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Top 10 William Holden Films

Lindsay is a working actress and honors graduate of Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre: Film/TV.

William Holden, the golden boy of 1950s cynicism.

William Holden, the golden boy of 1950s cynicism.

Who Was William Holden?

William Holden was 1950s Hollywood's cynical Golden Boy; his classic All-American good looks contrasting with the more complex amorality of some of his most famous characters. Often called by the nickname "Bill" Holden by fans, Bill started his career in the 1940s playing idealistic and clean-cut good guy roles (what he called "Smiling Jim" roles). But, he would later come to specialize in playing heroes with rougher edges.

Starting in the 1950s, Holden's characters were more often to be world-weary cynics whose optimism had already been beaten out of them. But, make no mistake, William Holden was not above making comedies and you'll find a couple represented on this list. Holden was even one of the bigger Hollywood stars to make a memorable appearance on the classic TV sitcom I Love Lucy (playing himself, of course).

In his private life, Bill held a deep-seated passion for wildlife conservation and in 1959, he founded the Mount Kenya Game Ranch in Kenya to help boost the dwindling populations of the nation's animal herds. But, unfortunately, William Holden, also, faced some inner demons through his lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Some say that his drinking habits began as a way for him to combat his nerves about performing.

But, the habit eventually spiraled out of control and took a visible toll on his health. In 1981, Holden died tragically at the age of only 63 after a night of drinking led to a fatal head injury while he was alone in his apartment. After his unexpected death, Holden's girlfriend, Stefanie Powers, helped found the William Holden Wildlife Foundation (which is still in operation today) in honor of Bill's longtime conservation efforts and to further his dream of African wildlife protection and education.

A Note on This List's Order

I chose the order of these top ten films by considering their importance in Bill's overall career, as well as the size/importance of his role in them. I also took into account their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes.

Top 10 William Holden Films

  1. Sunset Boulevard
  2. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  3. Network
  4. Stalag 17
  5. The Wild Bunch
  6. Executive Suite
  7. Born Yesterday
  8. Sabrina
  9. The Country Girl
  10. The Counterfeit Traitor

1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

This is the movie that forever changed the trajectory of William Holden’s career. It perfectly transitioned him from the fresh-faced pretty boys he’d been playing before the war to the more sardonic and world-weary film persona that would eventually become his trademark. Appearing in virtually every list of the greatest movies of all time, this classic film noir was directed and co-written by the legendary Billy Wilder.

It stars Bill Holden as Joe Gillis, a struggling Hollywood screenwriter who is beginning to consider moving back to his hometown after he’s turned down for yet another job and repo men start looking for his car. To give himself a little bit more time before they repossess his car, Joe attempts to hide it in the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion.

However, it turns out that the mansion is far from abandoned. Former silent movie star Norma Desmond (played by real silent film star Gloria Swanson) is still in residence, alongside her faithful butler, Max (played by silent film director Erich Von Stroheim). Upon learning that Joe is a screenwriter, Norma commissions him to edit/re-write a script that she has written as a possible comeback film. Since he’s desperate for money, Joe agrees. But, he'll come to regret his decision to become involved with the increasingly delusional Norma Desmond.

Sunset Boulevard is a movie that intentionally brushes against Hollywood reality, featuring cameos from genuine Hollywood legends playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The most notable cameos include silent movie star Buster Keaton, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille.

The character of Norma Desmond is, actually, a composite of many silent movie stars, including the reclusive Mary Pickford, the psychologically troubled Clara Bow, and, of course, Gloria Swanson herself. Many former silent film stars had turned down the role of Norma before it was, finally, offered to Swanson. Unlike most other stars that had been approached, Swanson had never actually retired from acting (she was still performing in radio, theatre, and television) and was happy for the opportunity to return to film.

Although William Holden really was 20 years younger than Gloria Swanson, there was some concern that Swanson’s still youthful looks would made them look too close to the same age. Theorizing that Norma would’ve gone to great pains to keep up her appearance, it was ultimately decided that the makeup artists should actually concentrate on making Holden look younger instead of making Swanson look older.

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2. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the novel, Planet of the Apes), The Bridge on the River Kwai is often included on lists of the greatest war films of all time. Directed by David Lean, the movie uses a true historic setting but, the specific plot and characters are mostly fictional.

Set during WWII, the film begins with a fresh batch of British POWs arriving at a Japanese POW camp hidden deep within the jungles of Thailand. The new POWs are greeted by the camp’s few surviving prisoners, including the cynical Commander Shears of the US Navy (Holden). During his time at the camp, Shears has already witnessed a large majority of his fellow POWs die from illness and exhaustion.

