William Holden was an Oscar-winning performer who starred in dozens of movies, remaining active until his untimely death in 1981. But how many of his titles remain classics? Let’s take a look back at 15 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born on April 17, 1918, Holden made his film debut with a starring role in the boxing drama “Golden Boy” (1939) when he was just 21 years old. Though his career lagged for the next decade, he came roaring back with Billy Wilder‘s Hollywood noir “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), playing a struggling screenwriter who becomes involved with a fading, delusional silent film star (Gloria Swanson). The role brought him his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor.
He joined the winner’s circle just three years later with a Best Actor victory for Wilder’s “Stalag 17” (1953), which cast him as a cynical American POW who’s suspected of being a German informant during WWII.
It took Holden 23 years to return to the Best Actor race with Sidney Lumet‘s biting media satire “Network” (1976). He played Max Schumacher, a veteran news producer who watches in horror as his division is destroyed by a craven programming executive (Faye Dunaway) who turns the mental breakdown of their lead anchor (Peter Finch) into primetime entertainment. He lost to his costar, Finch, who died of a heart attack prior to the ceremony.
On the TV side, Holden took home an Emmy for “The Blue Knight” (Best Movie/Mini Actor in 1974). He also earned BAFTA nominations for “Picnic” (1955) and “Network.”
Tour our photo gallery of Holden’s 15 greatest films, including a few for which he should’ve received Oscar nominations.
15. GOLDEN BOY (1939)
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Screenplay by Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, based on the play by Clifford Odets. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, William Holden, Lee J. Cobb, Joseph Calleia.
Holden made his film debut in this creaky adaptation of Clifford Odets’ hit play. He plays Joe Bonaparte, a talented violinist who tries his hand at boxing, despite resistance from his father (Lee J. Cobb hamming it up as an Italian immigrant). He becomes a fighting success, falling in with a corrupt manager (Adolph Menjou) and finding a new love interest (Barbara Stanwyck). The film is badly dated, filled with endless cliches and clunky melodrama. But Holden proves himself — at just 21 years old — to be a bonafide movie star.
14. LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING (1955)
Directed by Henry King. Screenplay by John Patrick, based on the book ‘A Many-Splendoured Thing’ by Han Suyin. Starring Jennifer Jones, William Holden, Torin, Thatcher, Isobel Elsom, Murray Matheson, Virginia Gregg.
This romantic soap opera is best remembered for its Oscar-winning title song, which was made famous by The Four Aces. It’s also notorious for the rather dubious casting of Caucasian performer Jennifer Jones as a woman of European and Asian descent. (The Academy had no problem with it, nominating her in Best Actress). That aside, the central love story about a married American correspondent (Holden) falling for a widowed doctor (Jones) while in Hong Kong during the Chinese Communist revolution is pretty effective. The film earned additional prizes for its score and costumes, and contended in Best Picture.
13. THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
Directed by John Guillermin. Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novels ‘The Tower’ by Richard Martin Stern and ‘The Glass Inferno’ by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O. J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner.
The disaster movies that plagued the box office throughout the 1970s hit their zenith with “The Towering Inferno,” a big-budget, all-star spectacle that managed to score a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Paul Newman stars as an architect whose 135-story skyscraper catches fire on the eve of its opening, threatening the lives of everyone inside. He teams up with a gruff fire chief (Steve McQueen) to save the A-listers trapped inside, including the tower’s builder (Holden). Silly? Absolutely. But it’s also overblown (and at 165 minutes, overlong) fun. The film took home prizes for cinematography, film editing, and the song “We May Never Love Like This Again,” and competed in Best Picture.
12. OUR TOWN (1940)
Directed by Sam Wood. Screenplay by Harry Chandlee, Frank Craven, Thornton Wilder, based on Wilder’s play. Starring William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbe, Frank Craven.
In adapting Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, director Sam Wood makes two crucial changes, one wise, the other near-ruinous. On the plus side, the film provides actual scenery for the small New Hampshire town in which it takes place, whereas the stage show is set within the actual theater it’s being performed in. On the negative side, the tragic third act, which involves the death of a major character, is turned into a dream sequence by the protagonist, Emily Webb (Martha Scott). Still, there’s plenty to enjoy about this slice of Americana, which features Holden as Emily’s husband, George Gibbs. The film earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Scott).
