieces. Still, Sabrina is a charming romantic comedy and Fedora is too often overlooked. They all have something making them worthwhile of your time.

While researching the subject, what I realised about that bromance is that Holden and Wilder brought the best out of each other, especially professionally. After all, it was a friendship built on a career. That is well-resumed in an article from Vulture. Angelica Jade Bastién observes that the actor delivered some of his best performances with George Cukor (Born Yesterday), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Billy Wilder. She develops her point with the idea that those three directors “knew how to tap into his contradictions.” They saw in this actor, who, for a decade, mostly played the handsome boy-next-door, a potential for darker material and performances. Looking more precisely at his collaborations with Wilder, Bastién explains that the director understood how to play with the actor’s contradictions and dig into his “darkly cynical interior” hidden behind his good look. Without that eye for hidden talent, Holden might have never made films like Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 and might not have had a career in the New Hollywood era. In other words, we’re glad the actor and the director crossed each other’s paths.

But where and how did it all start?…

The fact that, on more than one occasion, Holden wasn’t Billy Wilder’s first choice for his films could almost be labelled as a running gag. Before making Sunset Boulevard, their first collaboration, the two of them were aware of each other’s existence, but that’s about it. Initially, Montgomery Clift was considered for the role. I’m sure he would have been great too. Still, it would have been a slightly different product as Clift’s acting was, in my opinion, noticeably different from Holden’s. However, the actor changed his mind two weeks before filming. He chose to abandon the project based on the recommendation of his friend and mentor, actress Libby Holman who suggested he break his contract. Empty-handed, different options were offered to Wilder in replacement to Clift for the role of Joe Gillis: Fred MacMurray, Gene Kelly and Marlon Brando. But, for various reasons, none of them was considered. However, let’s not forget that Fred MacMurray collaborated with Wilder on two occasions: before Sunset Boulevard in Double Indemnity (1944) and after in The Apartment (1960). However, I prefer him in comic roles. Brando, who only had one film to his active (and a career on Broadway), could have been a decent second choice. Still, life decided otherwise, and he had the occasion to make his proofs on many occasions throughout his career.

So enters William Holden, the one we call The Golden Boy because of his first credited role, Golden Boy ( Rouben Mamoulian, 1939). While the film was not necessarily a masterpiece, it reminded a considerable product and a way to put a young Holden on the map subtly. However, that was perhaps not enough since a decade of forgettable movie roles followed. While some sources describe Holden’s career in the 40s as forgettable and unimpressive, it doesn’t mean it’s unworthy and that you shouldn’t consider it in your exploration of the actor’s career. Yes, these are “smaller” films. They’re not “Oscar pictures” like The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) or Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). However, some are little hidden gems and introduce a funny, lovable and overall just adorable William Holden. I can think of titles like The Remarkable Andrew (Stuart Heisler, 1942) or Dear Ruth (William D. Russell, 1947). He also made what I consider an excellent western: Arizona (Wesley Ruggles, 1940), sharing the screen with Jean Arthur. Anyway, it’s maybe not so much the films themselves that unimpressed but that Holden didn’t have the chance to develop his acting into something outstanding.

When Wilder was looking for a replacement for his Joe Gillis, he and Holden were working at Paramount (Holden often alternating between that and Columbia, based on an agreement between the two studios). Wilder, who had run into Holden a few times, thought of the actor for the role. After a few drinks and discussions, he saw the actor’s potential to make Joe Gillis a credible character. There seems to be a contradiction between the sources on how Holden eventually accepted the role. According to Holden’s biographer Bob Thomas, the enthusiastic actor wasn’t hard to convince after reading the unfinished script, answering with a motivated “I like it! Let’s do it! Let’s Go!” Although Pike Bishop’s catchphrase would have been the idealistic answer, according to Wilder himself, the actor was reluctant to share the screen with Gloria Swanson, and studio head Henry Ginsberg had to force him. That was perhaps a blessing in disguise, as that role is known today as the one that savec Holden’s career, and it’s indeed one of his bests. On my side, it’s by seeing Holden as Joe Gillis that I became fascinated and quickly obsessed with him. IMDb is also more optimistic when writing that the actor soon accepted the role (after Ginsberg came into the picture? Who knows…?). He saw good potential for his career and the opportunity to play a bitter and cynical character, therefore contrasting his previous roles. In conclusion, he saw that as a way to prove his versatility once and for all.

Of course, making that film didn’t only push Holden’s career towards success. It was also the beginning of a beautiful friendship. However, it was with a guy named Billy instead of Louis. Holden didn’t only receive his first of three Oscar nominations thanks to that film; he also won the friendship of a director who had the guts to believe in him and give him what was perhaps the most subtle but valuable advice for him to improve his performance and increase his self-confidence. When the actor would confess to Wilder his difficulty to “get” the character, one far different from the one he had portrayed before (at the exception, maybe, of The Dark Past) – he told him: “That’s easy. Do you know Bill Holden?… Then you know Joe Gillis.” And undeniably, Holden (reluctant or not to make the film in the first place) understood its importance in his career, especially when a young actor asked him for suggestions to become a star. To what, he answered, “Well, you gotta have it.” And by it, he meant Sunset Boulevard. Nancy Olson, who shared the screen with Holden in Boulevard and two other films, remembers how the actor became a promising star as they were shooting: “What happened was wonderful and fascinating. Bill emerged as a man of many colors. How he was showing us that he could portray weakness and dishonesty, a little bit of depravity, sadness, lostness. Something happened to him after Sunset Boulevard – he became an honest-to-goodness, real star. And something more important happened to him. He caught the attention of Billy Wilder and became a true friend of Billy’s.” It’s beautiful to see how people believed in Holden and here for him, not ready to let go of the actor’s immense potential. Still to this day, Holden remains an underrated actor despite being a film star. He didn’t become an icon like Cary Grant or his on-screen partner Audrey Hepburn did. But he perhaps had one of Hollywood’s most exciting and versatile careers. I mean, from Golden Boy to S.O.B. Enough said.

1950: From left to right, actress Gloria Swanson (1899 – 1983), Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons (1880 – 1972), actor William Holden (1918 – 1981) and director Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002) in conversation during the filming of ‘Sunset Boulevard’. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Overall, Wilder found a friend in Holden but also understood he made the right decision by casting him, Monty Clift being a story of the past. About the actor’s performance, the director observed, “He looked like a writer, he wore the suits like it, he talked like it”, which was what was expected of Joe Gillis. Wilder, also a renowned screenwriter, knew what he was talking about.

Even though Holden made his proof and had entered Wilder’s social circle, he was still not the first choice for the next film he made with him: Stalag 17. Charlton Heston (whom, at the time, yet had to make his most famous movies) was the first choice but declined due to the lack of heroism in J.J. Sefton. The second choice was… Kirk Douglas (still not Holden). He also declined but later admitted it was a mistake. I can see why he thought so. Although he goes in a particular direction, it’s the kind of character that still leaves a lot of potential for different interpretations. However, although it’s the type of character that would have fitted Kirk Douglas perfectly, I believe we would have known what to expect. Holden had more surprise in reserve. Still, he was the third choice (poor Bill). As he happened to be in New York for some publicity, Wilder, still looking for his perfect Sefton, asked him to see the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski the film was based on. The play didn’t leave Holden very enthusiastic. After the first act, he left the theatre partly because he couldn’t relate to the character. Wilder asked him for a second chance and to read his first script insisting on wanting him for the role even tho he was not the first choice. And Holden knew it. Wilder eventually convinced him by reminding him of his successful performance in Sunset Boulevard. Holden often insisted that Sefton should show more contempt towards the Germans. Wilder refused, which is a good thing because it leaves us uncertain about his character until we know the truth about the whole thing.

Although there were some disagreements on the nature of the character portrayed by Holden, on a personal level, that collaboration cemented their friendship even more. Following the production, Holden and his wife, actress Brenda Marshall travelled to Europe (the first time for Holden), accompanied by Wilder and his wife, actress Audrey Young. A born European (Austrian), Wilder made sure to plan a busy itinerary to make them discover some beautiful corners of Europe. He led them to Paris, Vienna, Berlin. As they were in Bad Ischl, Austria, Holden insisted on relaxing the next day as he was exhausted. However, at 6 am, Wilder was ready in the lobby to take his friend for more touristic and cultural adventures. Holden later declared that it was one of the most wonderful days of his life. Because he was in Austria, one of the most beautiful countries in Europe, and with someone with whom his friendship was growing faster and faster, we believe him. Interestingly, we know that another of Wilder’s frequent collaborators was Jack Lemmon (who starred in five of his films). After they shot The Apartment, Wilder took him on a European tour to make him discover his culture, just like he had done with Bill. That desire to show your past and history, wanting to share a bit of yourself, is a sign of trust and a desire to create even stronger bonds.

Wilder, Billy (*22.06.1906-27.03.2002+) , Regisseur, Drehbuchautor, USA, – v.l.n.r.: Mrs. Wilder, William Holden, Billy Wilder und Brenda Marshall, – 1952 (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Working for Billy Wilder in Stalag 17 didn’t only bring a European tour to Holden but also a Best Actor Oscar. It was unexpected as he was against solid competition: Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953), Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953) and Richard Burton in The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953) (ok, that one is far from being a favourite of mine). Some said that it was a consolation prize for losing to Sunset Boulevard. Holden himself thought the year’s best performance was Burt’s in From Here to Eternity (it’s true that he was pretty great). But, sometimes, The Academy acts unexpectedly and sees the talent in more subtle performances. And an Oscar is still a pretty good honour, so it’s difficult to completely decline it (ok, some did but for precise reasons). Moreover, let’s not forget the positivism of some critics regarding his performance. Life magazine declared that J.J. Sefton was “the year’s most memorable movie character”, which shows that Holden’s excellent performance contributed to that.

