She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast
He was a Midwestern boy on his own
She looked at him with those soft eyes,
So innocent and blue
He knew right then he was too far from home he was too far from home
Though I’ve said that Diablo Cody was the inspiration for me to start the Screenwriting from Iowa blog, it was an event that happened three years after she was born that probably planted the seed that eventually led me to Iowa.
When William Holden the lead actor of Sunset Boulevard died November 12, 1981 it made a huge impact on me. I had just moved to L.A. a few months prior from Orlando and was attending film school and studying acting. I was already familiar with his work on the movies Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, and Network. I knew that he was an Oscar winner and one of the biggest stars of the 1950s.
But it wasn’t his films and life that made the news of his death leaving such an impression on me. It was the way he died. The news in L.A. at that time played up the fact that he apparently fell while drunk in his Santa Monica apartment and had hit his head on a table and bled to death. And he laid there dead in his apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean for several days before anyone missed him. He died alone.
I remember thinking at that time, “How is that possible?” How is it possible for a guy that’s achieved everything I could ever hope to achieve in the movie business to lay in his condo for several days before any one missed him? This is the original Golden Boy, who was linked romantically to Audrey Hepburn, Shelly Winters, Grace Kelly and at the end with Stefanie Powers,. He had a six decade career including heavyweight the films The Bridge on the River Kawi, Sabrina, and The Wild Bunch.
He was rich and famous and he is now #25 on AFI’s list of top movie stars. But he died alone.
Two weeks later actress Natalie Wood died in a mysterious late-night accident involving a boat off Santa Catalina Island in Southern California.
A few miles away from where Holden died, and just four months later actor/comedian John Belushi died of a heroin overdose at the Chateau Marmont which just happens to be on Sunset Boulevard. Much of my misspent youth as a teenager was spent laughing at Belushi’s antics on Saturday Night Live (Cheezebuger, Cheezburger), Animal House and The Blues Brothers so I didn’t find anything funny about his death.
I was only 20 years old and hadn’t even been in L.A. a year and I knew something was wrong with the place. While I was an intern on a cable TV show called Alive and Well that was taped in Marina del Rey I remember talking to L.A. Dodger Steve Yeager who was a guest on the show about L.A. and he told me something I never forgot. (Yeager, by the way, went to high school in Dayton, Ohio which just happened to be where William Holden’s character was from in Sunset Boulevard.) I asked Yeager if he thought L.A. was a plastic town and he said, “Yes, but if you live here long enough you don’t see the plastic.”
I only lived there five years so I could still see the plastic when I headed back to Florida. I still love much about L.A, but maybe it wasn’t so crazy to eventually move to Iowa.
Yesterday I read that Forbes listed nearby Iowa City, Iowa as the #9 best small metro places to live and work (Waterloo-Cedar Falls was #33) and not too far away Des Moines was listed as the #7 best metro places to live and work. How did California fare? According to Forbes writer Kurt Badenhausen “Bringing up the rear of our rankings are the troubled spots in California. The Golden State had its worst showing ever in our tally.” Los Angeles ranked #180.
I hope as the digital revolution continues that the William Holden’s and John Belushi’s of the future (if they aren’t big enough to live in Montana or France) can do their thing in their home states and avoid some of the L.A. trappings. Holden and Belushi weren’t the first do die in excess in L.A. and they won’t be the last. (And it’s also true that every part of the country has its problems with drugs and alcohol. But L.A. seems to have a special gift for leading actors and musicians—and in some cases actors turned musicians—toward a path of destruction.)
Do you wonder if William Holden when he was all alone in his apartment did he ever fire up a projector and watch Sunset Boulevard? He was a respected (and still working actor) but faded movie star that Susanne Vega referenced in her song Tom’s Diner;
Up the paper
There’s a story
Of an actor
Who had died
While he was drinking
It was no one
I had heard of
Certainly as Holden wandered alone in his large apartment at least once had to see some parallels between his life and Norma Desmond’s.
And right now a 20 year old actor is pulling into Hollywood for the first time and he’s never heard of Norma Desmond, William Holden…or even Susanne Vega.
copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith