There is something about Bill Holden.
It’s something that can be hard to define. Sure, he’s a handsome lad, but there were handsomer stars. And yes, he’s a talented actor, but there were those whose talents exceeded his.
He excels in defying expectation on the screen. Holden is, in many respects, the very definition of a multifaceted actor. It’s amazing to me that his name is not nearly as recognizable to modern audiences as those of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, or Henry Fonda. Just look at the list of films he completed in the early 1950s, the heyday of a storied career. He starts out the decade as the jaded boy toy of an aging, forgotten silent film star in Sunset Blvd. (1950); then he’s the hapless straight man to Judy Holliday’s dizzy dame in Born Yesterday (1950); the cynical POW (his Oscar-winning turn) in Stalag 17 (1953); and the charming, roguish playboy heir in Sabrina (1954). And that big-screen persona translated just as easily into the newly-emerging world of television, when Holden allowed Lucille Ball to douse him with pies in a classic Hollywood episode of I Love Lucy (a clip of which I am including below because it’s awesome and I want to).
If I had to put my finger on what it is that’s so damn fascinating about Bill Holden, it’s this: there’s an aura of machismo that seems to cling to every fiber of Holden’s being. This, the universe tells us, is a man’s man. There are several stars who, with every performance, seem to soak the screen in testosterone: John Wayne, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen… and to me, William Holden belongs in that hallowed group.
There are, quite likely, some folks who would disagree. Holden’s not rough-hewn like Wayne or barrel-chested like Gable. He lacks Cooper’s silent swagger and McQueen’s utter cool. He’s almost too… well, pretty for this group.
But I would direct those folks to Holden’s electrifying performance in 1955’s Picnic, which in many ways marks a turning point in Holden’s film career.
Holden stars as Hal Carter, a drifter who has come to a small Kansas town to look up his old college roommate, a wealthy young heir named Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson). Before he makes his way across town to see his friend, he stops at the house of the kindly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton) and offers to do chores in exchange for breakfast. While working, he encounters Mrs. Potts’ next door neighbors and discovers that the oldest daughter, the beautiful Madge Owens (Kim Novak) is dating Alan. Upon reuniting with Alan and securing the promise of a job with Alan’s father, Hal accompanies Alan and the Owens family to the town’s annual Labor Day picnic. Trouble ensues as romantic sparks fly between Hal and Madge, much to the chagrin of Madge’s clingy mother.
When Holden first appears on screen, he’s sweaty, grimy, and looks like danger personified. We quickly learn that there’s a lot more to this beaten-down bum than meets the eye, but who cares about that when he takes his shirt off to do yardwork?
Someone fan me; I think I just swooned a little bit. It’s like two dreams in one: a half-naked Bill Holden, and a man cleaning the yard.
Holden, as Hal, drips with masculinity in the role, deliberately placed in stark contrast to college friend Alan, who seems weaker and more feminine in comparison. But Alan is the wealthy one and, logically, the better catch for a small-town girl like Madge. Okay, sure, Hal’s hot, but why on earth would any self-respecting girl with a social-climbing mother even look twice at a disreputable bum like him?
I have just three words for you: mad dance skills.
No doubt, this is one of the most sensual scenes in film history. It’s lovemaking set to music, with everyone’s clothes intact. Who says real men don’t dance?
In actuality, the storyline, adapted from the 1953 William Inge play of the same name, was changed quite a bit for the screen, and this dance sequence is meant, in theory, to replace the play’s heavy hints that Hal and Madge have sex after driving away together for the night. And by all accounts, it was pure hell for Holden to film; he was not confident in his ability to dance, and though he rehearsed the number repeatedly, the actor still needed a few bolts of whiskey to make it through the scene. Nevertheless, Holden and Novak made beautiful movie magic together.
Holden plays well in the highly-sexualized role of Hal, and in subsequent roles, the actor moved quite easily between romantic leads and dramatic parts until settling into character roles with 1969’s The Wild Bunch, 1974’s The Towering Inferno, and 1976’s Network. But regardless of what he was doing, Holden always smoldered with barely-supressed virility, and that’s why you just can’t take your eyes off the man.
But aside from the charms of Holden, the film is a good one (and a noteworthy one) because of its deft and talented supporting cast. Picnic marks Kim Novak’s first major role, and she more than holds her own among her veteran co-stars. A young Susan Strasberg, daughter of “Method acting” guru Lee Strasberg, plays Madge’s brainy sister, Millie, who holds her own candle for Hal. Rosalind Russell, who plays the desperately lonely schoolteacher, Rosemary, had by this point moved into the second phase of her career, leaving behind ingenue roles and portraying the type of spinter-ish character she would revisit in subsequent films like Auntie Mame (1958) and The Trouble with Angels (1966). Cliff Robertson, who plays Alan, worked steadily in secondary parts throughout his career and had a bit of a career resurgence in the early 2000s as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man film series.
But Verna Felton, who plays Mrs. Potts, is probably the most recognized of her co-stars by today’s audiences–at least vocally. Felton provided the voices for many classic Disney characters, including Mrs. Jumbo in Dumbo (1941), the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella (1950), the Queen of Hearts in 1951’s Alice in Wonderland (one of my favorites!), and the fairy Flora in Sleeping Beauty (1959). Interestingly (if only because of her years-long professional relationship with the Disney company), Felton died only hours before Walt Disney himself, in December 1966.
Amazon has the Picnic DVD for the ridiculously low price of $7.99 right now, but since the DVD is full-screen, why bother (unless you’re just desperate to see it… well, even if you are)? Wait until Picnic comes back on TCM on September 1st at 8PM EST, and catch it then. It’s worth the wait to see the film in all its wide-screen glory.