Paramount // 1950 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // November 11th, 2008
For a film that openly and gleefully savages Hollywood, a film in which the leading lady (if not exactly the "heroine") decries scripted dialogue and pines defiantly for the day of silent films ("We didn't need dialogue, we had faces," she famously declares), Sunset Boulevard is one of the most sharply written satires ever filmed. And yet, it all comes down to one word, spoken frequently throughout the film but uttered once, near the end, by the leading lady in such a manner as to make her transfigured:
It's the magic word, the "Open Sesame" to the soul, the kiss that awakens the sleeping princess. It's an invocation here, uttered like a prayer at the brink of destruction.
It all comes down to cameras.
Joe Gillis (William Holden, Golden Boy) is dead, murdered, floating face down in a swimming pool. The pool is part of the opulent Hollywood mansion of faded silent screen goddess Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, Sadie Thompson).
Miss Desmond -- or, The Madame, as she is called by her butler, Max (famed director Erich von Stroheim Greed) -- has spent the past 20 years or so locked up in this gothic mansion plotting a comeback. Make that "a return" to the millions of fans who've never forgiven her for leaving the screen -- she still gets fan letters every day.
Gillis was there because he had nowhere else to go. A down-on-his-luck screenwriter, he happened upon the mansion while outrunning the repo men. Norma's interest in him was purely professional; as a writer, he could help her edit the script she's writing for her return, which is based on the story of Salome. Of course, the plan is for 50-ish Norma to play 20-ish Salome, and who better to be at her side than 30-ish Joe.
Soon, Joe is enjoying the beneficence of his benefactress, the nice clothes and good champagne. Then he happens upon sweet, young Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson, Big Jim McLain), the fiancée of a friend. She thinks Joe's a good writer and wants to work with him.
So Joe starts sneaking out, meeting Betty on the sly to work on a screenplay. But there's more to this than just working together, and soon it becomes clear that Joe's got a choice to make.
It's a lose-lose for our reluctant gigolo, and from the opening moments, we're aware of how much Joe is going to lose by getting involved in the web of insanity that is Norma Desmond's world.
At the Oscars for 1950 it was a showdown of Broadway vs. Hollywood. Three of the acting awards went to stage adaptations; the fourth went to George Sanders' turn as theater critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, the ultimate backstage movie that also won Best Picture and Best Director.
Hollywood, ironically, was represented by a film that many in the film industry cursed. Billy Wilder's brilliant, biting satire, Sunset Boulevard, racked up 11 Oscar nominations, including one for each member of its cast, although Erich Von Stroheim threatened to sue the Academy over it (he felt it was demeaning to be nominated as a supporting actor). The film won awards for the writing, music, and art direction.
That the film was honored at all is, in some ways, surprising. Sunset Boulevard tore into Hollywood with a rarely seen ferocity. When it premiered, many industry insiders -- studio heads and the like -- would have been happy seeing Wilder tarred and feathered and shipped out of California for good, but the creative types -- actors and like -- were astonished, and critics covered it with praise.
It's easy to understand both these reactions. Wilder is merciless, his Hollywood a horror story, a place where freaks, fools, and cynics jockey for position and people are as disposable as yesterday's newspaper. "Old Hollywood" is embodied by the deranged Desmond, living her life full of grand gestures as though she's still appearing in silent films, unshakable in her belief that she has millions of fans clamoring for her return.
And yet as ridiculously extravagant as is Norma Desmond, as unhinged her every move appears to be, it is almost preferable to what we see of "New Hollywood," with its impersonal artlessness and classless deal makers. It's clear that the peasants have overthrown the royals, and the one-time kings and queens are exiled, never to return, but Norma clings to her illusions -- and delusions.
And she clings to Joe, the unlikeliest of tour guides here, himself down and out and ready to pack it in. He's a loser, a pariah, a young man who speaks with the cynicism of a defeated old man. Holden makes no effort to ennoble Joe, a courageous choice for this young leading man. Had Sunset Boulevard not been such a well-made hit, playing such a slimy character could have been detrimental to Holden's career. Instead, he and Wilder enjoyed a long personal and professional relationship, and the actor won his lone Oscar for Wilder's Stalag 17.
One of Holden's great accomplishments in Sunset Boulevard is that he is not completely overshadowed by the magnificent Gloria Swanson, whose gutsy, iconic, larger-than-life turn as Norma Desmond ranks as one of the all-time great screen performances. It's easily -- and frequently -- parodied, but as Swanson plays it, Norma is there, for real.
Monstrous, but never a monster, Swanson imbues Norma with a fragile dignity; Norma might be insane, but she's neither stupid nor insensitive. Unlike Joe, who's washed up and beaten down at 30, Norma holds out hope. She believes in the legend she's created, and she believes in the promise of Hollywood. Swanson takes what could have been a caricature and creates a full-blown, indelible character, dangerous, caustic, calculating, and ultimately tragic.
The script, by Wilder and frequent collaborator Charles Brackett (with D.M. Marshman, Jr.) is by turns hilarious and horrifying, filled with bizarre twists and turns and enough depravity and decadence that it's a wonder it was approved for viewing in the U.S. The script and direction are Wilder at his peak, and Sunset Boulevard is, arguably, his greatest accomplishment. Yes, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, and Some Like It Hot are all great, but this is Wilder's masterpiece.
