So, ya think being a famous actress is an easy life, huh? Fool! Everything you know is wrong! So learn a lesson from this Friday's ASUW Films in 130 Kane: Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve.*
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) Sunset Boulevard is probably the most vituperative, back-stabbing, self-hating, malicious and just-plain-cynical look at the glamour of Hollywood. It is also a brilliant film with a capital "B" directed by one of America's foremost directors, Billy Wilder. Joe Gillis, is a down-on-his-luck writer who, when, being chased by his creditors, happens upon the estate of Norma Desmond, a once-great silent film queen.
Now, consider the casting: Norma Desmond, "once-great silent film star" is played (and played brilliantly) by Gloria Swanson, "once-great silent film star." Her servant, Max von Mayerling, once-great-director-destroyed-by-Hollywood's-system, is played by Erich von Stroheim, once-great director-destroyed -by-Hollywood's-system. Hack writer Joe Gillis is played by William Holden who, more than any other actor is director-writer Billy Wilder's cinematic alter-ego. It is cruel in how it treats the old discarded Hollywood, and it is cruel (and probably right) in the view of the 1950's Hollywood being just as bad with its over-eager starlets and corrals of hacks like Gillis. It is filled with a black steaminess—a fetid atmosphere (something I felt again this Summer walking down Hollywood Boulevard). It shows a view of Hollywood as something like a Venus Fly-trap, something that looks lovely and inviting from a distance, but once you get up-close you find that is merely a plot to attract and drag you in.
Another thing: this movie is full, dense with ideas and brilliant strokes by its creators with reverberations that go beyond the film. When you leave the theater it haunts you even more effectively than a finely crafted horror film. It is a horror movie—with a black widow spider at the hub of a web, dragging everything around her touch into degradation and death. Maybe I should say that, in the first of bizarre touches that create the film's atmosphere, that Joe Gillis narrates the film, even as we see him floating face-down dead in Norma Desmond's swimming pool.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM on February 3-4th, 1976
Quite a few other films (and one highly-rated television series) have used that "speaking from the grave" bit since. It's the ultimate authority for putting things in perspective. But that was Wilder being conservative (as an aside, I find it funny that I call Wilder one of America's great directors--he is/was also Germany's, as well). He initially wanted Gillis to sit up in the police morgue and start telling the story from his slab.
I think you can make a case for Sunset Boulevard being prime film-noir (and maybe an American Grand Guignol), as Wilder was adept at it—he also directed Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole, which would be his next picture for Paramount. The only thing leavening the bite a bit is the dark humor of it all, inspired by the excess and fatuousness of the movie-making scene. It's not so amazing that Hollywood let Wilder do this film. Every few years some disgusted writer or director claims to make an expose that'll blow the lid off Hollywood, be it A Star Is Born, or The Big Picture, or S.O.B., or An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.
Yeah, yeah. They all pale in comparison to Sunset Boulevard which starts in the gutter and stays there until its last shimmering-with-Vaseline fade to pitch-black. It doesn't surprise me at all that Gloria Swanson returned to movies for this part.** It's a fearless performance, full of self-awareness and assured brio. It would stay with her the rest of her life, and she would play a benign version of the role in what little work she did later on. It is interesting that Erich von Stroheim agreed to his butler role as he was a silent film director (and star) whose career was stalled by the extravagant budgets on his films—in fact, the "Norma Desmond" film that she shows Gillis was directed by von Stroheim (the barely-released Queen Kelly).*** It's also curious that Cecil B. DeMille participated in it, but not really. Although extremely conservative, it gave DeMille an opportunity to trumpet his new version of Samson and Delilah, (and get paid doing it). That's the movie he's shown filming in his scenes.****
It's also neat that Franz Waxman, the movie's composer, snuck in the Paramount News-reel Theme in a couple places in the score. There are lots of in-jokes like that.
Not sure I agree with myself about the Billy Wilder/William Holden alter-ego thing, as you could also apply it to Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
And the movie's DID get small.
Sunset Boulevard is one of those must-see films. Just have a shower ready for after.
* We'll post All About Eve next Saturday.
** The part was offered to Greta Garbo, Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri, who all turned it down, out of vanity or, in Pickford's case, horror at the material. Montgomery Clift was to play Joe Gillis, but quit two weeks before filming began. Clift was engaged in an affair of sorts with an older woman at the time, and probably thought comparisons would have been made.
*** There's a story for you: financed by Joseph P. Kennedy (father of John, Robert and Edward) who was having an affair with the star, Gloria Swanson, and directed by von Stroheim, who was fired after a third of the picture had been shot. It was originally intended to be four hours long. That was a short subject compared to von Stroheim's original cut of Greed (1924), which ran for 9 hours. MGM's first feature length film, von Stroheim cut it down to 5 hours, then it was taken away from him by the studio and Irving Thalberg had it shortened to 2 1/4 hours. The rest of the film, and all the out-takes were melted down for the silver content. Max von Mayerling could be based a bit on German director Josef von Sternberg, who made Marlene Dietrich a star, and had something of a co-dependent relationship with her. Wilder tapped a rich vein when he wrote Sunset Boulevard, as he did when he took on the press and its role in celebrity in Ace in the Hole, (which, maybe because he didn't spare his scrutiny of the public's ability to be hood-winked, didn't do at all well at the box office. You don't bite the hand that feeds you...not directly, anyway).
**** Later, during the days of the Black List, the conservative DeMille would continually refer to Wilder (who was quite liberal) as "Billy Vilder" accentuating his German roots (as if his accent could disguise it!). The publicity angle is nothing new for deMille; he was a huckster. He started a campaign to have chiseled displays of the ten commandments erected in major city's courts for his 50's epic The Ten Commandments. These are the same monuments that conservatives are falling all over themselves to preserve--even though they started out as movie SWAG.