Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Classic Film Review: Sunset Blvd.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Directed By: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim

With the recent resurgence in my quest to watch all the major Hollywood film classics, I purchased Sunset Blvd. on a whim last year knowing very little about the movie itself other than the infamous line uttered by Gloria Swanson; "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is down on his luck in Hollywood, having run out of original ideas for a new film to present to various major studios. He owes money to creditors and, while running from them in his expensive and shiny white car, a flat tire leads him to make the quick decision to park his car in the garage of a forboding mansion on the outskirts of town. Once inside the oppressive building Joe meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the aging former silent screen star and her solumn German butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Together, actress and butler, the two live a life of almost complete isolation, surrounded only by the relics of Norma's celebrity past. Norma shows Joe a script she has written based on the story of Salome, which she plans as her "return" to the silver screen. Despite the tedious script, Joe agrees to edit it for a fee, which would help him with the creditors. Norma goes above and beyond, showering Joe with jewellery, expensive suits and cigarette cases made of solid gold. What unfolds is a drama about a young struggling writer and the sudden riches he aquires from the older, emotionally unstable and lovestruck Norma who wishes for nothing more than to be a cinema icon once again.

Stylistically, the film is flawless. I haven't seen enough of Billy Wilder's work to compare it against, but it's easy to see why he is considered one of the cinematic greats. This is film noir to perfection, complete with a witty, all-knowing narrator. The script remains clever and fresh, despite the familiarity of the story and the passage of time. It includes references to Gone With the Wind ("Who wants to see a Civil War picture?" asks one producer), Charlie Chaplin, Rudy Valentino and features cameos by Buster Keaton and Cecil B. De Mille, as themselves. With Paramount Studios, as an entity, acting as a co-star in the film one can't help but feel the authenticity of Old Hollywood within the film. As a result, Wilder's film feels like a genuine glimpse into the lives of the Hollywood elite and those former talents long forgotten by their audiences.

Although Wilder originally wanted to cast Mae West and Marlon Brando in the leads, his choices are quite remarkable when one considers the back story of each cast member. At the time of production Gloria Swanson had been absent from the silver screen for several years, much like her alter ego. It marked her "return," just as Salome should have been the breakthrough for her on screen alter ego, Norma Desmond. William Holden's career mirrored that of Joe Gillis as, after a successful start in film, his career was struggling when Wilder approached him. Nancy Olson, who plays Betty Schaefer, the object of Joe's affection, was just stating out in Hollywood, much like the ambitious young screenwriter she portrays in the film. Then, of course, there is Erich von Stroheim who, playing the butler and former director Max, was formerly a silent film director in real life. He made "Queen Kelly" back in 1929 with his future co-star, Gloria Swanson. In fact, the film Swanson's Norma screens for Joe in Sunset Blvd. is an actual clip from "Queen Kelly." This is inspired casting, on all counts, and each actor is remarkable and memorable in their respective roles.

I love when a classic film lives up to all the hype that surrounds it. Sunset Blvd. manages to still be original, crisp and a facinating look at Hollywood life, despite the passage of time. I plan on watching it again soon so that I can catch all the little details and character nuances I may have missed upon my first viewing.