The plot is a bit creepy: an emotionally detached, middle-aged man entering rather unwittingly into a romantic relationship with a much younger woman – a drifter named Edith Alice “Breezy” Breezerman, played by a very young and winsome Kay Lenz.
But it’s the other facets of the film that appeal to me. So much of the morality and ethics reflected in Breezy reminds me of my parents and their generation. They always managed to summon a measure of restraint, decorum, and decency, in spite of all the problems, challenges and heartaches inevitably associated with life.
These traits are reflected in the character of Frank Harmon, played by Holden. While appallingly selfish, greedy and materialistic at times, he is at heart a fundamentally decent man. He always manages, at least, in most cases, to draw from a deep well of basic decency.
Holden proved unusually adept at playing the role of the burned-out, cynical, emotionally detached male. I especially value his work in the monumental film classic Network, in which he plays a remarkably similar character: the deeply troubled but basically decent Max Schumacher, the hard-bitten, long-tenured news veteran and executive at the embattled Union Broadcasting System.
As it turns out, Schumacher, despite his personal flaws, is the only one in Network who manages to draw on what he describes as “simple human decency” to pull himself away from the emotional abyss that eventually consumes all the other characters, including Diana Christensen (played by Faye Dunaway), whom he loves deeply but cannot save.
I think that Holden played these characters so well because so many of these traits were reflected in his own life.
Despite my profound love for American cinema, I’ve read very few Hollywood biographies. One of the few exceptions is Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden by Bob Thomas. Holden suffered from his own personal demons – alcohol abuse, chronic philandering, and depression, which likely stemmed from his rejection by his high-achieving father, who regarded professional acting as effeminate and unbecoming of a real man. Yes, as the book relates, virtually all of Holden’s peers, even quite a few of his former paramours, regarded him as an extraordinarily decent and caring man and, despite his alcoholism, as an actor who set unusually high professional standards.
Holden’s generation, born roughly between the years 1915 to 1925, has been characterized as the greatest generation. And at the risk of coming off sounding both politically incorrect and culturally retrograde, I think that much of this greatness stemmed from the very palpable cultural legacy of Christianity that informed the ethics and morality of so many Americans at the time. Countless Frank Harmons and Max Schumachers of that generation who did not explicitly identify with the Christian faith were nonetheless shaped and sometimes even inspired by it.
I’ll go a step further: I think that the reason why we encounter fewer and fewer men like Frank Harmon and Max Schumacher – and, for that matter, William Holden – today is because the enduring influences of Christian values in American life have lost their grip.
It is a cultural legacy, I fear, that is not only lost but that will never be regained.