Directed by Joshua Logan
Screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the play by William Inge
Starring William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg and Rosalind Russell
The method by which I choose the films to cover in this series is pretty low-tech. I simply look up the streaming availability for films for a given set of years – lately it’s been the 40’s and 50’s – and if they’re not streaming, then I check to see if they’re on DVD/Blu-Ray at my local library. In this way, I can usually find something to write about, because – no surprise – Best Picture nominees are generally available in some way.
In some sense, the movies chosen are random, in that I pick the ones most interesting from the most readily available. But in another, given I tend to look for a bunch of years all at once, then watch those films, then move on to others, the randomness is confined to small slivers of time. So, even while it’s somewhat random what I choose, it’s also not. The point I make here? There’s no real serendipity to me managing to go back-to-back in this series with Best Picture losers starring William Holden. The first, Our Town, was from early in his career, back before cigarettes and booze did a number of his voice. This one, Picnic, came later, from his peak years of 1950-1957. I’d really love to take on one from his later years, to maybe get a Three Stages of William Holden thing going on, to see how he was as a young man, an old man, and somewhere in between. Unfortunately, he only had two late-career Best Picture Also-Rans – Network and The Towering Inferno – and since I’ve already seen them, you’re out of luck if reading my takes on them, and his career, appealed to you. But even if you don’t get a long piece on that, I will sum up what I think my assessment would have been:
- The Early Years – Our Town – William Holden perfectly plays the innocence of youth that film demands, likely aided by the fact he was essentially the age of his character and had a certain innocence himself.
- Peak Years – Picnic – Peak-years William Holden was in his mid-to-late 30s, at a time when innocence has worn off, and he’s just coming to the realization that stardom is fleeting and when it fades, it fades fast. As such, he perfectly embodies the world-weariness and the existential dread of middle-aged men who were always told they could be whatever they wanted to be, and were only just finding out that wasn’t true.
- The Later Years – Network – no longer the young, handsome golden-boy, instead he’s older, lined, cynical bastard who can occasionally be roused to passion, but really knows it’s too late for anything truly meaningful.
Though it was an accident going back-to-back with Best Picture losers starring William Holden, the truth is it was always likely I’d run across another effort from him in this project at some point. After all, when I realized I was doing two-in-a-row from him I looked up how many Best Picture nominees he was actually in and see he managed to be in 9 different Best Picture nominees, one of which actually won the top prize. Those films:
- Our Town (1940)
- Sunset Blvd. (1950)
- Born Yesterday (1950)
- The Country Girl (1954)
- Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955)
- Picnic (1955)
- Bridge on the River Kawi (1957)
- The Towering Inferno (1973)
- Network (1976)
It’s amazing to see how many reputedly-good films he was actually in – at least, if you take a Best Picture nomination as an indicator of good. Even more amazing is how six of the nine were clustered in the 1950s. The hopeful part of me wants to believe that 1950s William Holden had simply started picking out better projects to lend his talents to, i.e. he suddenly had good taste, and Oscar noms followed. The cynical part of me, though, knows Holden spent much of his career under contract to both Paramount and Columbia Studios and that since Sunset Blvd., Born Yesterday, and The Country Girl were Paramount Pictures, while Picnic and Bridge on the River Kwai were Columbia Pictures, he was really only doing what he was told. The only outlier is Love is a Many Splendored Thing, a Twentieth Century-Fox Picture.
Still, even if he didn’t have much control over his career throughout the 1950s, he certainly was doing something right and somehow wound up in the Best Picture race an inordinate number of times, including landing two selections in the race on two separate occasions. Much as the studio system could be limiting, there were also positives to it.
In any event, given he starred in several other Best Picture losers in the 1950s, there’s a good chance we might see another entry from William Holden at some point. And when it happens, I suspect it’ll be Born Yesterday.
What’s It About?
Labor Day, a small Kansas town. A stranger (Holden) rides in off a boxcar in search of a college buddy (Robertson), who might give him a job. Over the course of the next day and night he reconnects with the buddy, and also unintentionally charms a variety of women with his sexual charisma, with disastrous results. By the time dawn breaks the next day, life in the town is irreversibly altered by his momentary presence.
Transition From Stage to Screen
Picnic started life on the stage, as a Pulitzer Prize winning play by William Inge and as with many stage-to-screen translations, little has been done here to use the virtues of the medium of film to improve upon what was shown on the stage. Many scenes are statically staged, around a particular set – porches, dance floors, and other porches – with various characters drifting in and out to talk at one another in front of the camera. Sometimes they come through a door, sometimes they come through a window. In other words, it’s staged how you would see it on the stage, and not how real life, as usually depicted on film, is lived.
To be fair, director Logan has to be given credit for trying to escape the staginess of the play by cutting back and forth between locations in an effort to show the expanse of the world and give the film some energy. That said, you can only do so much with that. A better strategy would have been a top-down rethink of the play itself, with the first principle being to reject all those things the play holds dear. Only then can you have a truly ‘cinematic’ experience.
Additionally, the early scenes of the film are thick with expository dialog. Of characters inexplicably explaining to one another things they don’t need explained, but which is said so the audience can understand what’s going on. On the stage this probably works fine, because it’s not exactly a subtle medium – after all, you gotta be big if you want to reach the rafters, and if you want the audience to follow you, you gotta hit ‘em over the head. But film does not need big chunks of dialog to convey information or mood or anything else – it can use the visuals, rather than the words. It can emphasize a look, or a turn of the head in a way the stage cannot. And when the film fails to do any of these things and only relies on the words, it shows the faults in its translation.
Who Stands Out?
