Friday, December 17, 2010

Sunset Boulevard (1950) - Billy Wilder

Fifty-year old Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is an obscure silent movie star living in a big, empty Sunset Boulevard mansion that one character describes as being "stricken with a kind of creeping paralysisout of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion." A lot like Norma herself. But when struggling writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) stumbles onto the place, her dreams of a comeback suddenly seem possible. Gillis, looking to escape creditors, agrees to help polish Norma's script, and becomes her reluctant lover. He is twenty years her junior.  
Director Wilder, a 15-year Hollywood veteran when he made Sunset Boulevard, had by then developed a good case of cynicism for the industry. In a damning portrait, he shows us that the Dream Factory is not all it seems. Norma is having trouble accepting that her heyday is long since past. She populates her mansion with old publicity photos and keeps entertained by watching her own silent films. It's a sorry existence. Her only companions are a pet chimp and Max (Erich Von Stroheim), her dutiful butler/chauffeur, former husband, and enabler. Max secretly sends her fan mail to boost her ego. When Gillis first meets Norma he says, "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." Her retort is famous: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." If Norma's sanity is uncertain, Gillis is cursed with ambition. Desperate for a break and nearly broke, he allows himself to become kept, accepting lavish gifts and ultimately her bed.
Wilder wastes no time dispelling the notion of Hollywood as all glitter and glamour.  The film opens with a memorable sequence. SUNSET BOULEVARD is stenciled on a curb. Dead leaves, scraps of paper, and cigarette butts lie in the gutter like so many broken dreams. Suddenly, police motor cycles and cars careen toward us to a murder scene, their sirens screaming. A body floats in a swimming pool. Shot from beneath the surface of the water looking up, we see a corpse with its eyes wide open. The unmistakable voiceover of Holden narrates the action. Already you know you are in for something different. 
The film is full of wonderful moments like this. The odd lovers watch old films in the dark,  Norma sits enthralled and clutches Joe's arm; Norma's awkward visit to Paramount Studio; Gillis' face as he finally realizes he's going to sleep with Norma; the bridge game with the Wax works; and Swanson's iconic stair descent. It is all beautifully shot and lit, and the sets evoke a claustrophobic and gothic look, appropriate for Norma's delusional state of mind.
A bizarre relationship develops between Norma and Joe.
Both leads give magnificent performances. Holden infuses his with self-loathing as he willing prostitutes himself. When asked if he hates himself, he flippantly but honestly responds, "Constantly." And in a role that must have hit close to home, Swanson has moments of true desperation and pathos as she bravely portrays a pathetic figure.  

All the film's components work together to complement Wilder's tight direction. Franz Waxman won an Oscar for his atmospheric, heavily-stringed score, and Edith Head designed the costumes. Wilder and Charles Brackett collaborated on the biting script, highlighted by Gillis' sarcastic self-effacing shots at himself and the film industry.

Nancy Olson gives a fine supporting performance as Gillis' other love interest, Betty.

What Makes Sunset Boulevard Special:

All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
Sunset is in the handful of the greatest film noirs. Unlike most of the genre it's not populated with low-lifes or criminals out to hurt someone for their own gain, usually financial. No such base motives exist here. Rather, it gives the genre a twist by featuring two essentially decent people. Norma merely wants to recapture her glory days. If she sometimes unwittingly humiliates Joe, she also desperately needs and genuinely loves him. For his part, Joe, if happy to live off Norma's handouts while secretly working with and longing for Betty Schaefer, has enough affection and sympathy for Norma, that he rushes to her side on learning of her attempted suicide. The only violence that occurs is not malicious.           

And any film that so openly and skillfully attacks any pompous megalith industry like the film industry is worth your while. That Wilder, a member of that same industry, had the temerity to attack his own, is remarkable. 
Inside Story:

The Wax works bridge players were old stars of Hollywood's silent era: comic legend Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower the druggist in It's a Wonderful Life), and Anna Q. Nilsson, once named the most beautiful actress in the world. Famed director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper also played themselves in the film.

Montgomery Clift, already an Oscar-nominated actor, and coming off two recent hits (Red River and The Heiress), was scheduled to play the role of Gillis but backed out at the last minute.

Wilder received six dual-Oscar nominations as director and writer for a film during his long career, this being one. He won both in 1946 (The Lost Weekend) and in 1961 (The Apartment). For Sunset, he won the Writing award only. Swanson lost the Oscar to Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) and Holden lost to Jose Ferrer (Cyrano De Bergerac).

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress.
  • Won three Oscars: for Best Art Direction, Best Writing, and Music.
  • Selected by the National Film Registry in 1989 as one of 25 landmark films.
  • AFI's 16th greatest American film.
Other films by Billy Wilder:
  • Double Indemnity 1944
  • Stalag 17 1953
  • Witness for the Prosecution 1957
  • The Apartment 1960
  • One, Two, Three 1961

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