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« Blueprints: "A Quiet Place" | Main | Doc Corner: 'Yours in Sisterhood' is an Essential Film for 2018 »
Thursday
Apr192018

William Holden in "Picnic"

Our mini William Holden Centennial celebration continues with Eric Blume...

Picnic, the 1955 film version of William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, came two years after William Holden won his Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 and one year after his dashing role in Sabrina.  Holden was at the height of his stardom when this film released, and he’s smartly front and center through most of the picture...

Pulitzer aside, William Inge has never been held in as high regard as his contemporaries like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, or Eugene O’Neill…and sixty years later, his writing creaks pretty painfully.  The plot of Picnic, about a man named Hal Carter (Holden) who just wants to make a good life for himself, and the smalltown beauty he romances(Kim Novak) doesn’t have the elevated language of those three men, the ever resonant themes, nor the dramatic thrust and power.  To say the movie hasn’t aged well is an understatement It’s paced in a turtle-like crawl, but to director Joshua Logan’s credit, there’s no hurry to crawl towards anything in particular.  The characters are stock types, and they don’t feel like “real people” to us nowadays. As such it's a true time-capsule where idealized folks live only in the minds of Hollywood studio executives with their eyes on a “wholesome” audience… which is antithetical to what the piece is actually about.

The acting is a bit all over the place as well, with some of the actors still performing in studio style, and some playing to the rafters as if they’re doing the play. ...And then there’s William Holden.  

Holden truly had screen magnetism: he's always connected to the camera, and he feels sweetly effortless in everything. He definitely understood when to stylize his Leading Man qualities but he also gives his character an interior life and keeps scenes simple and honest.  In Picnic he has to play some second-rate “I could have been a contender” moments, but he rises above the clichés for the most part and calibrates his character's journey well. You always feel his self-doubt, and when the characters push him down, Holden plays it as if he deserved it. You see his secret thoughts and believe his urge for self-destruction.  And it goes without saying that Picnic features Holden’s sexiest role:  he spends a fair amount of the movie shirtless and/or sweaty, and that confident swagger still works over half a century later.   

Picnic had an effective 2013 Broadway revival that featured Sebastian Stan in the Holden role, with support from Ellen Burstyn, Mare Winningham, and Elizabeth Marvel.  The production worked well because they forcefully focused on the themes of wealth, youth, and beauty. When Stan had his shirt off, it sent everyone on stage into some stage of wetness, and his physical exposure had purposeful heat and threat.  The creative team found a new way into the play that felt right for contemporary values and what we (sadly) hold dear. The film, wrapped in 1950s censorship and limitation, wasn’t able to bring out a punch to Inge’s themes. You want to feel these characters barreling towards oblivion in a world that values superficial qualities and denies people a second chance or new salvation.  And Logan’s Picnic can’t get there.

 

But the film remains a stunning showcase for Holden.  There’s no denying the whammy of his sex appeal and manly vulnerability.  He’s nearly the whole show, and a sight to behold.

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Reader Comments (16)

I wrote about Holden in Picnic on the first blog about him

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergrrr

He does look great in the film and his smolder along with Kim Novak's beauty are very potent even if the film is much too long for the story its telling.

As fantastic as he looks he's too old for the part and knew it but he accepted the role to finish up his long term Columbia contract in order to be able to freelance much more lucratively. Even though the role was a means to an end he doesn't sleepwalk through the part and he does hold the audience's interest.

Aside from Kim and he the other standout in the film is Rosalind Russell as spinster school teacher Rosemary. Her breakdown scene is scary and sad and very raw.

Loving the mini tribute to Holden, though I'm sad it's a mini one and not the whole week.

I happened to notice that on the same day as his centennial it also was Anne Shirley's as well. She was Oscar nominated in supporting for her work as Laurel Dallas in the Barbara Stanwyck version of Stella Dallas and finished up her career as one of the leads of the noir classic Murder, My Sweet.

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Oscar Trivia Russell refused to be campaigned as Best Supporting Actress because in those days it was for lesser stars or character roles and actors so she missed out on an Oscar nomination and maybe a win.

I find Holden has a more earthy sex appeal in his early roles,you could kick your shoes off and put them on his lap and he wouldn't flinch.