Susan Strasberg is delightful as the nerdy little sister – little is a relative term, as the older sister is 19, while she is 17. Still, she’s spunky, smart and positive and would be an absolute joy to spend time with. Better for the drama of the story is she’s just coming into womanhood and so has a jealous streak, and an emotional streak, a mile wide. The problem with her character, though, is she’s second banana to the ‘pretty’ sister, Kim Novak – who I’ve never found all that attractive – and it’s only in Hollywood where a young beauty as Strasberg would be thought of as the ‘ugly’ sister.
Arthur O’Connell comes out of nowhere to have perhaps the truest performance in the film. Having never even heard of him before, I was struck by how wonderful he plays the part. Where another actor might’ve doubled-down on the histrionics, he’s rather low-key as the middle-aged man who’s both lonely, and set in his ways. He’s pushy, but just as easily pushed, and at the end when he’s essentially shanghaied into marriage, when all he wanted to do was talk, we have some of the best comic bits of the film. It’s apparent from his performance why he was the lone cast member to be Oscar-nominated for the film.
Early on, Holden looked like he was giving a magnificent performance. Yes, he’s obviously too old for the role by about a decade – he and Robertson look less like college buddies than father and son – but he managed to get through it, easily filling the part with the disappointment most every man feels with life at some time or other. He’s sweaty, regretful and leans heavily on bluster to try and submerge his regrets. Later on, though, his performance shades towards the overly-dramatic, and cartoonish, finally devolving into earnestly telling Novak, “I Love you,” and declaring he can’t be without her, when he’s really known her for less than 18 hours. I suspect that given the strength of his performance in the early scenes, when he’s so eager and pitch-perfect, it was more the script and direction letting him down in the later scenes than anything else.
If there’s a real standout in the film it’s Rosalind Russell. Early on she seemed a bit too-dramatic – a bit too Rosalind Russell, if we’re being fair – to the point I worried she was just going to chew the film apart and swallow it whole. But as the long, innocent day turns into a more debauched night – a relatively debauched night, this being a film from 1955 – the tone of her performance changes and we see the desperation bubbling just under her surface. We see the lost youth and the desire to be wanted. We see her fear. Truly, Russell makes her part frightening, in a very real way. In a sense, she and Holden play similar characters, the difference is the script and the direction don’t let her down the same way it let him down.
A Word or Two About Kim Novak
Novak is blah – she is beyond blah. And I don’t mean that she’s only blah here, because I think she’s blah in most everything I’ve seen from her, to the point I’m not sure she can really act. About the best she can do is appear distant, turn he head dramatically, and make inscrutable faces, and while such skills might’ve worked for her in Vertigo, especially in the Madeline scenes, where her face-making and distance only plays up the weird mystery around the character, here she just seems constipated.
Given her lousiness as an actress, it doesn’t really surprise me she truly made no other great movies after Vertigo, and basically ended her acting career in 19 episodes of Falcon Crest in the late-80s. The only real surprise with Novak is how she was ever considered a star at all. Perhaps that’s something the Baby Boomers need to remember the next time they complain about Millennials ruining everything – it wasn’t Millennials who made Kim Novak a star.
Better Than Best?
Best Picture 1955 was Marty, a sweet film about a lonely butcher finding love. It’s moving, it’s real, and has a wonderful central performance from Ernest Borgnine. It would be a worthy Best Picture in any year.
Picnic, on the other hand, is a middling film and hardly worthy of Best Picture in its own year. It has too many of the trappings of the stage, not to mention the silliness of the love story with Holden and Novak, but at least it does have some solid performances. Sadly, solid performances alone do not make a Best Picture. On that alone, Picnic is not better than the best.
That all said, my own preference from 1955 would be Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, a film that’s spoken to me for more than 20 years, and continues to speak to me. And I hold East of Eden up as the best even though Kazan was a name-naming asshole with the House Un-American Activities Committee and did real harm to real people. It’s just another time in life when you hold your nose over the artist, while at the same time loving the art.
The DVD of Picnic I used for review was a copy from my local library and right as the movie began it gave the disclaimer about the film being formatted to fit my screen. This seemed odd, given I was watching the film on a 16:9 screen and the film started playing in widescreen, even if it was a smaller version of widescreen on the screen, with a sea of black surrounding it. Of course, the second the credits ended and the film switched to 4:3 pan-and-scan, the warning made sense.
What didn’t make sense was why the film was pan-and-scan at all. First, by the time the DVD was produced, everybody on earth was on board with the idea of letterboxing. Second, the pan-and-scan essentially ruined James Wong Howes cinematography. Third, since they didn’t really give much care to how they pan-and-scanned, it should not be surprising the film also looked a little washed out and grainy in the transfer. In the end, the version I saw had compromised visuals, which can be the kiss of death in what is a visual medium.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Being in 9 Best Picture nominees is definitely a lot, but Jack Nicholson was in 10, Franklyn Farnum was in 11 (all uncredited), Ward Bond was in 13, and Bess Flowers was in 23 (all uncredited). It is worth noting, though, that Farnum and Flowers were both prolific extras and so their Best Picture appearances are inflated and probably shouldn’t even count.
 If all the rest of the films are essentially products of the studio system, and mean nothing really in terms of Holden’s ability to select projects, then Picnic is the king of all product-pictures, given it was a film he essentially made to fulfil his contract with Columbia and not one he did for love. Additionally, given he seemed to have become a freelance actor after Picnic was complete, the only film of the 1950s he probably had any real choice in that made it to the Best Picture race was The Bridge on the River Kwai, his lone winner. See http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/86664/Picnic/articles.html
 The ease with which he carries his performance is probably aided by the fact he originated the role on-stage, so he likely had plenty of practice before bringing it to the big screen.
 An interesting note about the 1955 Oscars – just two films received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director: Marty and Picnic. Really makes you realize what the Academy thought of Picnic if it was just a hairs breath away from winning.