Without Barbara Stanwyck, there would be no William Holden. He admitted as much at the Academy Awards in 1978. By then, the veteran actors had become screen legends: Barbara, in blockbusters like Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve and Stella Dallas; Bill, with acclaimed performances in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
That night, Stanwyck and Holden approached the podium, holding hands, to announce the Oscar winner for Best Sound. (It went to a little picture called Star Wars. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?)
But first, Bill went off script.
“Before Barbara and I present this next award, I’d like to say something,” Holden began. “Thirty-nine years ago this month, we were working on a film together called Golden Boy. It wasn’t going well because I was going to be replaced. But due to this lovely human being and her interest, understanding, professional integrity, encouragement, and above all, her generosity, I’m here tonight.”
With that, Holden turned to Stanwyck, who was struggling to maintain her composure. She exclaimed, “Oh, Bill!” as they embraced. It was an awkward hug, the kind mere mortals make, not some phony show biz “moment” that had been rehearsed for maximum emotional impact. Clearly, Barbara was surprised and deeply moved by Holden’s heartfelt praise.
Fast forward to March 29, 1982. Four months earlier, Bill had died in a tragic fall at the age of 63. Now, Stanwyck was at the Oscars to accept an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. After thanking industry co-workers, Barbara remarked, “A few years ago, I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my Golden Boy,” Stanwyck said, her voice breaking as she raised the statuette, “You got your wish.”
So, what’s the back story of their special relationship?
As Holden recalled, in 1939, he was a 21-year-old rookie in his first starring role – and sinking fast. Stanwyck, an established star, could have pulled rank when it became painfully obvious that Bill was drowning. Instead, Barbara took the nervous newcomer under her wing. She rehearsed with him after hours, and personally stuck up for Holden when the studio chief wanted to fire him.
With Stanwyck’s help, Bill gave a solid performance in Golden Boy that launched his film career. For Barbara, a run of hit movies soon followed. For Holden? Not so much. He spent 11 years toiling in 22 forgettable pictures, before Billy Wilder saw something in Bill that made him cast the 32-year-old actor in Sunset Boulevard. From there, Holden became a box-office sensation.
Bill would appear opposite Barbara just once more in Executive Suite (1954). But every April 12th, from 1940 until his death in 1981, Holden sent Stanwyck roses to celebrate the date when Golden Boy started production – a gesture of love and gratitude between two great stars who shared one epic friendship.