That Oscar year, the Best Actress Oscar was won by Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953), which propelled her to stardom. And we know where that leaves us: Sabrina. The romantic comedy directed by Wilder and starring Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart turned out to be a shooting full of sparkles, good and bad ones. We all know the affair between Holden and Hepburn and that Bogart and Holden didn’t get along. Bogart wasn’t agreeable to Hepburn and Wilder either and stayed in his corner during the filming. Meanwhile, Hepburn, Holden, Wilder and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were spending their time off together in a cheering ambience. Although that Bogart situation was pretty sad, we have to think about the positive aspect of things. Wilder and Holden’s friendship continued to grow. Moreover, it’s a bit thanks to Holden if Lehman co-wrote the script. As Wilder was looking for a co-screenwriter, his friend Holden told him about the young and talented screenwriter who had written the script for his last film: Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954). That was Ernest Lehman’s first screenplay, and Sabrina was his second. He later wrote the script of some of the best classic Hollywood films: North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957), West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961), The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Mike Nichols, 1966). Thanks to Holden, two of the best screenwriters in Hollywood reunited for a collaboration. Even tho it’s not my favourite performance by Holden, Vulture observes that the script highlights the “the prickly dimensions” of Holden despite the conventionality of the story. But is it THAT conventional? Considering its finale, I think not.

After making Sabrina, it took Holden and Wilder 24 years to reunite to work together again. Why is that? I feel it was primarily due to a choice of different paths, Lemmon had undeniably entered the portrait, and Holden made the step into the New Hollywood world with grace and still full of talent in his pockets. Sadly, although William Holden made some of his most memorable films in the 70s, such as Network and The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974), it wasn’t necessarily Wilder’s most memorable decade. Not that they were bad films, but it was not Some Like It Hot or Sunset Boulevard. The picture they reunited for was Fedora, which is often compared to Sunset Boulevard due to its characters. Despite reuniting with an old friend, the shooting turned out to be stressful for Wilder, who was on a strict budget. Geria Film, a small German production house, brought financial support. Still, Wilder, worried about going over budget, constantly cut short the rehearsals and the scenes. Holden, who knew his friend well, admitted that this was not in Wilder’s habits and that they would normally rehearse for a scene.

That, sadly, was the last time they worked together. Not long after, Holden, who suffered from severe alcoholism, died in his Santa Monica apartment after falling and bumping his head on the corner of a table. What Wilder said of Holden following his death sticks with you and highlights the immense sadness of the situation:

“I really loved Bill, but it turned out I just didn’t know him. If somebody had said to me, ‘Holden’s dead’, I would have assumed that he had been gored by a water buffalo in Kenya, that he had died in a plane crash approaching Hong Kong, that a crazed jealous woman had shot him and he drowned in a swimming pool. But to be killed by a bottle of vodka and a night table – what a lousy fade-out for a great guy.”

Am I the only one who loves the reference to some of the films Bill Holden’s films, more precisely The Lion (Jack Cardiff, 1962), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Mark Robson, 1954) and Sunset Boulevard? Wilder was a lover of films, and it also comforts me to think he always thought of Holden as a “great guy”. Moreover, Wilder had more good things to say about Holden, “Bill was a complex guy, a totally honorable friend. He was a genuine star. Every woman was in love with him.” Ok, what interest us here is the honourable friend part. It shows that even tho they didn’t collaborate for 24 years, they would have to reunite eventually, and that’s what happened with Fedora.

***

I feel there’s still a lot missing on my part concerning the story of Wilder and Holden’s friendship, but that should give you a first good preview. Somehow, their collaborations don’t seem to be remembered as much as the one Wilder made with Jack Lemmon, but they are not less worthy of your time. We are grateful for Wilder to have helped William Holden have a more exciting career and for Holden for giving fascinating dimensions to Billy Wilder’s characters. Coincidentally enough, Wilder made his last film in 1981, the year William Holden passed away. Could this have been that Holden’s passing marked the definite end of something for Wilder (even tho unconsciously)?

Today, April 17, marks what would have been William Holden’s 104th birthday. Even tho he is not with us anymore, honouring him is always an immense pleasure for me, especially when it’s done in the context of the 5th edition of The Golden Boy Blogathon! Please make sure to read the other entries:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

See you!

Holden, Wilder and Hepburn on the set of Sabrina. One of my most favourite photos ever!

Sources:

  • Hopp, Glenn. Billy Wilder : Filmographie complète. Paris : Taschen, 2003.