Paramount first released Sunset Blvd. on DVD in 2002. For a single-disc "Special Collector's Edition" of its day, it was a pretty good disc, with a nice selection of extras, including a commentary by Ed Sikov, author of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Also on that disc: "Sunset Blvd.: A Look Back," which was a "making of" featurette that included interviews with Sikov, Nancy Olson, critic Andrew Sarris, Glenn Close (who played Norma Desmond in the Broadway musical adaptation), and long-time Paramount producer and friend of Wilder, A.C. Lyles. That set also included a look at Franz Waxman's music and Edith Head's costumes, and a text and picture reconstruction of a prologue, later scrapped, that was to take place in a morgue, with Gilis telling his story from a slab. A problem with that set was that everything was crammed onto a single disc, so the technical quality suffered.
For Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection, Paramount spreads everything over two discs and offers more extras. Disc One contains the film with Sikov's commentary and some previews. Sikov's commentary is quite good, a bit slow in spots, but overall very entertaining and informative. It's fun to hear him toss out observations about symbolism that may or may not have been intended by Wilder and company (check out his remarks concerning Norma's New Year's Eve outfit, for instance).
The image here is pretty good, especially considering that the film is almost 60 years old. It is by and large clean with deep blacks and great contrast, though here and there -- particularly in the final third -- we see some damage and flickering. It's certainly watchable, and much improved from the 2002 edition. It's kind of a shame, though, that one of the greatest American films isn't receiving a full-on restoration. Audio is a solid mono track with French and Spanish dubs, and there are English, French, and Spanish subtitles available.
Disc Two contains around three hours worth supplemental material. While the first set's "making of" featurette is not here, the interviews from that piece -- including some unused stuff -- have been re-edited and re-packaged to address various aspects of the film, and new interviews having been added, including Stefanie Powers (William Holden's companion), author Joseph Wambaugh, and author and filmmaker Nicholas Meyer, as well as some archival footage of Swanson probably from the 1970s.
There are eight of these interview-and-clip featurettes, and they touch on a variety of topics: production, legacy, Sunset Boulevard as noir, the soundtrack, the city, and tributes to Holden and Swanson. We also get all the other extras from the first set as well as a couple of puffy but fun pieces about Paramount.
My gripe here is pretty much the same as it was for Paramount's Chinatown: Special Collector's Edition. On both that disc and this one, we are given a number of "featurettes" that are actually parts of the same interviews broken up into smaller chunks and titled separately. Some of these are recycled from the earlier disc.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with this -- the interviews are well done, interesting, informative, etc. -- I wish Paramount had run them as one long featurette rather than listing them separately. At least for me, there was an expectation when I saw eight different documentaries listed on the case that there would be eight separate pieces, not one long piece carved into eight "documentaries." Since they are all stylistically the same -- talking heads, Franz Waxman's score running under everything, the same sets of stills and clips -- they become repetitious after a while (a shot of Billy Wilder under the Sunset Blvd. street sign must pop up around 20 times).
It would have been nice to have had some different perspectives and some variety in the source materials. An A&E Biography or E! True Hollywood Story episode, newsreel or Oscar night footage, or even an episode of a TV show, like Swanson's appearance on The Beverly Hillbillies or Holden on I Love Lucy, would have been welcome.
What's really a shame is the short shrift given to Swanson here. In the minds of many, the actress and the role are inseparable, and there's an impression that Swanson was merely playing herself. But Gloria Swanson was no goggle-eyed harridan locked away in a gothic mansion, plotting a triumphal return in a vehicle that was 30 years too late. She was, however, creating a character whose history could have been hers -- for while the middle-aged Desmond bore little resemblance to Swanson, the young Norma Desmond might have been modeled on silent screen siren Swanson.
In the film, Desmond's life in the '20s is viewed as a joke -- witness Max's recitation about her popularity, including her three husbands and the tale of a maharaja who strangled himself with one of her stockings. In real life, Swanson racked up half a dozen marriages and notched quite a few prominent lovers, most notably successful bootlegger and future presidential father Joe Kennedy. She made and spent millions, and was the epitome of everything that was wrong and evil about Hollywood -- and her fans were legion and eagerly followed her exploits.
What a shame, then, that Paramount couldn't have begged, borrowed, or created something to give us a better understanding of Swanson in her heyday. What we get in the way of a tribute comes from her granddaughter and from Linda Harrison, her co-star in Airport 1975. It's charming and warm, but it really doesn't do justice to this silent screen siren.
"Madame was the greatest of them all," Max reiterates throughout the film. I don't know if Sunset Boulevard is the greatest film of all time, but it's up there. It is a savage and brilliant look at the movie business, ballsier and more affecting than anything that came before or has come since. While I wish the transfer was stronger, and I feel Paramount's playing a little fast and loose with the way they've packaged the extras, this is still a very good edition, probably the best you'll see of this film.
Essential viewing. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by author Ed Sikov
* "Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning"
* "The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard by Joseph Wambaugh"
* "Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic"
* "Two Sides of Ms. Swanson"
* "Stories of Sunset Boulevard"
* "Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden"
* "Recording Sunset Boulevard"
* Morgue Prologue Script Pages
* "The Score of Sunset Boulevard"
* "Behind the Gates: The Lot"
* Hollywood Location Map
* "Paramount in the '50s"
* "Edith Head: The Paramount Years"
* Theatrical Trailer
* IMDb: Sunset Blvd. A Look Back