The newly arrived British officer, Colonel Nicholson (played by an Oscar-winning Alec Guinness), insists on correct procedures being followed at all times, both by his own men and their Japanese captors. His demands clash immediately with the camp’s commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Saito orders all prisoners, including officers, to work tirelessly on the construction of a railway bridge across the River Kwai.

Since this goes against the Geneva Convention, Nicholson intends to fight against Saito’s command with everything he has. However, he also forbids his men to make any attempt to escape the camp, since they had been instructed by high command to surrender. Granted, this order is a bit redundant. Escape is near impossible given the camp’s remote jungle location. However, Shears has gotten to the point that he is willing to take any risk even for the smallest chance of escaping the camp’s horrific conditions.

The Bridge on the River Kwai ended up winning 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Although set in Thailand, the film was actually shot in the jungles of Sri Lanka. While filming, David Lean clashed with many of his actors (Alec Guinness, in particular), however, William Holden was one of the few that Lean actually got along with. Lean appreciated Holden’s easygoing manner and professionalism, later commenting that he believed Bill was greatly under-appreciated as an actor because he made everything look so easy.

Despite the film’s title, the real Burma-Siam railway, actually, didn't cross the River Kwai at all (it was really the Mae Klong River). But, due to the film’s popularity, the Thai government renamed a stretch of the Mae Klong River, “The Kwai Yai River” so, tourists could more easily find the last remaining bridge that crosses it (therefore, belatedly creating a bridge on the Kwai).

3. Network (1976)

Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Network is a dark dramedy that is often described as satire. However, the filmmakers have always insisted that it’s, actually, frighteningly realistic.

The story revolves around the behind the scenes goings-on of the fictional TV network UBS as they struggle to fix their falling ratings. William Holden plays the role of Max Schumacher, the president of the network’s news division. Due to declining ratings, it’s been decided by UBS that Max’s best friend and longtime news anchor Howard Beale (played by an Oscar-winning Peter Finch) will be taken off the air in two weeks.

The day after Howard is told the news, he goes to work and calmly announces on live television that he plans on committing suicide on the evening broadcast next week. The higher-ups at UBS want Beale fired immediately before he can follow through with his threat. However, Max is able to persuade them to let Howard go on the air one last time to give him a chance to apologize and allow him a more dignified goodbye.

But once Howard is back on live television, rather than give the apology he promised, he instead launches into an unstable rant that causes ratings to go through the roof. Although Max would be happy to downplay Howard’s outburst and move on, he is very quickly overruled by his fellow executives at UBS, particularly programming chief Diana Christensen (played by an Oscar-winning Faye Dunaway), who is intent on exploiting the public’s fascination with the unraveling Howard Beale for all it’s worth.

Network ended up winning 4 Oscars, including one for Paddy Chayefsky for Best Original Screenplay. This win made him the first screenwriter in history to win 3 Oscars for scripts he had written without any writing partners (his 2 previous wins were for the movies Marty and The Hospital). Beatrice Straight’s Best Supporting Actress win (for her role as Max's wife, Louise), also, holds the record as the shortest Oscar-winning performance in film history, clocking in at only a little over 5 minutes of screen time. Sadly, Peter Finch had died of a heart attack shortly before the Oscar ceremony, making him the first actor to actually win a posthumous Academy Award.

Eerily, Network came out only two years after the real on-air suicide of Florida reporter Christine Chubbuck, causing many people to assume that the film was directly inspired by the tragedy. In reality, Chayefsky had already been working on the screenplay when the death occurred and never even bothered to mention the tragic event in his notes, making it simply a strange synchronicity. Many reviewers have since pointed out the prophetic nature of the film with acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin even saying, “no predictor of the future - even Orwell - has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.”

4. Stalag 17 (1953)

Reuniting Bill Holden with his Sunset Boulevard director, Billy Wilder (who also co-wrote and produced this movie), Stalag 17 is the film that finally won William Holden his one and only Oscar for Best Actor. Based on the Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the film is set during WWII at a German POW camp known as Stalag 17.

The story focuses on one particular barrack at the camp, where the prisoners have begun to suspect that they might have an informant in their midst. Suspicion soon falls on J.J. Sefton (Holden), a shameless schemer who always seems to have an angle with the German guards and, unlike most of the prisoners, appears to have no desire to escape. Sefton, also, has a cunning way of getting away with a lot more than other prisoners, including running a distillery and gambling ring for the men’s entertainment. Since Sefton bribes the German guards fairly openly, he seems like the obvious choice for the barrack’s mole but, focusing on Sefton might, actually, be blinding the men to the real traitor in their midst.

