Sunset Boulevard (1950)
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|Movie Review by Jarrod |
June 2nd, 2009
'Sunset Blvd.' became my favorite movie of all time during my third viewing of it, back in 1996. Not until then did I come to appreciate it as one of the best films ever made about Hollywood, and one of the best films ever to come out of Hollywood.
t arrived in 1950, a great year for movies, competing with All About Eve at that year's Oscars ceremony; the two pictures had a lot in common thematically. 'Sunset Blvd' is a cynical insider's look at Hollywood, where people are disposable commodities, and, for an industry that many think is glamorous, it is replete with cruelty and deceit, careers can be ruined overnight, and the stars of yesterday can become the relics of tomorrow. Billy Wilder was the perfect choice to make this; he earned the respect of his colleagues, had the credibility and the courage to tell this story, crafted from experience, by someone who knew how things worked.
Wilder revolutionized (if not created) the noir genre with Double Indemnity in 1944; he uses a familiar tactic here, voiceover narration from a character who is already dead, recounting the events that led to his death. This is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a B-list screenwriter, struggling to keep his head above water, his car from being repossessed. He hides out in an old crumbling mansion, home of reclusive, delusional silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), and her faithful butler Max (Erich von Stroheim).
At first, Joe thinks the house is abandoned; the pool is empty, the tennis court is in disrepair, but then he meets Norma, and Max, stumbling onto a strange funeral ceremony, for Norma's deceased chimpanzee. Norma has not been relevant for decades; she is preparing a comeback, a script for Cecil B. Demille, and Joe offers to doctor it, hoping to get some money to pay his debts out of the situation; he knows that the script is a disaster, and Norma is reluctant to let him revise any portion of it. She develops a neurotic love for Joe, wants him to live with her.
She is lonely, obsessive, and suicidal. Joe slips out secretly at night to write his own script, eventually partnering with would-be screenwriter Betty (Nancy Olson), who currently works as a secretary of sorts, but has some big ideas and hopes to move forward in the industry. Joe discovers that Max wrote all those fan letters Norma cherishes, and responds to, believing they are from those wishing to see her up on screen again.
Max does this because he was her first husband, and first director, her discoverer, and now he stays with her out of pity and regret. Swanson, nominated for Best Actress, was not Wilder's first choice; he approached Mae West and Mary Pickford, before selecting Swanson, who fits the role perfectly. It is a haunting performance, one that evokes sympathy and pity (we understand how Max feels).
Many of Norma's mannerisms are simply grotesque parodies of silent film acting; it is difficult to play a character like this, as one alternates between moments of flamboyant grandiosity and moments of intensity and lucidity. Norma is certainly arrogant and stuck on herself, but is also clearly going insane. Erich von Stroheim directed Swanson in 1929's Queen Kelly, which essentially ruined him.
Swanson, as producer, fired him before the film was finished. Stroheim was a rather prolific actor and director; he appeared in Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, and made the famous 1924 epic Greed, much of which has been lost, and never recovered. He did not make a successful transition into the sound era; neither did Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and HB Warner, who have cameos as Norma's card buddies, whom Joe unkindly dubs the "Waxworks".
DeMille, appearing as himself, comes across as paternal, letting Norma down gently after she pays him a visit at his studio. De Mille was a rather notorious tyrant on-set, but tones down that persona here. Holden was picked by Wilder after Montgomery Clift and Fred MacMurray proved unattainable. This film rejuvenated Holden's career; he won an Oscar for Stalag 17, his second collaboration with Wilder.
He has a magnetic presence, and a sardonic wit that makes Gillis a likable protagonist, with obvious moral shortcomings. The score by Franz Waxman is appropriately moody. Wilder does not utilize any fancy camera tricks, but he does provide some pungent dialogue, and expertly frames that final scene, in which Norma descends the staircase, and announces that she is ready for her close-up, unaware that she is going to be questioned, and possibly convicted, of murder, having shot Joe, who is floating face-down in her pool.
It is simultaneously macabre, comic, and sad. I have said repeatedly that I believe this a perfect film, and that I have not seen a better one. There are other perfect films, like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Maltese Falcon, and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, but none of them quite have the same charm as 'Sunset Blvd.' It is Wilder's greatest accomplishment.
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Jun 3, 2009 12:06 AM
|GREAT review Jarrod; I own the DVD, I saw it at a revival theater in oakland, ca years ago and I love, love, love this movie; I can watch this movie any time, so many great performances and i think she was robbed at the Oscars by Judy Holiday in 'Born Yesterday', I love that movie too but comparing both performances come on, they should have given it to Ms. Swanson! 'Stars Are Ageless!'|
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