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8 Classics Starring William Holden

One of Classic Hollywood's Great Leading Men

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A dashing leading man in his youth, William Holden was in his prime during the 1950s with a number of comic and romantic films that were all-time classics. But when he entered the turbulent 1960s, Holden made a number of forgettable films due to contractual obligations that damaged his career.

Holden mounted a comeback toward the end of the decade and enjoyed more critical and commercial success in the 1970s before his career faded again before his death in 1981. Here are eight classic movies that defined the indelible career of William Holden.

1. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ – 1950

Paramount Pictures
It all starts with William Holden as struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis lying face-first in a swimming pool, dead. Things only get worse from there. Holden delivered a breakthrough performance as the down-and-out Gillis, who stumbles upon a gloomy mansion on the famed Hollywood boulevard while on the run from repo men. There he meets faded silent film actress, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who lures him inside and convinces him to write her comeback vehicle. Desperate for any payday, the opportunistic Gillis readily agrees, only to later regret his decision, as he's pulled deeper into her strange, controlling world. By then it’s much too late. The pairing of the dashing Holden with the aging Swanson was a stroke of genius by director Billy Wilder, and launched the young actor’s career after a decade of mild success.
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2. ‘Stalag 17’ – 1953

Paramount Pictures
Holden reunited with Wilder for this World War II-set drama with darkly comic touches to star as a wisecracking POW who games the system for extra perks, only to come under suspicion as a snitch by his fellow prisoners. Featuring an over-the-top performance by director Otto Preminger as the sadistic camp commandant, Stalag 17 was highlighted by Holden’s star-making performance as the cynical, but ultimately innocent prisoner. The role earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor, while the film itself inspired the much more lighthearted television sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes.
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3. ‘Sabrina’ – 1954

Paramount Pictures
Working with Wilder for the last time in his career, Holden was at his dashing best as David Larrabee, the carefree playboy son of a wealthy Long Island family who becomes the object of affection of their chauffeur’s young daughter, Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn). While Sabrina held a candle for David all her life, he never much paid attention to her until she returns from culinary school in Paris a sophisticated and attractive young woman. As the two fall in love, David’s older workaholic brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart), tries to subvert their pending nuptials, only to fall in love with Sabrina himself. Holden was well-cast in the role and delivered a pitch-perfect turn as the wanton David.
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4. ‘Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing’ – 1955

20th Century Fox
By the time he starred in this multi-Oscar nominated romantic drama, Holden was at the pinnacle of his career. Here he played a married, but separated American war correspondent covering the Korean War from Hong Kong who falls in love with a widowed Eurasian doctor (Jennifer Jones), only to find their briefly happy affair disrupted by his marriage, as well as racist attitudes from both the British and Communist Chinese. The tearjerker of a melodrama was nominated for a whopping nine Academy Awards, though Holden was left out of the running. Still, it ranks as one of his better performances, though the weepy film itself hasn’t aged well compared to his other work.
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5. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ – 1957

Sony Pictures
In this World War II epic from David Lean, Holden played Seaman Shears, an American officer imprisoned alongside a group of British soldiers lead by Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) in a Japanese POW camp. While the camp commander (Sessue Hayakawa) engages in a battle of wills with Guinness over building a bridge over the Kwai, Holden mounts a daring escape that leaves two fellow POWs dead and himself severely injured. While recovering, however, Shears – who really is an enlisted man – learns that he’ll face a court martial for impersonating an officer if he doesn’t lead a British team back to the camp to destroy the bridge that Nicholson has obsessively built. Grand in every way imaginable, Holden's performance seems small compared to the grand scope of Lean's greatest epic.
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6. ‘The Wild Bunch’ – 1969

Warner Bros.
Director Sam Peckinpah considered a number of top actors for the role of Pike Bishop, the last-score seeking leader of a gang of outlaws, before he settled on Holden. Lee Marvin was even cast for a time, but dropped out for a bigger payday on another film. Which was all the good for Holden, who desperately needed a comeback after a string of forgettable films throughout the 1960s. The violent revisionist Western, with its themes of aging outlaws fighting the encroachment of a modern society, reflected Holden’s own struggles with a Hollywood system that had drastically changed from the one he thrived in during his prime.
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7. ‘The Towering Inferno’ – 1974

20th Century Fox
Directed by the Master of Disaster, Irwin Allen, this classic disaster flick featured an all-star cast of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire and of course William Holden. Though overshadowed by the top-billed McQueen and Newman, who were the major box office stars of the day, Holden more than held his own as the owner of the world’s tallest building that suddenly goes up in flames during a grand opening gala party due to faulty wiring. Certainly the best of the disaster flick craze of the 1970s, The Towering Inferno was the top box office hit of the year and the biggest of Holden’s career.
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8. ‘Network’ – 1976

MGM Home Entertainment
With his career winding down, Holden delivered one more critically praised performance as Max Schumacher, an aging TV news division president who runs cover for old friend, news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), as he goes off the deep end into nightly messianic rants after learning he’s about to be canceled by the corporate brass. All the while, Schumacher has an affair with a young TV executive (Faye Dunaway), whose detachment from human emotion reflected the growing dissatisfaction of the mid-1970s. Directed by Sidney Lumet, Network featured exemplary performances from its entire cast, which earned Oscar nominations across the board, including a nod for Holden in the Best Actor category. A fine coda for a career that ended with his death just five years later.
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