The original play, Stalag 17, had been based on playwrights Bevan and Trzcinski’s real-life experiences as prisoners-of-war at Stalag 17B in Austria. Trzcinski even has a cameo in the film version in the bit role of Triz. Unusually for a movie, Stalag 17 was, actually, shot in chronological order with the identity of the real informant kept secret from certain members of the cast until the last 3 days of shooting.

Originally, the role of Sefton was written with Charlton Heston in mind but, as the role became more cynical and less heroic during development of the film’s screenplay, William Holden became the more logical choice. Ironically, Holden found the character of Sefton too selfish and originally refused to play the role. The studio ended up forcing him to do it anyway, leading to what is generally considered to be one of his most memorable performances. Even during production, Holden kept wanting to make Sefton more likable but, he was always overruled by Billy Wilder.

When he won the Oscar, Holden wasn’t able to give a full acceptance speech due to the televised ceremony’s time constraints. So, he bought advertising space in Hollywood trade papers so he could still publicly thank all of the people he had originally intended to mention in his speech. Privately, Holden never really felt like he deserved the Oscar for Stalag 17. He believed that either Montgomery Clift or Burt Lancaster (who were both nominated for From Here To Eternity) should have won instead. He merely interpreted his win as a consolation prize for not being given an Oscar for Sunset Boulevard a few years earlier.

5. The Wild Bunch (1969)

This hugely influential and controversial Western brought a new level of graphic violence to the screen and, arguably, changed the Western genre forever. Set in the 1910s, William Holden plays the role of Pike Bishop, an aging Western outlaw and career criminal. Pike is still the leader of his longtime outlaw gang but, he can sense that the world is changing fast and that it may be time for his retirement. He plans on quitting after his gang pulls one last job: stealing a large cache of silver from a railroad office.

However, the job does not go according to plan, foiled in large part by Pike’s former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who now works as a bounty hunter and has been recently deputized by the railroad. With his original retirement plan now in tatters, Pike and his gang must find another way to get some money. But, this time they have the added challenge of avoiding Thornton and his posse, who are now hot on their trail.

Directed and co-written by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch was very controversial when it was first released due to its high level of violence and amoral characters. Peckinpah had intended for the movie to be a more realistic portrayal of the violence of the Wild West and the brutality of the men who tried to survive it.

The Wild Bunch became particularly famous for its use of quick cuts and slow-motion. The slow-motion sequences were actually inspired by the iconic Japanese film Seven Samurai but, the quick cuts came about for much more pragmatic reasons. The film’s opening sequence was originally 21 minutes long so, in an attempt to cut it down, the filmmakers started trimming and intercutting scenes, eventually creating the groundbreaking 5 minute montage that appears in the finished film and setting the editing style for the rest of the movie.

Before William Holden was cast, Lee Marvin was, actually, offered and even accepted the lead role of Pike Bishop. However, Marvin ultimately pulled out to appear in the movie musical Paint Your Wagon instead, since he really considered The Wild Bunch too similar to a movie he’d done before (The Professionals).

Although William Holden ended up getting along with Peckinpah fairly well, in general, he was quick to come to the crew’s defense whenever the hot-headed Peckinpah started driving them too hard. At one point, Holden even threatened to walk off the set if Peckinpah ever verbally abused the crew in his presence again.

6. Executive Suite (1954)

Based on the novel by Cameron Hawley, Executive Suite stars William Holden amongst an all-star ensemble cast that includes June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, and Shelley Winters. The film revolves around the aftermath left behind by the unexpected death of Avery Bullard, the president of the Tredway Corporation (a major furniture manufacturing firm).

Since Bullard died of a heart attack while on a business trip, there is some confusion before it finally gets back to everyone at the company what has just happened. Then, the power vacuum really begins. Since Avery Bullard was only 56, he hadn’t officially named a successor yet and not everyone agrees on who should take his place as the head of the company.

Company controller Loren Shaw (Fredric March) sees this as his opportunity to become president and sets in motion a plan to win executives over to his side and undercut any other possible candidates. However, several executives would much rather see the young and idealistic Don Walling (Holden), Vice President of Design and Development, as the new head of the company. Don isn’t really sure if he’s ready or even wants to become president of Tredway, but he does know that he absolutely does not want the ambitious and greedy Loren Shaw as his new boss.

Author Cameron Hawley had based the novel, Executive Suite, on his real-life experiences working for the Armstrong Cork Company in Pennsylvania. Although this film version is not very well-known today, it actually hit number one at the box-office when it was first released and received widespread critical acclaim. The entire acting ensemble even won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival.

