Friday, January 22, 2016

Star–Director Blogathon: Billy Wilder and William Holden, a Match Made in— Well, Probably Not Heaven

This post is part of the CLASSIC SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS: The Star–Director Blogathon

If you had asked me 20 years ago who my favorite director was, I would have said, Alfred Hitchcock without batting an eye. If you asked me now, I still might say, Alfred Hitchcock, but I'd really have to agonize over it. Now, if this post is supposed to be about Billy Wilder, why am I talking about Alfred Hitchcock?

Well, I love Alfred Hitchcock, but he is kind of a one trick pony. It's a really really good trick, and nobody else can do that trick as well as he could. Likely, no one ever will. The reason I now have to agonize over my favorite director is that Billy Wilder could do it all, and nowhere is that more evident than his collaboration with William Holden. In the early to mid-1950s, the pair made three films together, and they about as far apart from each other as films could possibly be:

  • Sunset Blvd. (1950)
  • Stalag 17 (1953)
  • Sabrina (1954)
Two decades later, they teamed up again for, Fedora. The parallels between Sunset Blvd. and Fedora are obvious. If you haven't seen Fedora, it's not about a private eye. That's what the title suggested to me. It's about a movie star, Fedora, who retired and has been living in seclusion in Europe. Obviously, Fedora is two film greats way past their prime trying to recapture their glory days with a rehash of arguably their greatest film together. Or is it? I mean isn't William Holden's character basically the same person as in Sunset Blvd.

Well, except for that whole face-down-in-the-pool thing. Ooh, spoilers. Sorry. I'm going to assume that everyone has seen the first three films and not the last one. Probably, a fairly safe bet. With the exception of the face-down-in-the-pool comment above, I tend to avoid spoilers whenever possible. On Billy Wilder-William Holden pairings from the 1950s, there may be some minor spoilers. On Fedora, I'll do my best to have none.

Let's look at these films separately.

Sunset Blvd.

Like many of Billy Wilder's films, Sunset Blvd. is a bit hard to classify. IMDB calls it both Drama and Film Noir while Wikipedia refers to if as Black Comedy/Drama and Film Noir.  I think all of these work. Most of the comedy in the film stems from Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) saying very funny things that she doesn't realize are funny, or William Holden editorializing about the things she says or does. You feel like you are a bad person for laughing. So, yeah, Black Comedy works. At its heart, Sunset Blvd. is essentially a Tragedy. William Shakespeare couldn't have done better. So, Drama works as well. Film Noir, hmmm. Well, it doesn't have any hard-boiled private eyes. No back alleys or dark nightclubs, but where does most of the movie take place. A Beverly Hills mansion totally gone to seed. An architectural tribute to a bygone era. A mausoleum. How does the Holden voiceover describe the place. 

"The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis— Out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion."  

Sounds a bit Film Noir to me.  Oh yeah, then there's William Holden face down in the— Oops.

And what of the star? William Holden is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. A former newspaper man who had come to Hollywood to write movies. With only a couple of B-pictures to his credit, he grinds out original stories, two a week, only to not have them sell. He's just an ordinary guy, trying make it in a very rough business. He's trying to avoid having to go back to his old job at the city desk of a Midwestern newspaper and admit to himself that he couldn't make it.

Leave it to Billy Wilder to take Film Noir, a genre that had barely been defined, and turn it on its ear. Look at the characters:

  • Joe Gillis (Holden), his only crime is wanting to make a living writing movies, unless you count missing a few car payments and trying to keep it from being repossessed
  • Norma Desmond (Swanson), delusional, unwilling to accept that the world has moved on
  • Max (Erich von Stroheim), out of love for Norma, he writes her fan mail, so that she can keep her illusions alive
  • Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), I like to think of her as an unjaded version of William Holden, before the Hollywood machine had beaten him. Of all the central characters, she's the one that comes through with the least scars. She only has to deal with losing William Holden and likely end up being married to Jack Webb.
None of them are bad people, they're all just twisted by forces beyond their control. If that's not Film Noir, I have no idea what is. There's a certain poetry to Sunset Blvd. from the first frame to the last. It's a masterpiece.

For the part of Joe Gillis, Marlon Brando, Fred MacMurray, and Montgomery Clift were also considered. Clift even signed to play the role and withdrew, claiming it was too close to the role he played in The Heiress. I think it might have worked with any of them. Fred MacMurray was possibly a bit old, only about 10 years younger than Swanson. I really think the age difference is a factor. Brando would have been mid-twenties, possibly a bit young. Montgomery Clift was only a couple of years younger than Holden, but I'm thinking he would have looked younger than Brando. Also, I always got an innocence and vulnerability from Clift. Joe Gillis is world weary and cynical. William Holden could do cynical like no one's business. I just don't see anyone being better in the role than William Holden. It was a signature role for him and his first nomination for an Academy Award.

