Friday, June 20, 2014
CANON OF FILM: "SUNSET BLVD"
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
Director: Billy WilderScreenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.
“Sunset Blvd” is many things. Some call it a very dark comedy and yes, it is a satirical parody although I think the film is one of the creepiest thrillers ever made. It’s also one of the best examples of a Hollywood-In movie. These are films that make direct references to Hollywood and specific people, stars, films… These films often include cameos by many Hollywood personalities, including some you wouldn’t normally see on film. (There’s many in this film, Cecil B. DeMille most notably, but Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, are other great silent stars, and what Hollywood smorgasbord of celebrities is there without Hedda Hopper. [Unless Louella Parsons happened to be around of course]) These are rare films, but they’re unmistakable and memorable. Recent examples would include Robert Altman’s “The Player,” (Which I just saw again a couple weeks ago, and if it were eligible yet, would definitely be in this cannon) and Kevin Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” (Which although is memorable, I probably won’t include in this cannon). As you can see, Hollywood-In films can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and we see both in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, “Sunset Blvd.”
From the first moments in the film, Joe Gillis (William Holden) tells us that he’s been shot three times, twice in the back and once in the stomach. The story is being told by a corpse. Then we see him as a failing screenwriter trying to get enough money so he could pay money to two guys who are after him. The scenes where he’s trying to pitch a movie script to an executive are good enough that a good movie, even a great movie can be made from scenes like these, but there’s something else in store for Mr. Gillis. He makes a wrong turn onto Sunset Blvd, and into the mansion of Norma Desmond (Oscar-nominee Glorian Swanson), an old silent film star, who has mostly fallen out of the public’s and Hollywood’s memory. She lives with her butler Max (Oscar-nominee Erich von Stroheim) and a recently deceased primate. (Very recently deceased) This place is as creepy, if not creepier than most haunted houses and castles in horror movies. Especially with the inclusion of a monkey, I can’t help but to think of Neverland Ranch, but excesses of fame and the eccentricities of artists. Once introductions have been announced, Norma tells Joe of a story she’s been writing, but needs a screenwriter, and after some convincing, although less than we’d think, Gillis is now going to write a movie for her comeback. (If you’re wondering where Stephen King got the idea for “Misery,” this would’ve probably have been a source material.) That’s the real subtlety to “Sunset Boulevard” the way Joe Gillis is also tempted by fame, his willingness to bend to Norma’s will, just to possibly get a script made. Some may wonder why he doesn’t just go back to Dayton and to his old newspaper job, but as Blake Edwards once recollected, about the circus guy who’s job was to walk behind the elephants and sweep up their shit, he would sing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” when he’d do it, and for many that’s not that far off, although Gillis may be somewhat conflicted when it comes to Norma.
What makes the film so fascinating from a Hollywood historian standpoint is that all the parts were basically played by people who’s lives were similar to there own. Gloria Swanson was a former silent film star, and she was in fact one of Cecil B. Demille’s favorite actresses. (It’s a minor miracle he showed up in the film because he and Billy Wilder were major rivals at the time.) When Max, Norma’s faithful butler talks about the Hollywood past, and describes the three directors of silent films, this is a good description of his career. He was resumed to parts like this after the silent era. Is there something great to be said about Hollywood in this film, some incredible metaphorical significance about the society of Hollywood and the delusions of fame? I don’t know, but I’m reminded of recent Dave Chappelle comments when he said Tom Cruise doesn’t just jump on a couch, and Mariah Carey doesn’t just strip on TRL, and Dave Chappelle doesn’t just go to Africa. With shows like “Access Hollywood” everywhere now, it’s no wonder that when Mrs. Desmond is ready for her close-up, she mistakes news cameras for video cameras, because in Hollywood, if you’re not on camera, you’re nowhere, even if you're house is in the 10,000 block of Sunset Blvd. (Or up on Mulholland Dr.)