11. THE COUNTRY GIRL (1954)
Written and directed by George Seaton, based on the play by Clifford Odets. Starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, William Holden, Anthony Ross, Gene Reynolds.
Grace Kelly won the Oscar as Best Actress for this adaptation of Clifford Odets’ melodramatic stage hit. She plays the wife of an alcoholic Broadway has-been (Bing Crosby) plotting a comeback with the help of an ambitious young director (Holden). At first, Holden thinks Kelly is the cause of all her husband’s woes, but he soon grows to love her himself. Kelly’s victory was a shocking upset, as Judy Garland was widely expected to prevail for “A Star is Born.” A camera crew was dispatched to Garland’s hospital room — where she was recuperating from the birth of her son — to capture her reaction live, which couldn’t have been cheery.
10. PICNIC (1955)
Directed by Joshua Logan. Screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the play by William Inge. Starring William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Rosalind Russell, Arthur O’Connell.
Though it was considered pretty racy in its time, “Picnic” feels rather tame these days, especially when compared to more revolutionary films from the same period. Adapted from William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it details 24 hours in the life of a small Kansas town during a Labor Day celebration. Holden spends most of his time shirtless as Hal Carter, a handsome drifter who ignites the passions of a repressed girl (Kim Novak). Director Joshua Logan feels content to stage his actors awkwardly in the VistaVision frame, showing his stage root a little. Though the filmmaking hasn’t exactly aged well, the performances make it worth watching. An Oscar winner for its art direction and film editing, it also competed in Best Picture. Holden contended at BAFTA, but was snubbed by the Academy.
9. THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI (1954)
Directed by Mark Robson. Screenplay by Valentine Davies, story by James Michener. Starring William Holden, Mickey Rooney, Fredric March, Grace Kelly, Robert Strauss.
This ambitious, moving adaptation of James Michener’s novel casts Holden as a lawyer recalled by the Navy to fly fighter jets during the Korean War. He must grapple with his own ambivalence towards the ongoing conflict while strategically bombing heavily defended enemy bridges. Grace Kelly costars as Holden’s devoted wife. A surprisingly thoughtful war epic, the film also features some truly remarkable flying sequences that brought it an Oscar for Best Special Effects. (It also competed in Best Film Editing.)
8. EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954)
Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the novel by Cameron Hawley. Starring William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Nina Foch.
Robert Wise directs an all-star cast in this classy drama about the internal power struggle at a top furniture manufacturing firm. When the head of the company dies suddenly without naming a successor, the calculating Loren Shaw (Fredric March) makes his move to ascend. But several vice presidents prefer the young, idealistic Don Walling (Holden). Nina Foch scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar bid for playing the dead man’s devoted secretary. The film inspired a short-lived TV series, which aired for one season in 1976-77.
7. BORN YESTERDAY (1950)
Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by Albert Mannheimer, based on the play by Garson Kanin. Starring Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden, Howard St. John.
George Cukor brings Garson Kanin’s hit play to the screen to dazzling results. Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Billie Dawn, an ex-chorus girl who frequently embarrasses her much older boyfriend, junkyard tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). While in Washington to buy the influence of some politicians, he hires a journalist (Holden) to teach her proper manners, and is horrified to learn that the two have fallen in love. The film earned additional nominations in writing, directing, costumes, and film. (That same year, Holden starred in another Best Picture nominee, “Sunset Blvd.”, which brought him a lead acting bid.)
6. SABRINA (1954)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder, Ernest Lehman, and Samuel A. Taylor, based on Taylor’s play. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Walter Hampden, John Williams, Martha Hyer, Joan Vohs.
