15 August 2008

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

d. Billy Wilder / USA / 110 mins.

Few movies would be brazen enough to begin with a shot of the main character dead, seen from the point-of-view of the floor of the swimming pool where he drowned (among other things), his voice from the afterlife gritty and firm in the film's narration. Fewer still would actually get better from that point onward. Both characteristics apply to Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a 1950 masterpiece that both satirizes the pomposity of Hollywood and sends flowers to its funeral. Rarely is a film so good that it takes conventional storytelling devices and breaks their hearts.

The man in the pool is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who eventually comes to hide out at the dilapidated mansion of a reclusive silent movie star named Norma Desmond (do I actually need to say it's Gloria Swanson?). It's best to summarize as little as possible, but suffice it to say we get an intimate portrait of Norma's fall from grace when Joe agrees to help her polish a screenplay in return for keeping the repo men away. The two actors were not the first choices for their respective roles, but as is so often the case, they are the best. Holden adroitly delivers the proper balance of masculine pride and manic desperation to Joe Gillis; he needs Norma's benefaction enough that it is difficult to complain about her insufferable and jealous meddling in his professional and personal affairs. Swanson as Norma is still, of course, everything the role has come to be known for: moody, delusional, narcissistic, and oblivious, but also forgotten and fragile. It is one of those truly great performances in movie history – overplayed to perfection, simultaneously parodic and pained, a generous cocktail of humanity and artifice kicked up with a shot of sheer insanity.

Sunset Boulevard premiered in 1950, halfway through the first century of film and the year cinema burned Hollywood's false idols to the ground. Also hitting theaters that year were Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve, which exemplified actress bitchiness and swept the Oscars, and Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, which starred Humphrey Bogart as a violent screenwriter suspected of murder. Although the story of Joe and Norma is essentially fiction, the script – co-written by Wilder, Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr. – continually strives to place the events inside an authentically real Hollywood, boosting the film in its entertainment value and making its satire more cohesive. Wilder uses as few fictional characters as possible, but even then so many of them feel like talking shadows. The most notable are ex-silent star Swanson and silent film director Erich von Stronheim, who plays Norma's devoted servant Max (among other things). Von Stronheim's work in silent films is regarded well, but he was among the many who failed to transition into sound. Indeed, when Norma shows Joe a scene from one of her silent movies, it's actually Swanson in a silent film actually directed by von Stronheim. The real life cameos for Sunset Boulevard include director Cecil B. DeMille and gossopi columnist Hedda Hopper, appearing as themselves, as do Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and Buster Keaton appear as Norma's card-playing friends luxuriously dressed for no one. The characters all speak in Hollywood parlance, and Norma talks of her respect for Greta Garbo and does a pantomime of Charles Chaplin.

The acting, directing, and writing are all topnotch, and any film lucky enough to have Holden and Swanson as stars and Wilder as a director and writer would have a more than fair shot at being called great. But its the presence of all the other elements that make Sunset Boulevard an entirely wondrous experience. The famed Edith Head designed the costumes. The cinematography was spearheaded by John F. Seitz, who worked extensively in silent films and saw much success in the sound era, including Wilder's best noirs (this film, Double Indemnity, and The Lost Weekend). Cinematic music is so frequently overlooked despite its power to make a film feel complete, but no discussion of Sunset Boulevard is over without mentioning Franz Waxman's memorable and atmosphere score.

What to make of the fact that the most famous parts of the film are its beginning, with Holden's character dead in the pool, and its ending, with Swanson's character inching her way down the staircase, proclaiming she is "ready for my close-up"? Well, for one, the knowledge of either does not necessarily spoil the movie. (For another, the swimming pool sequence wasn't even the original opener, but fortunately for history we ended up with the swimming pool.) There's little irony lost in the realities that this film, devoted to revealing the artificial nature of the film industry, would be remembered for its two most cinematic scenes. They are hypnotic bookends to a great film, and for all the attention lavished on the dramatic ending, it is nevertheless resonant – the same way Terry Malloy's "I coulda been a contender" speech resonates in the heart of On the Waterfront despite countless overplaying and mimicry.

The voice-over narration from a dead man is often maligned by storytelling purists who perceive it as gimmicky. If used in another film I might be inclined to agree, but consider this: Sunset Boulevard is a film about second chances. Joe is failing as a screenwriter and needs a second chance to pay his debts; Norma Desmond has fallen from the surly bonds of celebrity and desperately wants a comeback (although she'd argue with you on whether that's the right word); and Max is serving Norma in a second chance, if not as her director then as her butler, the best position to shield her from herself and from a world that has stopped caring. Not counting his work for Norma, telling his story from the afterlife and cutting through the facades of Hollywood (thus cracking open the story's darkness) is Joe's second chance. Ironically enough, the story told by a dead screenwriting character who never saw success was good enough to earn Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman Academy Awards for their original screenplay.

It's difficult to pick Wilder's most accomplished film because so many of them are just too damn good. As a director and a writer, the man had a streak of genius running from 1944 to 1960 that included Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, and those are only the great ones. He dabbled in noir as skillfully as comedy. He was nominated for writing Oscars twelve times and directing Oscars eight times. But at the end of the day, you'll probably have to wager that Wilder will be most remembered for this masterfully eviscerating noir.

Hey, it's not a bad way to be remembered, either.


Joseph 16 August, 2008  

Well said. This is definitely one of my favorites. Some day I want to watch this and All About Eve back-to-back. That would be a killer combo.

T.S. 16 August, 2008  

Agreed! (And I hope to have an All About Eve review on Screen Savour soon.) Thanks for stopping by, Joseph.

FDr 18 August, 2008  

Nice post. As someone raised on Hitchcock's films, I've been wondering recently if Billy Wilder was actually the better director. While other movies date, Sunset Boulevard just gets more relevant, and more mordantly delightful.

T.S. 18 August, 2008  

Ooh, well, Hitchcock is a personal favorite of mine, so even if I could look objective at the careers of others directors, I still might be inclined to perennially side with Hitch.

I think Wilder is such an accomplished director (one of the reasons he has his own tag on my site!), easily among my ten favorite American directors. You're absolutely right in assessing the legacy of Sunset Boulevard, too, and how it has grown since its debut. Every time an amateur YouTube video clicks over 1 million hits, I can imagine some washed-up, burned-out contemporary celebrity lamenting how it's the pictures that have become small...

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