Stalag 17

Here we have Billy Wilder's take on a War drama, but is about patriotism, comradery, or courage under fire? No, it's about greed and suspicion and betrayal. In a German prison of war camp, the men in a certain barracks always find that the Germans are one step ahead of them and suspect an informer in their midst. Suspicion falls on William Holden's character, Sgt. Sefton, because he always has some scheme going, selling cigarettes and holding gambling events, and using the profits to buy better food and treatment from the German guards. Like most Wilder films, it's a great story with a great cast of characters in roles both large and small, all executed with absolute precision. 

Stalag 17 was shot in sequence, in the same order as the final film. A rarity because it generally takes longer and is more expensive. Many of the actors didn't know about the final plot twist until they were about to shoot it. A former POW, William LaChasse, was hired in a bit part, and the production based much of the look of the camp on his recollections. Holden donned a crewcut and often went unshaven to downplay his looks and add to the gritty reality of the film.

Once again, William Holden was not the first choice for the role. Originally, Charlton Heston was considered. Then, Kirk Douglas was offered the role and turned it down, later saying it was the biggest mistake of his career. William Holden didn't want the part either. The film is based on a stage play. Holden walked out during the first act and later had to be coaxed into reading the screenplay. Still, he refused the role, but the studio bullied him into doing it. During production, William Holden was constantly trying to get Billy Wilder to make changes to the script to make his character more sympathetic. Wilder refused. 

The thing I love about William Holden is that he always have some sort of angle, making him perfect for that role of Sgt. Sefton, who knows all the angles. I really can't imagine anyone else in the role. Definitely, the character is unsympathetic, but Holden's natural charm keeps you on his side. And what did William Holden get out of it, only an oscar for Best Actor, beating out Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity.


Sabrina with David (and William Holden)
Sabrina might be the weakest of the films being considered. Why? Because it's just a light comedy. It's fluff and doesn't have the edge that you'd expect out of a Billy Wilder comedy. Yet, the remake 40 years later had only a few minor tweaks to update it and works great. It's cute. It's funny. What more do you want from a comedy? There's a theme about differences in class, but nothing heavy handed. Originally, Cary Grant was cast to play the older Larrabee brother, Linus, and Humphrey Bogart was brought in as a last minute replacement. Personally, I think it works better with Bogart. I think it would be too easy for Audrey Hepburn to fall in love with Cary Grant. Having Bogart get the girl makes the story that much more touching for me.

I'm sure the role of the younger playboy brother, David, was not very demanding for William Holden. Then again, I can't imagine the roles being very demanding for anyone in the cast. When released several critics said they thought Holden would have been better playing Linus and a younger actor playing David. Again, I think you would have the same problem as with Cary Grant. Why wouldn't Audrey Hepburn fall in William Holden as the older brother. As it was, the casting was perfect. William Holden's charm and easy good looks are the perfect counterpoint to Bogart's craggy awkwardness. Only Billy Wilder could have Humphrey Bogart get the girl over William Holden and make it work.

Much of what you see online about the film involves Audrey Hepburn's clothes. I don't think that Sabrina was much more than a blip on the radar for either Billy Wilder or William Holden, but what a wonderful blip. If this is one of their lesser films for both Wilder and Holden, I only wish they had made 10 more each that were just as good.


Fedora couldn't be more of a perfect bookend to the Billy Wilder-William Holden relationship if it tried. I hadn't seen it until about a week ago. I've been working my way through the later Billy Wilder films for the last couple of months. I'm only missing a couple of them (Avanti and Buddy Buddy). I have to say it's easily my favorite of the later Billy Wilder films. 

William Holden plays Dutch Detweiler, a down-on-his-luck film producer, trying to coax classic film star, Fedora, out of retirement. When Holden finds her living in seclusion on a small island in Greece, something is wrong. Fedora appears to be being held prisoner by her doctor (José Ferrer) and her benefactor, the Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). I honestly don't think I can go into much more detail on the plot without spoiling things. 

