“I gotta get somewhere in this world. I just gotta.” -Hal Carter, Picnic.
And so sums up William Holden’s character in Picnic. I’ve written about this film previously in this blog, but I thought that this time I would focus on William Holden and his character in the film. Holden thought that he was miscast in this film and in many ways, he is right. Hal is clearly supposed to be in his early to mid-twenties, as he’s a college classmate of Alan Benson’s (Cliff Robertson). Holden himself was 37 and looked every bit of it. From an age perspective, Holden is right. He is too old. However, from a personality standpoint, he is perfectly cast.
Holden made his screen debut in 1939’s Golden Boy, co-starring Barbara Stanwyck. Holden was nervous and ill at ease and it was affecting his performance. Columbia Studios bosses were unhappy with his performance and were on the verge of firing him. Stanwyck, then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, employed her star power and demanded that Holden remain in the film. She coached him and helped him get through the filming of Golden Boy. While Holden’s “green-ness” shows in this film, he’s not terrible (that honor goes to Lee J. Cobb, then 27, who was inexplicably cast as 21 year old William Holden’s father. Cobb is horrible and very annoying in this film). While Holden got steady work, it would take eleven years to finally “make it” and be a big star.
In 1950, Holden won the leading role in Sunset Blvd. As “down on his luck” screenwriter, Joe Gillis, Holden developed his signature brand of cynicism, world weariness, but an overall good guy. He would play this character in most of his films from here on out. One of the best applications of “The William Holden” persona is his portrayal of Hal Carter in Picnic. A film in which, like I mentioned earlier, Holden felt he was miscast. Yes, age-wise, Holden is too old. He knows it and the audience knows it. But personality-wise, Holden is perfect as Hal Carter.
In Picnic, Hal Carter is a drifter who winds up in Kansas in hopes to reacquaint with an old college friend, Alan Benson. Hal is unemployed and has jumped from job to job and city to city since dropping out of college. He is trying to get his life back together and hopes that Alan will give him some sort of job. Alan’s family owns a large grain mill and Alan promises Hal a job scooping wheat. This job is not exactly what Hal has in mind–he wanted to be an executive. Hal ends up meeting and falling for Madge Owens (Kim Novak), a 19 year old woman who is known to be one of the prettiest “girls” in the area. But, oops! Madge is already involved with Alan. This will drive a wedge between Hal and Alan.
Hal is just trying to find a niche for himself in a community where he can thrive. He is tired of the drifting lifestyle and just wants to fit in somewhere. From Hal’s expository dialogue, we learn that he is responsible for his previous failures. Alan, believing that Hal is sincere in getting his life together, invites him to the town’s annual Labor Day Picnic. At first, everything’s going great and Hal is charming everyone. After Alan senses that Hal may have his sights set on his girlfriend, Madge (and Madge has her sights set on Hal), Alan begins giving Hal the cold shoulder.
Madge is facing a similar situation to Hal. She is known for being beautiful and that’s it. Her mother and boyfriend think that Madge can skate by on her looks and nothing matters except for her to “be pretty.” It is apparent that Madge’s mother, Florence, wants Madge to use her beauty to land a boyfriend with a high social standing, so that by proxy, the Owens women (Madge, sister Millie, and mother “Flo”) will have high social standings as well. It is apparent that Alan is really only interested in Madge so that he can have a pretty trophy on his arm. Nobody takes Madge seriously because it is assumed that someone so beautiful couldn’t have any problems, right? Hal on the other hand, has made so many previous mistakes in his life, that his sincere actions are dismissed by others, thinking that he’s just a ne’er do well bum. Both Madge and Hal are trapped by other people’s perceptions and expectations (or lack thereof) of them.
Holden incorporates a raw sensuality and a brashness into Hal that is in direct contrast to Novak’s Madge who exhibits an uneasy and inhibited sensuality. Hal knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to speak up. Madge on the other hand, is conflicted. For her entire life, she’s had people telling her what to do. Finally, she finds herself feeling something for a man whom is the complete opposite of anyone she’s ever known. Her mother doesn’t approve. Her boyfriend doesn’t approve (well obviously I guess), not because he loves her, but because she’d look good on his arm. Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), a boarder at the Owens’ home, goes off on Hal–not because she doesn’t like him, but because she resented him falling for younger Madge and not her middle aged self. Rosemary is having her own personal crisis. She is worried that she’s getting old and that she’ll be a spinster her whole life. The only characters in the film who like Hal are: Millie (Susan Strasberg), Howard (Arthur O’Connell) and elderly neighbor Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton).
A powerful moment in the film is when Hal returns to the Owens home the day after the picnic (and a day after his and Madge’s rendezvous at the river bank) and makes one last plea for Madge to run away with him. He proclaims his love for her and she realizes that she feels the same for him–so does Hal. He yells “you love me! you love me!” repeatedly to Madge as he departs for the train. Their feelings for one another are so expertly depicted in the now classic “Moonglow” dance–one of the sexiest scenes in film. No words. No nudity. Nothing explicit–yet Hal and Madge’s feelings for one another are so explicit during the dance. The sexual tension had already been building in the scenes preceding the dance and it explodes during the first moments when Madge hijacks sister Millie’s (more innocent) dance with Hal.
Holden was uneasy with the idea of dancing on screen. Holden demanded $8,000 “stunt pay” to do the dance scene. He figured the studio would balk and replace him with a dance double. Well, that backfired. The studio ponied up the money and Holden was on the hook to perform the dance. The director tried having Holden and Novak, with a few drinks in them, practice dancing to music from jukeboxes in the local bars, but they were too awkward and the end result was not sexy. When it came time to shoot, Holden was allowed to have a few drinks beforehand. The camera work was set up in a way to allow the stars to do minimal movement. The camera would move around Holden and Novak on a dolly. A bunch of lights were also added to change colors as the stars moved around which added visual interest to the screen. Whatever hang ups and issues there were and whatever workarounds the crew had to incorporate in order to complete this scene worked, because the end result is gorgeous. With each swivel of the hip, the audience can watch Holden and Novak slowly fall for one another. This is where the audience begins to root for Holden and Novak to end up together.
Holden was able to so effortlessly bring sexiness, charm, humor, but at the same time, common sense and cynicism to his parts, that it really made him feel like an everyday person. He lacked pretension. You don’t feel like he’s putting on any type of facade. He’s a “what you see is what you get” type of person. He isn’t a distinct persona like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do a “William Holden impression.” But that’s not to say he’s lacking in any personality. It’s just that he’s so approachable and real. He isn’t larger than life. While I like Grant, Bogart and Cagney, I find Holden’s realism refreshing and enjoyable. Whereas, someone like Marlon Brando (to me), always seems like he’s using a shtick (don’t get me wrong, he’s excellent in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire), he’s a bit too intense. Holden seems like a guy you could go out for a beer with and not feel intimidated or nervous that you wouldn’t have anything to say to him. He (and his characters) is a real person.
To use the words of Madge to describe Hal, and in effect, describe an audience’s view of Holden himself:
“You don’t love someone because he’s perfect.”