Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen,
Cecil B. DeMille, Jack Webb
- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
urely everything poignant or insightful there is to say about Billy Wilder’s acid-tongued masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard” has already been said. It’s benchmark cinema - a highpoint of movie history. The film has been deservedly discussed, dissected and devoured by many an intellect more insightful than mine. No amount of words can really express what makes this movie the classic that it is; one must experience it in order to get it. Yet in the spirit of trying to reach anyone who has yet to be initiated into the cult, this review will endeavor (and likely fail) to give it a go.
Movies and TV shows about the film and TV industry are a dime a dozen these days, but Wilder paved the way for all that came after by blowing open the barn doors on an industry that routinely shuns its best and brightest – sometimes after their prime, and sometimes before they begin to shine. “Boulevard” tells the story of two such people – forgotten silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) - and how their lives intersect, and the rippling series of tidal waves that result from their accidental meeting. It isn’t a spoiler to say that the story is told from the point of view of a dead man, since the tale begins with Gillis’ body floating in a pool. From there, his acerbic narration works backwards to six months before so the audience can discover the events that led up to his early morning swim.
Not only is Gillis struggling to make ends meet, but he’s also struggling to write in a Hollywood that isn’t all that dissimilar from the Hollywood of today. Do the suits want something good or something that sells? Can they have both at the same time? Like many a practical screenwriter, Gillis leans toward the latter, since his car payments are woefully behind and his rent is haunting him as well. One afternoon, while trying to escape a pair of cardboard repo men, he pulls into a driveway on Sunset Boulevard and his life changes forever. Inside a dilapidated house resides Desmond and her servant Max (Erich von Stroheim). After a weird case of mistaken identity is sorted out, Desmond hires Gillis to whip her magnum opus – a retelling of Salome, in which she intends to star - into shape. Gillis glibly states, “I didn’t know you were planning a comeback.” Norma screeches back, “I hate that word! It’s a return!” She’s got plenty of money, and he’s got plenty of time. The arrangement, which at first appears ideal for both parties, eventually leads the pair into a labyrinthine relationship of codependency from which neither will ever recover.
The film moves forward and something tragic occurs on New Years Eve that draws Joe even deeper into Norma’s web. But Joe has ambitions outside of Norma and her pet project, and Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen), a young, fresh-faced girl at Paramount sees his worth – and Joe sees something in her, too. Max sees all, and has some secrets of his own that are unveiled late in the game, and brings a whole new - and even darker - spin to the proceedings. Is there any way out for any of these people? To be sure, there are some hefty, impenetrable roadblocks set up on “Sunset Boulevard.” There isn’t a happy ending, but that’s as it should be, since we knew our protagonist was headed for an early grave from the start. Director Sam Mendes (or was it writer Alan Ball?) twisted the gimmick in “American Beauty.”
In a film that features nothing but blurred heroes and villains, perhaps one must pick a side. For me, that side is Norma, and it is she who I think of first when I think of “Sunset Boulevard.” She is not an admirable person; in fact she’s pathetic, and that’s exactly what makes her so empathetic. She was once on top of the world and is now unable to let that go – yet everyone around her contributes to the delusion that her star still shines bright. The character benefits from the black and white backdrop of talkies vs. silents, but her tale really isn’t much different from many a performer today. One day you have it, the next day you don’t -- and the next day turns into years. Yeah, it’s a Hollywood story, and if you’ve no time for such grand delusions I cannot help you, except to say that maybe there’s a little bit of all of us in the movies.
To call “Sunset Boulevard” either a satirical tragedy or a dark comedy is to do it a disservice, because it is both, and so much more. What amazes me about the film is how easily I get sucked into its cloistered little universe with each viewing. There isn’t a wasted scene or a bit of trivial dialogue in the piece. There are either not enough words to describe the movie, or too many: funny, macabre, whimsical, biting, traumatic, romantic, relevant, bizarre, dark, light, sweet, sinister, hopeful, sad -- um, the list could, and probably should, go on. It balances every movement with perfection, and through each viewing there’s a new avenue worth exploring. The writing and structure is faultless (the screenplay won an Oscar). The cinematography is sterling (John F. Seitz was nominated for an Oscar). Franz Waxman’s score is sweeping and the art direction sublime (both won Oscars). The acting is ideal (all four leads were nominated for Oscars in all four acting categories – inexplicably, none of them won). It should go without saying that Wilder was nominated for Best Director and the film for Best Picture. It won neither, losing both to “All About Eve.” You don’t want to get me started on the greatness of “Eve.” Suffice it to say, 1950 was a fantastic year for, well, for at least two films. With almost any piece of visual drama that I love, I worry about over-hyping it to people through biased enthusiasm. “Sunset Boulevard” is not one of those movies, as I haven’t even begun to do it justice.
Centennial Collection DVD Review:
Disc One of this set features just the film, presented along with the same commentary from author Ed Sikov that accompanied the 2002 DVD release of the film. I’m unsure if the transfer here is any different from that release; it was gorgeous then and it’s gorgeous now. Disc Two features a hefty selection of featurettes, many of which are new to this release, although the original disc featured a fine “Making of,” and it seems as if much of that doc has been cut up and reintegrated into all these featurettes. “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning” is the lengthiest at around 23 minutes, and tells of how the film came to be. “The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard by Joseph Wambaugh” is a wonderful dissection of the film by the famous crime writer. “Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic” and “Stories of Sunset Boulevard” are fairly self-explanatory. “Two Sides of Ms. Swanson” is a pleasant reminiscence by Swanson’s granddaughter as well as her co-star from “Airport 1975,” Linda Harrison (best known as Nova from the original “Planet of the Apes”). “Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden” is similar to the Swanson piece, and features Stefanie Powers and Nancy Olsen. “Recording Sunset Boulevard” looks at the recording of the Waxman score. “The City of Sunset Boulevard” is a look at the locations used in the film. Finally, there’s a trailer and a half a dozen other short featurettes carried over from the 2002 release, including the Morgue Prologue Script Pages which detail Wilder’s original opening scene for the film, which has sadly over the years been lost to posterity.