Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Film of the Week: Sunset Boulevard, 1950

The Opening Shot
Paramount Pictures
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

--Norma Desmond

A man floats—face down—in a pool. We see him from beneath as he is gently fished from the freezing water—his body lifeless. We learn via a voice over that if you want to know the real facts, “You’ve come to the right party.”

Joseph C. Gillis was a screenwriter who was down on his luck. He needed some cash—quick—or his car was going to be repossessed. He tries various means of obtaining the funds that he needs—even going as far as trying to pitch a half-hearted script to Paramount Pictures. The only bite he gets is the biting criticism of one of Paramount’s lowly readers, a girl named Betty Schaefer.

The Principal Cast:
Nancy Olson, Gloria Swanon,
William Holden, Erich Von Stroheim
Paramount Pictures
Dejected, Gillis attempts to take his car back to the parking lot where he’d been hiding it, but the repo men spot him on Sunset Boulevard. They chase Gillis whose car blows a tire. The limping car is pulled out of sight into the driveway of one of those grand palazzos—the kind that crazy movie stars built in the crazy 1920’s. The house, somewhat run-down, seemed abandoned. So, Gillis pulled the crippled car into the garage. He’s shocked when the deep voice of a woman calls down to him, “You there! Why are you so late?” Ushered into the mansion by a bald, ape-like butler with a German accent, Gillis is told, “If you need help with the coffin, call me.”

Unsure of what to make of the scene, Joe ascends the grand staircase to meet the woman who had called to him. He’s not quite sure what to expect at the top of the stairs. A woman of fifty, elegantly dressed in a gown and turban meets him and describes the kind of coffin she wants—a satin lining in white…no red. “He loved fires and poking at them with a stick.” She pulls back a sheet which covers a small figure on a massage table by the fire to reveal a dead monkey. Joe explains that there’s been some mistake. He is not the man that the woman expected. Furious, she orders him out. He pauses as he recognizes her as Norma Desmond. “You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.”

"I am big..."
Paramount Pictures
“I am big.” Norma barks, “It’s’ the pictures that got small.”

Joe finds himself quickly embroiled in Norma’s dusty Baroque world of memories and creative rambling. Once a great silent film star, she hasn’t worked in decades—seemingly forgotten by her once adoring public. Norma proposes that Joe help her with the screenplay that would mark her triumphant return (she hates the word, “comeback”) to the screen. Joe agrees. Little does he realize that he’d soon find himself living in Norma’s house and becoming the object of her affections.

Norma's New Year's Seduction
Paramount Pictures
At first, Joe tries to extricate himself from Norma and her peculiar butler, Max, but soon he begins to grow accustomed to the opulent lifestyle she can offer him. In fact, he grows rather fond of her—almost protective. Yet, after evenings spent with the “Waxworks”—Norma’s collection of other silent film stars (played by real greats of the silent screen), and Norma’s increasingly jealous and controlling behavior, Joe flees the mansion on New Year’s Eve just as Norma declares her intentions. Norma attempts suicide, and Joe returns, thus beginning their affair.

Paramount Pictures
What follows is one of the most fascinating films ever created. Sunset Boulevard was a triumph—headed by writer/director Billy Wilder whose bitter criticism of the film industry was readily apparent in the film. He was considered a traitor by fellow directors and performers. In casting the film, Wilder went through many different ideas of actresses to play Norma Desmond—including Mae West. Finally, he cast Gloria Swanson whose own life eerily mirrored that of Norma’s in many ways. The set was filled with pictures of Swanson which must have been rather surreal for her—especially since she had begun working alongside Erich Von Stroheim who was to play her companion and servant, Max Von Mayerling—a former silent film director. Von Stroheim was actually a director who worked with Swanson on the film Queen Kelly which marked the beginning of the end of Swanson’s career.

Holden and Swanson
Paramount Pictures
For the role of the young writer, Joseph Gillis, Wilder initially wanted Montgomery Clift. Clift accepted the part, but then backed out of the film. Clift had a habit of backing out of big name films for peculiar reasons all of his own. He would grow to regret the decision. Instead, the part went to William Holden whose career was also in a downward swing. Sunset Boulevard served to resurrect his career. Though quite different in acting style and appearance than Montgomery Clift, Holden brings a masculine quality to the role of Joe Gillis which works quite nicely against Norma’s histrionics.

Real-life Hollywood greats of the twenties and thirties appear as themselves in the film including C.B. DeMille, Anna Q. Nillson, H.B, Warner, Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper. Wilder labored over the film—changing the introduction (set in a morgue) after the sequence elicited unintended snickers from a preview audience. The result—though widely panned by Hollywood insiders at the time—is now considered one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces ever created.

"All right, Mr. DeMille.  I'm ready for my close-up."
Paramount Pictures
With a dramatic, Baroque set, equally dramatic score by Franz Waxman, riveting performances, cutting-edge camera work and a truly shocking script, Sunset Boulevard will always remain on the list of the finest films (especially among Film Noir) ever made.

The film has influenced many art forms and had been an inspiration to actors and writers alike.  A musical version by Andrew Lloyd-Webber was praised by Billy Wilder for its faithfulness to his original work.  Enjoy this clip from one of the first trailers for Sunset Boulevard

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