Despite his looks and grace, William Holden never quite fit comfortably into the leading man role. There was always a sense of loss in his characters, sometimes obviously, sometimes submerged (as when he played comedy). But always there. Here are a few excerpts from an excellent article on Holden's career. For the complete piece (and a fine one it is) go here http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/st-bill-of-illinois-20080702
The poignant case for William Holden
by Michael Atkinson posted July 2, 2008
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William Holden: A Different Kind of Hero,
Film Society of Lincoln Center, July 2-15, 2008
"Such is the nature of our intimate, carking, rueful relationship with William Holden, on the surface one of the Hollywood century's typical all-purpose leading men, but beneath it the keeper of poisoned secrets, and a living embodiment of America's postwar self-doubt and idealistic failure. He seethed with disappointment as a persona, and we all knew what he meant. Holden was the anti-Duke, an avatar of hopelessness, shrouded in the smiling physique of an all-American boyo. For every high school football star turned pot-bellied gym teacher, every prom queen turned food-stamp mom, and every good-hearted B student turned Cracker Barrel waiter, Holden was the walking, talking, growling truth, in a sea of showbiz lies.
"Holden's fungal aura genuinely began to form in Rudolph Maté's The Dark Past (1948), in which he played a miserable, hair-trigger sociopath who has his wretched childhood dredged up for him by kidnapped shrink Lee J. Cobb, but it was Billy Wilder's camphorous Sunset Blvd. (1950) that seems to have been written with Holden's particular discomfort in mind. Wilder's disinterment of the old Hollywood, and Gloria Swanson's lurid incarnation thereof, got the press and the accolades, but it was Holden, emanating self-disgust in every scene, who gave the film its queasy force. It was still 1950, but everyone could tell just by the look on Holden's face that he was having to sleep with that ghostly woman, that he was a Hollywood whore trading in every gram of worth he ever thought he owned. What other star of the day could've, or even would've, embraced the moral horror of the role? Who else could've elevated shame to a state of being?
Holden is, again, the film's unsettled moral conscience—a role that in the real world requires familiarity with dishonor and calamity—just as he was more than a quarter-century earlier, as a young man, sitting on Norma Desmond's couch and wishing he were anywhere else, the compromised conscience of a new society.