Holden’s cynical veneer was infused with a wicked sense of humor, so it’s little wonder he’d shine in a full-on romantic comedy. In Billy Wilder’s “Sabrina,” he plays David Larrabee, a girl-crazy playboy who’s set his sights on the family chauffeur’s glamorous daughter (Audrey Hepburn). But his workaholic older brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart), finds himself drawn to her as well. It’s a testament to Wilder’s modern sensibilities that this holds up better than the 1995 remake. The film snagged six Oscar nominations, including Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, winning for Edith Head’s dazzling costumes.
5. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1954)
Directed by David Lean. Screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle. Starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” was David Lean’s first foray into epic filmmaking, and although the scale was bigger, his focus on character and theme remain as tightly focused as it was in his smaller features. Alec Guinness stars as a British Colonel newly arrived to a WWII Japanese P.O.W. camp who, after butting heads with the camp’s commander (Sessue Hayakawa), agrees to help build a railway bridge for his captors. Meanwhile, a group of Allies led by a soldier (Holden) who’s not too keen on returning to the jungle try to destroy it. The film’s grande finale, with the bridge exploding and toppling with a train atop, remains stunning in its technical prowess. “Kwai” won seven Oscars, including Picture, Director, and Actor (Guinness).
4. THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah, story by Green and Roy N. Sickner. Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson.
Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” caused a stir when it opened, with critics lambasting its balletic vision of carnage and cynical worldview. Seen today, it’s a poetic examination of the ways in which violence is passed down from one generation to the next, becoming even bloodier with each era (as proven by how tame it looks today). Holden brings a weariness to his tough guy bravado as Pike, the leader of an outlaw gang — including Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oats, Jamie Sanchez, and Ben Johnson — who plan to retire after one last score. But a former member (Robert Ryan) is hot on their trail, leading to devastating bloodshed. Despite the controversy, the film managed Oscar nominations for its score and screenplay.
3. SUNSET BLVD. (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr., Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Cecil B. DeMille.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the fading, delusional silent film star wasting away in her decrepit mansion, burns brightly in our memories of “Sunset Blvd.” Yet every performance in Billy Wilder’s Hollywood noir is exceptional (and indeed, Swanson, Holden, Erich von Stroheim, and Nancy Olson all scored acting nominations at the Oscars). Holden stars as Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter who allows himself to be taken in by the actress twice his age. Von Stroheim is her loyal butler, Max, a once-great director now tending to his ex-wife’s needs. And Olson is Betty Schaefer, a perky young script reader who falls in love with Joe. Wilder won an Oscar for his screenplay, which features one memorable line of dialogue after another (“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”). Holden earned his first bid as Best Actor, losing to Jose Ferrer (“Cyrano de Bergerac”).
2. NETWORK (1976)
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Paddy Chayefsky. Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight.
More than 40 years later, anchorman Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) tirade about being mad as hell and not taking it anymore feels more relevant than ever. Written by Paddy Chayefsky as if looking through a crystal ball, “Network” imagines what would happen if a television channel exploited its newsman’s mental breakdown for ratings. Holden gives one of his most affecting performances as Max Schumacher, the veteran news producer who watches his division crumble under a craven programming executive (Faye Dunaway) who then takes him for her lover. Director Sidney Lumet handles this absurd premise with a subtlety that makes it all the more nightmarishly realistic. The film won 4 Oscars (Chayefsky, Finch, Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight as Holden’s wife) and reaped six more nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Holden. (He lost to Finch, who died of a heart attack prior to the ceremony).
1. STALAG 17 (1953)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Edwin Blum and Billy Wilder, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. Starring William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Peter Graves, Sig Ruman.
It’s rare for an actor to win the Oscar for his career-best performance, but such was the case with Holden and “Stalag 17.” He plays J. J. Sefton, a cynical American POW who openly barters with the German camp leaders to receive special treatment, much to the consternation of the other inmates. When two escapees are killed, his fellow soldiers begin to suspect he’s an informant, forcing him to snuff out the real rat. Per usual with Billy Wilder, the satire is pitch black and biting. Holden tears his teeth into this meaty role, spewing Sefton’s venom and disenchantment with glee. Wilder competed in Best Director, while Robert Strauss contended in Best Supporting Actor for playing camp cut-up Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa (a role he played in the original Broadway production).