The first of four movies that director Robert Wise would make alongside screenwriter Ernest Lehman, Executive Suite was actually Lehman’s very first produced screenplay. Lehman would go on to write the screenplays for classics like The Sound of Music, West Side Story (both directed by Robert Wise), and North By Northwest (directed by Alfred Hitchcock).

Executive Suite, also, marks a bit of an onscreen reunion for William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck (who plays the daughter of Tredway’s founder). Holden and Stanwyck had starred together in Holden's breakout film, Golden Boy, 15 years earlier and, offscreen, she was always his most trusted mentor and loudest supporter. Although this film is the only other time the two ever appeared together onscreen, they always remained quite close. Holden even had a tradition of sending Stanwyck roses every year on the anniversary of Golden Boy's premiere in honor of how much she had helped him in his early career.

7. Born Yesterday (1950)

Directed by George Cukor and based on the play by Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday stars an Oscar-winning Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn, an uneducated former showgirl who travels to Washington DC with her wealthy boyfriend, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). Harry has come to DC on “business” but, while attempting to schmooze various politicians, Harry becomes frustrated by Billie’s lack of education and unsophisticated ways.

So, he decides he needs to hire someone to tutor her. The most educated and well-mannered person Harry knows is journalist Paul Verrall (Holden), who interviewed him when the pair first arrived, so he offers Paul the job. Paul happily agrees and begins to teach Billie about politics, history, and literature. But, as Billie starts learning more about the way things are supposed to work in DC, she begins to realize just how corrupt her boyfriend’s “business dealings” really are.

Judy Holliday had originated the role of Billie Dawn on Broadway and her award-winning performance in this film version turned her into an immediate star. The original playwright, Garson Kanin, was very open about the fact that he had based the corrupt and boorish Harry Brock on Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn. Interestingly, this still did deter Columbia Pictures from producing this film version (they even paid a million dollars for the film rights). It turns out that Cohn was well aware of the claims that he was the inspiration for Harry Brock but, didn’t really care enough to take offense.

Large sections of Born Yesterday were filmed on location in Washington DC with many DC landmarks making an appearance in the film, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Library of Congress, and the Watergate Steps. Just like Kanin, William Holden and Broderick Crawford both harbored an intense dislike of Harry Cohn. The two of them bonded during filming and often collaborated on small ways to aggravate the studio head. This included regularly ordering large bottles of expensive Scotch with their lunches and running up tabs for room service at their on-location hotels.

8. Sabrina (1954)

Occasionally known in the UK by its alternate titles, Sabrina Fair/La Vie en Rose, this charming romantic comedy once again reunited William Holden with his most frequent collaborator, writer/director Billy Wilder. Based on the play Sabrina Fair by Samuel A. Taylor (who, also, co-wrote the film’s screenplay alongside Wilder and Ernest Lehman), Sabrina features Bill Holden in a much less cynical role this time around.

Holden plays the role of David Larrabee, the youngest son of the wealthy Larrabee family who live on a vast estate in Long Island. A freewheeling playboy, David has been married no less than 3 times but, somehow never noticed that Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), the daughter of his family’s chauffeur, has been desperately in love with him since they were kids. Sabrina’s father has become increasingly worried about his daughter’s infatuation with David so, he sends her off to culinary school in Paris in the hopes that she will forget about him.

When Sabrina graduates two years later, she returns home a sophisticated and charming woman. Even though David is already engaged to fiancee number 4, he can no longer ignore the now stunning Sabrina. But the Larrabee family, particularly David’s older brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart), is still very keen on David marrying his sugar cane heiress fiancee because, it will lead to a very profitable corporate merger for the family’s business holdings. Linus is willing to do anything to quietly break up the burgeoning love affair between Sabrina and David, even if it means manipulating Sabrina into leaving David, herself.

During production of Sabrina, William Holden and Audrey Hepburn really did have a passionate love affair and their chemistry is palpable onscreen. However, their romance ended up coming to an abrupt end due to Hepburn's genuine desire to have children (Holden had already undergone a vasectomy by this time and was no longer able to have children). Although their affair was relatively brief, Bill would later refer to Audrey as the love of his life.

9. The Country Girl (1954)

Based on the play by Clifford Odets, this film version of the quiet character drama is, frequently considered to be superior to the original play. It stars William Holden as Bernie Dodd, a Broadway stage director desperately trying to cast the lead role of a new musical he’s directing. Bernie really wants to cast actor/singer Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) in the role, but Elgin’s well-known struggle with alcoholism makes the show’s producer extremely nervous. Bernie is certain that Frank is right for the part, so he goes straight to Frank’s apartment to offer him the role.

