40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Review: "Sunset Boulevard"

First off, it has to be said: the restoration of this film to DVD is nothing short of a miracle. It's a gorgeous transfer and looks like it was shot in present-day Hollywood. It's a black and white film, and on DVD the contrasts of black/white/grey are apparent and there is no bleeding. Simply astounding. If you care to see how the film looked before the transfer, fire up the DVD, go into special features, and view the theatrical trailer.

On to the movie (and spoilers).

Sunset Boulevard was released in 1950 and directed by the acclaimed director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Some Like It Hot).

Sunset Boulevard is a classic film noir and a stinging indictment against Hollywood, and certainly a daring film for its time. The movie-making industry usually aren't fans of films that paint that industry in a negative light (and those films are few and far between, with the most recent example being Robert Altman's The Player).

The film opens to a scene of police cars, sirens wailing, heading to a Hollywood mansion. A corpse has been discovered in the pool. A narrator, in voice over, tells us we'll learn what really happened before the gossip columnists get a hold of the story.

The narrator is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a B-movie writer down on his luck, running out of money to pay for the rent of his apartment and the payments for his car. With repo men on his tail, Gillis pulls off into the driveway of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion. It certainly looks that way from the outside, with a mess of foliage and a deserted look. Gillis' car has blown a tire and he discovers a garage at the mansion to hide his car in.

As it turns out, the mansion isn't deserted. Gillis meets Max (Erich von Stroheim), who bids him to come inside the mansion to meet its occupant, who turns out to be the famed silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, in an amazing performance). Gillis knows who she is: "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." Desmond delivers a classic retort: "I AM big. It's the PICTURES that got small."

Coincidentally, Desmond has been working on a screenplay that would, in her mind, get her back into movies and famous once again. Hesitantly (at first), Gillis agrees to help write the screenplay -- after all, he can't go back to his apartment and doesn't want the repo men to take his car.

It's from this initial meeting that the film takes off. Gillis, who only wanted to say a couple of weeks, is moved into the mansion where he becomes a permanent resident. He also becomes, the film hints at, Desmond's lover, even though (gasp!) she's twice his age. But she needs a handsome young man around to feel like the star she once was.

Gillis gradually warms to the idea of being a "kept man" and allow Desmond to buy him expensive suits and jewelry. As the film progresses, we learn, with Gillis, that something isn't right with Desmond. She's prone to suicidal fits and exaggerated mannerisms, and in one scene, calmly explains to Gillis that she has a gun (to use on herself...or Gillis?)

She throws a lavish New Years Eve party -- for just two guests, her and Gillis. She lives in a sort of dream world where she's the biggest movie star in the world.

A complication arises -- and isn't this true for a noir picture -- when Gillis meets a woman named Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). The two had met previously at Paramount Pictures, when Gillis was pitching a script idea, only to have it shot down by Schaefer, who was a Paramount script reader. But now she has an idea of her own for a script and needs Gillis' help to complete it, so the two begin working on the script, at night, like lovers engaged in a secret tryst.

Meanwhile, Gillis has finished Desmond's script and had it delivered to famed director Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself), who isn't interested in doing the picture -- something only Gillis knows. After receiving phone calls from the movie studio (they actually only want to use Desmond's old car in a movie), Desmond decides it's time to pay a visit to DeMille, and she and Gillis head for the Paramount lot. DeMille grants the former movie queen an audience, and basically gives her the run-around on her script.

Eventually Desmond discovers that Gillis has been "cheating" on her with Schaefer, and a lover's spat follows, which ends deadly. In the end, a clearly deranged Desmond is being led off to jail for her crime, but believes she is actually on a movie set, and that the cameras filming her are real movie cameras, and not cameras for newsreels; Desmond thinks she's filming her Cecil B. DeMille picture, which brings us that famous line, "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."

Billy Wilder was a great craftsman of film, and his artistry is evident throughout Sunset Boulevard, from one great shot to another, whether it's the withered exterior of Desmond's mansion to the gothic interior, all done up on a stage set, with Wilder's camera work suggesting a huge sense of space and place inside that set. You'd never know it was a set.

As I've said, this is a daring movie, and Wilder takes some interesting chances. First of all, his use of real people and institutions within Hollywood, using the real names of people, so the lines between illusion and reality become blurred. It was a stroke of genius to get DeMille to play himself, and in one earlier scene, several greats from the silent era have paid Desmond a visit for a game of cards (Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner).

The casting is also spot-on: Gloria Swanson is perfect in the role of Norma Desmond. She might as well have been Desmond (aside from the craziness), as her own life mirrored her character's life (Swanson had been a big name in silent movies but hadn't kept her fame in the era of the talkie, and hadn't worked in many years before being cast as Desmond). Sure, her performance is exaggerated at times, but that's bound to be intentional: after all, she still envisions herself in silent films, and her physical movements would be the same sort of exaggerations needed to convey emotion in a silent film.

Erich von Stroheim, who plays Max, Desmond's butler, in reality was an acclaimed silent film director in the 1920s and 30s -- and had, in fact, directed Swanson in Queen Kelly in 1929 (that's the film Desmond screens for Gillis). And Swanson had also worked with Cecil B. DeMille in the past.

William Holden brings some complexity to the character of Gillis, and certainly plays him with some moral ambiguity, because we're not really sure if he actually loves Desmond or is just using her.

Nancy Olson is the one bright light in this story, although it would have been nice to see her role expanded a bit.

A great film from a great era of movie making. **** out of ****

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