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Sunset Boulevard
review of and comments on Billy Wilder's film classic

Article added on December 12, 2002
  
Criticism of Hollywood and its studio system remains a subject for filmmakers such as Robert Altman (The Player, 2001), David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, 2001) or Woody Allen (Hollywood Ending, 2002). Since November 2002, one of the best films ever (not only on Hollywood filmmaking) is available on DVD: Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950).
 
Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece of film noir and a bitter tragic-comedy which shows the dark side of Hollywood's fabric of dreams. Remarkably, the film was partly shot at Paramount Studios. The studio had total confidence in Billy Wilder. Stage 18, by the way, is still in use in 2002. During the shooting of Sunset Boulevard, Cecil B. DeMille, who plays himself in Wilder's film, was directing Samson and Delilah on Stage 18.
 
The film title Sunset Boulevard is a metaphor for the state of mind and of the career of the film diva Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson). Gloria Swanson herself had been one of the major stars of silent cinema. Her Hollywood career had ended in the mid 1930s. However, Swanson was neither a recluse nor a lunatic like her film character but a hard-working woman who ran her own company and had her own radio show in New York City. For the role of Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson divorced her fourth or fifth husband and moved to Hollywood.
 
The film title also refers to the existing boulevard in Los Angeles where Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is supposed to live. The actual house seen in the film (exterior and back gardens; the interiors were shot in a studio) was built in 1924, owned by the former wife of tycoon Jean Paul Getty and not located on Sunset Boulevard. It was demolished in 1957.
 
The opening of the film is masterful: Police cars and motorcycles lead us to a villa on Sunset Boulevard where one can see the dead body of a man floating in a swimming pool. An off-voice tells us that the man "always wanted a pool." The scene is filmed from the bottom of the pool with the help of a mirror. Around the pool one can recognize policemen.


 
However, this was not the original opening scene. First, Billy Wilder thought of a Morgue Prologue with dead bodies at the morgue, talking to each other about their respective destinies. These scenes, shot in 1948, can be found on the DVD's bonus material. Besides the silent footage, the DVD also contains the corresponding script pages. The original opening scene was dropped after unsuccessful pre-screening.
 
One of the first conversations between the professionally and financially struggling writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) and the aging silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sums up the diva's state of mind as well as director Billy Wilder's ironic and critical distance towards the film industry: Gillis: " You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." - Norma: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." - Gillis: "Aha. I knew there was something wrong with them."
 
In order to symbolize and emphasize the difference between old and new Hollywood, William Holden uses the underplayed style of acting of the post-war era whereas Gloria Swanson uses the big gestures and the expressive acting style of the silent film era. Furthermore, the film's music director Waxman (who knew Wilder from his Ufa years in Germany) chose a tango to introduce Norma and a bebop to present Joe Gillis.
 
As in many films by Billy Wilder, one of the main characters, here Joe Gillis (William Holden) is in a moral dilemma: A man does something he hates to do. In other words, he prostitutes himself in different ways. By the way, Norma is only in her early 50s and not unattractive. Gillis is 31. A relationship between them is not unlikely.



Wilder humorously lets Joe Gillis take place of the dead monkey Norma is about to bury when Gillis arrives at her house. After Gillis moved to the room over the garage, he told Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) his first dream: "a chimp was dancing for pennies". He had taken the place of the dead chimpanzee as Norma's friend.
 
The casting for Sunset Boulevard is brilliant. Erich von Stroheim had been a respected director in the silent film era. He had worked in the crew of D. W. Griffith during the shooting of the film classic Birth of a Nation. In 1924, Stroheim began to ruin his career as a director with Greed, an eighteen hour film epos which is today considered a masterpiece. At the time, it was only released in a mutilated version.
 
Erich von Stroheim definitively blew his career with Queen Kelly (1929). The film's star was.... Gloria Swanson. The film also destroyed her career. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and Joe Gillis (William Holden) watch a film in the diva's screening room. And yes, it is Queen Kelly. The film was financed by Joe Kennedy, the father of JFK. At that time, Swanson was apparently his lover. One day, Swanson is said to have called Joe Kennedy, telling him that a madman was directing the picture, referring to Erich von Stroheim who was actually by many considered a strange character, on- and off-screen. By the time Sunset Boulevard was made, the bitterness between Swanson and von Stroheim had faded away.
 
By the way, Montgomery Clift and not William Holden was the first choice for the character of Joe Gillis. Despite this fact, Holden became one of Billy Wilder's closest friends and starred in another three of his films.
 
Sunset Boulevard was not awarded an Academy Award for Best Picture, which was won by All About Eve. There is a musical based on Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, which is still played on stage. Among others, Glenn Close starred as Norma Desmond.
 
Cast:
William Holden - Joe Gillis; Gloria Swanson - Norma Desmond; Erich von Stroheim - Max von Mayerling; Nancy Olson - Betty Schaefer; Jack Webb - Artie Green. Among the other actors are Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough and, as themselves, director Cecil B. DeMille, journalist Hedda Hopper and silent film stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H. B. Warner. The silent film stars play cards with Norma in a scene. William Holden's character refers to them as "The Wax Works". - Sheet music of Hollywood classics.




Billy Wilder, director: Sunset Boulevard, 1950. Paramount, DVD, 2002. Get it from Amazon.com, Amazon Canada, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr.

Sheet music of Hollywood classics.





Deutsch Politik Geschichte Kunst Film Musik Lebensart Reisen
English Politics History Art Film Music Lifestyle Travel
Français Politique Histoire Arts Film Musique Artdevivre Voyages

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© Copyright www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.