It’s the end of the Civil War, and a ragged Confederate detail faces teeming Union forces. After a tense moment of contemplation, the cold-eyed Yankee commander gives the order to fire; the Rebs are cut to ribbons. Walking among the Confederate dead, a loyal Union captain finds what his commander saw: a white flag that the men had raised to surrender. The captain considers the cloth, clear evidence of a madman’s massacre—and then tosses it into a hole, scuffing a bootful of dirt on top of it.
Only one actor in 1948 could have played this moment of grave moral weakness—the grabber opening scene of Henry Levin’s psycho western The Man from Colorado—and gone on to become the movie’s hero. The leitmotif of William Holden’s career was compromise—from his very first leading (p)role as the working-class contender who ditches the violin for prizefighting in 1939’s Golden Boy. In film after film—his best ones, anyway—his characters sold their souls, dealt with the devil, stirred impure thoughts in the innocent and impressionable, and looked out for No. 1.
Through July 15, the Film Society of Lincoln Center pays Holden tribute with a 20-film series that brands him “A Different Kind of Hero,” a transitional figure between the untroubled he-men of prewar Hollywood and the conflicted antiheroes of the ’70s. Watch the series chronologically, and Holden morphs from the male ingenue of 1939’s Golden Boy and 1940’s Our Town (paired July 7) into the arm-twisted Nazi mole of 1962’s The Counterfeit Traitor (July 12) and the Hollywood-hollowed husk of Blake Edwards’s savage 1981 S.O.B. (July 11), his collegiate beauty gradually yielding to a facial road map of psychic rot.
Within that four-decade span, Holden’s roles and films crisscross in intriguing ways. The pairing of 1950’s Sunset Boulevard with Billy Wilder’s seldom-shown 1978 Fedora (July 2) addresses celluloid stardom as a combination living death and artificial preservation—an idea cruelly belied by the 28-year difference in Holden’s looks. In the company of Clint Eastwood’s obscure 1973 feature Breezy (July 10)— a mawkish but affectingly unguarded generation-gap romance in which Holden falls for drippy flower child Kay Lenz—the late-life crisis of Holden’s lust-struck TV exec supersedes the laborious (if prescient) satire of Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Network.
The frank sex scenes in both films show that Holden was perhaps the only leading man of his generation to confront the decade’s changing screen mores, as if acting in the ’70s upon the erotic liberation that beckoned in 1955’s heavy-breathing Picnic (July 13). This is somewhat ironic, because Holden wasn’t the sort of actor typically thought of as daring: He shrugged off histrionics in favor of the brusquely precise line reading, the small, true gesture. Think of Pike Bishop, the grizzled masculine honor guard of The Wild Bunch (July 11 and 15), brushing away the clinging garment of the innocent townswoman he trampled—a move that dashes myths of Old West gallantry and exposes layers of moral callous in one violent motion.
That could also describe Holden’s defining role: the sharply self-interested POW in Wilder’s 1953 Stalag 17 (July 14), accused of (and beaten for) ratting out his bunkmates. What makes Holden’s performance so pleasing is his refusal to soften the character’s hard-boiled cynicism. He’s the original 20-minute egg, and even if ultimately heroic—the scene in which Holden unmasks the culprit is an actor’s dream—his ignoble impulses seem as genuine (and genuinely self-serving) as his noble ones. William Holden is back in theaters—and, for the next two weeks anyway, the pictures are no longer small.