Fedora only saw limited release, prompting Billy Wilder to complain that the studio spent about $625 on marketing. Admittedly, Fedora is not a perfect film. I have a feeling that 1970s audiences found the voice-overs and flashback within a flashback structure old-fashioned and offputting. I was fine with it, but then again I watch a lot of old movies. My biggest problem was that it seem overly melodramatic. Billy Wilder had wanted Marlene Dietrich to play the role of Fedora, and Faye Dunaway as her daughter Antonia. I think that stronger casting of the female characters might have turned this flawed but interesting film into a truly great film. That wasn't meant to be. Dietrich apparently hated the book and thought the screenplay did little to improve it. It's not clear to me whether Faye Dunaway was seriously considered beyond Billy Wilder wanting her.

For William Holden, it was a good solid performance. Maybe not Network, but still.... So is Fedora a couple of has-beens clutching at straws? No, not really. Sure, no one is ever going to say it's a better film than Sunset Blvd., but it does have something to say Hollywood and the cost of fame. And that something is not the same thing that Sunset Blvd. says. In fact, it deals with something that Sunset Blvd. only hints at, the double standard in Hollywood with regard to male and female actors. Male actors are allowed to age gracefully. Female actors, not so much.

Thanks to Billy Wilder's skill, you buy Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina getting a girl far too young for him over the more or less age-appropriate and better looking. William Holden. Theresa Wright and Ida Lupino were both born the same year as William Holden. The year that Holden was nominated for Best Actor in Network. Theresa Wright did a made-for-TV called Flood, and appeared in a TV series called The Wide World of Mystery, in an episode titled "Terror in the Night." That same year, Ida Lupino made a film called Food of the Gods (about giant wasps). The fictitious Fedora, she did what many older actresses do when they don't want to co-star opposite giant insects. She tries to fade into the background and let her public remember her as she was. If you haven't seen Fedora, hint, it doesn't work out for her. 

Check out other posts in the CLASSIC SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS: The Star–Director Blogathon


  1. Hi there Chris...thanks so much for the contribution. I'm adding you to the roster, and look forward to reading about Billy and...Bill. Thanx!!


  2. Thanks, it was a pleasure. Looking forward to reading everyone else's myself.


  3. Enjoyed your article. Wilder certainly was responsible for bringing out what Holden was capable of. He (Holden) went through the 40s giving perfectly good performances but not getting the chance (like Milland in Lost Weekend) to show how good he really was. And then Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17!

  4. Hi vienna, Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I fully agree. Holden had a great career, but Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17 will always be signature roles for him. I think Billy Wilder had a knack for picking the right actor at the right time and pushing them somewhere you wouldn't expect them to go. Ray Milland in Lost Weekend is a great example, or Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.

  5. Perhaps the best of directors have the insights to get the best out of their actors. Certainly the work between Wilder and Holden would argue that point as Holden had to be convinced or bullied for what may be one of his finest in "Stalag 17".

  6. You're probably right. I think that a lot of the time, people do their best work when they're pushed out of their comfort zones. Thanks for the comments.

  7. Fabulous. Loved this post. I agree that no one – and I mean NO ONE – can do cynical like William Holden can. I was surprised to read that he had to be pressured into doing "Stalag 17". He is incredible in that role! Also, he's completely charming in "Sabrina" – no wonder Audrey Hepburn fell for him!

    I have not seen "Fedora", but it sounds like one I'd like. Thanks for introducing me (us) to it. :)

  8. Thanks for your comments. I have been slowly but surely working my way through the later Billy Wilder. It seems pretty uneven, well uneven, for Wilder. Fedora is no exception, but it is interesting and well worth a watch. Also it turned out the Blu-Ray was only a few dollars more than the DVD on Amazon.

  9. That's a hell of a trifecta! Great choice as you know I adore Mr. Wilder! And great write-up!


  10. Hi Aurora, I enjoyed your post as well. My first thought was Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon. I'm now glad you got to it first and sent down a different road.

  11. Enjoyed your posting a lot - that's an intriguing thought about Billy Wilder pushing actors where they don't want to go, and getting great performances out of them. He's a director who has really grown on me over recent years, while Holden is also growing on me as an actor.

    1. Hi Judy, Thanks for stopping. Billy Wilder can do no wrong in my book. What I've seen of his later efforts can be a bit uneven, but even then, the moments of brilliance shines through.

  12. Billy wilder could do anything! The four films he did with Holden are indeed very different from each other, but all great (I think, since I haven't seen Fedora yet). Weirdly, just before I read your post I was watching the beginning of Sunset Boulevard on TV.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Just got done reading your post. Of the four films, I think Sunset Blvd. is my favorite of the four, even though, it's darker than I normally like. Thanks for stopping by.