Frank’s wife, Georgie (Grace Kelly), seems particularly nervous about Frank taking on such a demanding role but, he does ultimately accept the offer. During rehearsals for the play, Frank is able to convince Bernie that Georgie tends to be overbearing and possessive. He even suggests that she’s the one who started him down the road to alcoholism in the first place.

Bernie carries his own baggage about relationships thanks to his previous toxic marriage, so he accepts everything Frank says at face value. However, Frank may not actually be as truthful as he appears and there may be more of an actual reason behind Georgie’s constant hovering than Bernie realizes.

The Country Girl ended up winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and won Grace Kelly an Oscar for Best Actress. Kelly supposedly beat out Judy Garland in A Star is Born by only 6 votes, which would make it one of the closest Oscar races of all time. Actually, it was William Holden who had the honor of presenting Grace Kelly with her Oscar at the actual award ceremony.

During the actual filming of The Country Girl, Kelly had somehow managed to have an affair with both Holden and Crosby in quick succession. Supposedly, Crosby even proposed to her after filming was completed but, she gently turned him down.

Interestingly, Bing Crosby actually almost turned down the role of Frank because he believed he was too old for the part. It took some time for director George Seaton to finally convince him that his character was supposed to be an aging actor, which actually made him exactly the right age for it.

10. The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

Based on the book by Alexander Klein, The Counterfeit Traitor was inspired by the true life story of OSS spy Eric Erickson. Set during World War II, the movie stars William Holden as Eric Erickson, an American-born Swedish citizen who works in the oil business. Since Erickson lives in Sweden (a neutral country), he has continued to do business with German companies despite the war.

One day, he is unexpectedly contacted by Allied agents and pressured into becoming a spy for US intelligence. Since Erickson often travels into Germany for business, he might be able to gain valuable intelligence without suspicion. Especially, if he convinces everyone he knows that he’s, actually, become a Nazi sympathizer. At first, Erickson only agrees to help in order to protect his business and reputation, but as he gets in deeper, he may start to find other reasons to further the Allies’ cause.

The Counterfeit Traitor is a brilliant thriller laden with depth and humanity. Although the movie does blend fact with some fiction, there is plenty of reality to this story. Even Erickson’s love interest, Frau Marianne Mollendorf (Lilli Palmer) was specifically based on a real-life love of the actual Eric Erickson named Anne-Maria Freudenreich. Layered with moments of true tension and suspense, this spy film will definitely keep you on your toes.

Honorable Mention: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

For my honorable mention, I decided to choose this classic romance with the iconic title song. Set in 1949, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is based on the autobiographical novel A Many-Splendored Thing by Han Suyin. It features William Holden in the role of Mark Elliott, an American reporter staying in Hong Kong to cover the Chinese Communist Revolution (also known as the Chinese Civil War). While staying in Hong Kong, Mark meets the beautiful widowed doctor Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones).

Suyin was born and raised in mainland China but, she actually has both Chinese and English ancestry (her father was Chinese and her mother was English). Mark is in the middle of a trial separation from his wife and, therefore, technically still married. But, as he gets to know Suyin, he finds himself falling in love with her. Suyin feels the same way, but she knows that Chinese society will not look kindly on her for getting romantically involved with an American man.

Partially filmed on location in Hong Kong, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is a truly beautiful movie full of rich colors and breathtaking scenery. Due to its interracial themes, there were some struggles to get the film approved by the Hays Office. But, once the film was released, it was a massive success.

The movie’s Oscar-winning title song by The Four Aces has, arguably, become even more famous than the movie, itself. It immediately hit #1 on the music charts and stayed there for 3 straight weeks (it was later covered by singers like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole).

Despite their onscreen characters’ epic love for one another, off-screen, William Holden and Jennifer Jones, actually, couldn’t stand each another. Holden thought Jones was obsessive and high maintenance, due to her constant complaints about makeup, costumes, and dialogue. He also didn’t appreciate her rude and abrasive manner towards the cast and crew, in general.

Meanwhile, Jones was apparently paranoid about Bill's reputation as a womanizer, so she purposely chewed garlic before their love scenes to “discourage” him. Luckily, neither of them betrayed their real-life animosity towards one another in the finished film, so one would never know.

William Holden deserved an Oscar for making us believe he loved Jennifer Jones.

William Holden deserved an Oscar for making us believe he loved Jennifer Jones.

Further Reading

If you would like to learn more about William Holden, I recommend reading Audrey and Bill: A Romantic Biography of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden (2015) by Edward Z. Epstein, as well as, William Holden: A Biography (2016) by Michelangelo Capua.

© 2022 Lindsay Blenkarn

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