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

One of my favorites. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous movie! The cast is brilliant and I don't like much the young Rosalind Russell, I think she's better when older, like here. And Kim Novak, what to say? A goddess playing a "pretty small town girl". Harry Cohn did with her in the 50s what he did with Jean Arthur in the 30s and Rita Hayworth in the 40s - a great star and built around her great movies, and the directors knew what to do with her deficiencies.(They had to!) William Holden is everywhere in the 50s, sometimes just watching the other actors working, but always a remarkable presence. Like Clark Gable and Richard Widmark, he is a gold mine of charm and can make us think he is more handsome than he really is, depending on the role he's playing. In Picnic he can be convincingly irresistible for the women of the story and also for the audience, in a Rock Hudson type. There's a story that he, while married with actress Brenda Marshall, was dating Audrey Hepburn(they had met on the set of Sabrina,1954) and Grace Kelly(The Bridges At Toko-Ri and The Country Girl, both 1954) at the same time. Grace, in turn, dated at the same time Bing Crosby(The Country Girl). Maybe the 1950s weren't so innocent as we think.

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

My mother's favorite actor. His dance with Kim Novak is an unforgettable movie moment

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

A great year for Bill--he was also in Love Is a Many Splendored Thing with Jennifer Jones. Two Best Picture nominees. Nice. He was one of the most important male stars of that decade.

Moonglow--dayum

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

LOVE this film! Nuts that Russell wasn't nominated.

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Considering their sizzlin on screen chemistry, it's surprising Holden n Novak nev pair up again.

Althot Logan was a veteran Broadway director by then, Picnic was actually his film directorial debut, so I tink he deserves some slack. Its not a bad job for a first timer, ya?

Yes, it's tru tt Roz Russell refused to campaign for supp n she might hav won if she did. She was ard 47 or 48 when she made this film, the right age for the character. But I find her Rosemary too OTT n agressive n she played it too broadly one note.

She shld've won 3 yrs later for Auntie Mame!! And wld've had it not been Susie Hayward's turn.

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

You can't really blame Roz Russell for refusing to go Supporting since in the Hollywood of the time.

To do so more probably than not would have put an end to her career as a headliner particularly if she had won. Young actresses then could move forward to starring from supporting nominations but if a major star went into the supporting category she stayed there especially one in her late forties.

A veteran like Russell had to be only too aware of that and though she lost her chance at the award she remained an above the title star for the entirety of her career.

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I went to school at the University of Kansas, and that is where you can see the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay that Inge won for this film.

One of my favorites, probably because I went to school nearby, and even in the 80's, met one than one "just a small town girl" living the high life in big city Lawrence. And some of them are much much better people than the real city folk.

This film is another great example of what "chemistry" is on film. Dayum!

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

I thought Susan Strasberg as the younger sister was the true stand out of the movie. I've heard conflicting reports about Holden not wanting to do this movie and needing to get drunk to do his dance scene since he knew he was too old for the part and was self conscious.

April 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Hi joel, I understand her fears, but I think Roz misjudged. She was close to getting that Oscar. Vanity could also have been a factor in her decision. As far as her status declining, I don't think that would have happened. Frank Sinatra and Shirley Jones won supporting Oscars around this time and their star was not dimmed a bit. JMO.

April 20, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

brookesboy: Frank Sinatra was a 38 year old male AND not, primarily, an actor by trade (From Here to Eternity was only his SECOND non-musical), so he wasn't really risking ANYTHING by "winning for supporting" and Shirley Jones was only 26, which is absolutely a "young actress."

April 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia, you're right--I had no idea Shirley was that young. My God, she was a baby when she began! That does make a difference.

April 20, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

For pure sexy William Holden, you can't beat 'Rachel and the Stranger'. His character is so unaware of his appeal, but Loretta Young sure makes us see it.

April 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRosa Moline

I happened upon Picnic several years ago quite by accident. William Holden was absolutely mesmerizing. Although I agree that he was probably too old for the role, he commanded the screen throughout. His pauses, and simple glances stole the movie. While he was obviously in other, more overall stunning films, Picnic was Holden at his finest. I count it in my "Top 5" films of all time.

April 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPercy Starr

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