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William Holden in "S.O.B."

Mini William Holden Centennial celebration. We're beginning, oddly enough, with his final film. Here's Tim Brayton...

The 1981 film S.O.B. wasn't meant to be William Holden's final film: the star died in a household accident a few months after the film premiered, at a mere 63 years old. But it offers a pleasing symmetry to his career to end this way: Holden's big breakthrough, in 1950, was the acid-laced Hollywood satire Sunset Blvd., and there's a comforting rightness that it was with an acid-laced Hollywood satire that his career would end.

Not that S.O.B. has anything on Sunset Blvd., though it's a compelling oddity, and it's one of the few films made by writer-director-producer Blake Edwards after his 1960s heyday that offers all that much to chew on. The film is a deeply caustic fable of how superproducer Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) churned out the biggest money-loser in Hollywood history one day, went insane from the stress of it, and decided to turn his family-friendly musical into a pornographic extravaganza...

It's in part Edwards's grouchy attack on what he clearly views as the licentiousness of modern fimmaking, in much greater part his angry, mocking attack on studio meddling and micro-managing, and the toxic culture of "succeed or die" that had come to grip the American film industry in the ashes of the New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s...

The film is a messy sprawl, at least partially by design, without a center or even a single narrative throughline. Holden is possibly the actor with the most screen time (and receives second-billing, after Edwards's wife Julie Andrews, who infamously went topless in one scene), but he's nowhere close to the film's protagonist; it has no such thing. Instead, Holden's character, film director Tim Culley, is one of several people attempting to contain Felix's madness before it escapes into the press, before largely disappearing for a huge chunk of the movie's second half.

Which isn't to say that Holden isn't doing good work or that he's embarrassing himself: as sloppy and angry as S.O.B. is, it provides a lot of opportunity for sharp line deliveries, and Holden makes the most of that. He's also one of the only members of the stuffed cast who has clearly elected to play his character as a human being with recognizable, if warped motivations, instead of a crude joke.

The role feels descended, in a way, from Holden's tired television executive in the more focused 1976 satire Network: there's a similar combination of old man's fatigue and the oily grandstanding that comes from a lifetime of work in the smarmy world of media business. S.O.B. unquestionably asks him to ramp up the oiliness and subtract some of the humanity, and this Holden does, using an unfriendly plastic smile and forced upbeat energy end to create one of the most cynical characters in an acting career fueled on cynicism. Right from his introduction, bursting into a room with a cigarette hanging on his lip, causing his brisk dialogue to come out slurry and arrogant, Holden's take on Culley is that of a man whose solitary remaining interest or skill lies in out-talking everybody else. It's a sour portrayal of the director as a huckster and martinet, but in some ways the least sour figure in the whole film; Holden never indulges Edwards's love for live-action cartoon characters as much as most of his co-stars, and feels more like a person by the end of the film than just about anybody else onscreen.

This isn't to say he provides the film with its heart; it has no heart. But Holden does anchor the film's satire in reality like no one else onscreen. It's an odd part in an odd movie, but it feels right as the end to this career that he provides the one genuinely sordid human being in a sea of caricatures.

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Reader Comments (12)

I haven't seen it in a while, but I remember him being pretty unconfortable during all the movie. Fedora would have been a better final film.

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I'm actually super-fond of this film but Holden, much as I typically adore him, doesn't much stand out and arguably even phones it in at times. Richard Mulligan and Robert Preston seem to have the most fun, plus there's that fabulous Shelley Winters cameo.

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Holden was not a particularly good actor through the years, BUT he had a real charisma about him.

Other than Stalag ( I forget the number ), I loved him in Picnic. He and Kim Novak burnt up the screen in the "Moonglow" number. I remember, I was in the 8th grade and al the girls did the Kim dance for us boys!!! Whew! I sweat just thinking about it.

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergrrr

That was an awesome film. It's so funny as it just showcases what a director will do to save his movie and he decides to ape-shit. Plus, who would've though Mary Poppins had some nice boobies?

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

OMG - that still!
I love everyone who costumed and styled Rosanna Arquette in literally any 80s movie.

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

He was so handsome! One trivia game you can play is to try to remember the films where the studios allowed him to show off his hairy chest. They mostly required him to shave it!

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

63?? good grief, is that all? i figured he had to be in his 80s

current actors who are 63: billy bob thornton, kevin costner, jeff daniels, willem dafoe, bruce willis

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterpar

He had some problems with booze. Just ask Stephanie Powers.

He was so handsome, and had such a nice chest. Shame they made him shave it.

Miscast, but still charismatic, in one of my favorites "Picnic".

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

I love William Holden!! I feel like he’s been overlooked in recent years to many other old legends. He is amazing in Wild Bunch and I LOVE him in network. I think that of all the actors that won for network, it was the MVP of the film that lost. I do think Holden gives my favorite performance in that film. I love his monologue at the end about old age

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

It is an odd film with a very dark energy but as a close out to a substantial career not a bad last movie, certainly many others of his stature have had far worse.

It is sad however to see the once vital, charismatic and almost impossibly handsome Holden as the sunken, hollowed out husk he was at this point. If you didn't know better he could conceivably be in his 80's from the look of him.

April 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I'm 63. Holy cow....I aged better than William Holden. Booze & cigarettes. The Wild Ones, Sunset Blvd, Network. very good. and, dont forget I love lucy....he gave ricky ricardo a ride home from the studio and gave "The Country Girl" a plug. Great movie star. very handsome / strong voice. humanitarian....actually a wiild animaltarian i guess. too bad he died so young.

April 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

As a Julie fanboy, I love this movie. It's not actually good, but it's very watchable and fun. The scene where Holden, Mulligan, Preston and Webber are trying to convince her to go topless in a scene is a classic. As a last movie, it's not an embarrassment. Julie sings a lovely version of Oh Promise Me that is completely without irony and really incredible.

April 17, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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