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Sunset Blvd.
Drama, Film-Noir
IMDB rating:
Billy Wilder
William Holden as Joseph C. 'Joe' Gillis
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
Erich von Stroheim as Max Von Mayerling
Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer
Fred Clark as Sheldrake
Lloyd Gough as Morino
Jack Webb as Artie Green
Franklyn Farnum as Undertaker - Chimp's Funeral
Larry J. Blake as First Finance Man (as Larry Blake)
Charles Dayton as Second Finance Man
Hedda Hopper as Herself
Buster Keaton as Himself - Bridge Player
Anna Q. Nilsson as Herself - Bridge Player
H.B. Warner as Himself - Bridge Player
Storyline: The story, set in '50s Hollywood, focuses on Norma Desmond, a silent-screen goddess whose pathetic belief in her own indestructibility has turned her into a demented recluse. The crumbling Sunset Boulevard mansion where she lives with only her butler, Max who was once her director and husband has become her self-contained world. Norma dreams of a comeback to pictures and she begins a relationship with Joe Gillis, a small-time writer who becomes her lover, that will soon end with murder and total madness.
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This is on my top 100 list.
I have seen this movie perhaps 10 times and it never fails to get to me on so many levels. The jaded newsman played by William Holden, the star herself, Gloria Swanson who just about steals every scene she is in, William does an excellent job in holding his own. This is the ultimate comment on Hollywood by Hollywood. And it holds true even today when we observe so many has beens behaving so inappropriately (Goldie Hawn, pushing 60, giggling like a crazed 15 year old comes to mind) because they cannot let go of their days in the sun and keep projecting their younger selves to us as they have not come to terms with the people they have become. My heart aches for Gloria in this, though she is most unlovable and treats people abominably. The old bit players shine in this also, and of course Eric who continues to worship her because he knows no other life but that of sycophant. A great, great movie. 9 out of 10 ( And I was so disappointed in the stage remake a few years ago. Nobody can top Gloria.
Pictures these days have gotten small compared to this
*possible spoilers*

What can I say in praise of this wonderful film that others haven't already? Certainly the acting's amazing, and the direction creative. The script contains many unforgettable lines others have already quoted here.

What I can say is that this film is modern in a way no other film of its time really is. Each time I've seen it I can't beleive it's from 1950, its thematic elements just seem so fresh. Sunset Boulevard may seem familar to us with our current cultural obsession with celebrity and especially celebrity downfalls. We watch the E! True Hollywood Story, Star Dates, and the lowest nadir of all, Celebrity Boxing. I don't any other film, fact or fiction, has equalled this film in treating the theme of Hollywood's dangers.

At the end of the film Norma Desmond, with the newsreel cameras on her, is sickly elated at being back in the celluloid eye, despite the fact she'd just killed her lover. The fact that celebrities today humiliate themselves on second rate cable networks and Fox spectacles attests to the outright addiction of fame.

William Holden's character also attests to the oft-invoked "Boulevard of broken dreams." This is a theme explored recently by David Lynch in Mulholland Drive (which I think owes something to Sunset Boulevard), though not as successfully.

So, to add to the praises others here have heaped upon it and Billy Wilder, I would say that this film's surprising relevance could make it accessible to those who might not fancy older films. If you want to start watching classics but are looking for a good starting point, look no further.
Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket got the definite ghost story about Hollywood broken dreams. There's something vicious about the place and, on the other hand, this movie means the end of an era: Hollywood up to 1950. That year means, in my opinion, the last curtain for the so-called dream factory. And in that dream Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis become crazy. She becomes a fiend and he a pimp. The horror is that after 1950 Hollywood would never be the same and we can say that it's the end of the modern era and the beginning of postmodernism -what with the idiocy of the 50's era-? ABEL POSADAS
Says Holden: "I sure drove into an interesting driveway..."
WILLIAM HOLDEN really hits his stride in the role of Joe Gillis, the down-on-his-heels writer who just happens to be drowning in debt before he comes upon a secluded and decaying mansion that is about to change his life. Wilder's script gives him plenty of opportunity to shine. His typically witty quip to servant Erich Von Stroheim is: "I sure drove into an interesting driveway" (after realizing Swanson intends to hold a funeral for her pet monkey). It's the kind of remark that stays with you through the entire story.

Holden inhabits the role so perfectly that we can be thankful Montgomery Clift turned down the role at the last moment. And the screenplay by Billy Wilder provides plenty of other cynical and observant wise cracks that give his character of Joe Gillis such depth, conviction and truth.

And, of course, GLORIA SWANSON, as Norma Desmond, in what has to be regarded as her film swansong (she did very little thereafter), is every inch the faded silent screen star who lives inside her rich imagination, inflating her ego with self-important phrases like: "It's the pictures that got small." With her cat-like eyes and claw-like hand gestures, she gets every nuance out of a role that is theatrical and larger than life, right up to the fantastic ending. One can almost sense why Andrew Lloyd Webber would fashion this into a terrific Broadway musical.

Her meeting with Cecil B. DeMille on the set of a Paramount costume epic is priceless for the way it is written and played. When, at the conclusion of the film, she says: "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille", it's a truly poignant moment.

All of the supporting players are excellent, including NANCY OLSON, as the writer girlfriend that Holden shields from the truth until that final scene where he invites her to come over to the Sunset Blvd. mansion and exposes the sordid truth of his relationship with Swanson.

As the man servant who is Swanson's loyal protector and was once Swanson's first husband and director of her early films, ERICH VON STROHEIM easily matches Holden and Swanson with a fine characterization of the patiently devoted butler.

Swanson plays the demented star like a more glamorous version of Miss Havisham in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the woman who lived among the cobwebs because of a bitter disappointment when a lover jilted her on her wedding day. And like Miss Havisham, she refuses to deal with the reality of her situation when the going gets rough--as it does when it turns out nobody wants her at the studios any more, they were only interested in her antique auto.

Some old time Hollywoodians get some cameos (Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner) which give the film added interest and even Hedda Hopper is on the scene as a brusque Hollywood reporter. All of the technical details are perfect. Franz Waxman's score has a Salome-like flavor, especially toward the end when Swanson is in the full throes of her delusions.

Expertly photographed, written, directed and acted, this is a film that has to be watched closely to fully appreciate every detail. With its superior script, it mixes film noir, black comedy and dark melodrama with a nice blend of shadowy noir B&W photography, that has that Paramount sheen. A viewer is immediately drawn into the story which gets off to a brilliant start with Holden's brittle narration, the kind that strips all the phoniness away from any Hollywood pretension of glamor.

Summing up: Highly recommended for mature adults. Holden's corpse floating face downward, eyes open in the water of the lighted swimming pool, is the stylish stuff that film noir addicts dream of.

And Swanson's brief moment mimicking Charlie Chaplin is priceless.

Trivia note: Holden's performance is right on target--the perfect degree of cynicism, disdain and self-loathing. He should have won an Oscar here.
All right, Mr. DeMille
Gloria Swanson must be commended for her bravery in taking a part which may or may not have echoed her own Hollywood career. William Holden took a role which required him to be a kept boy; and he's not the nicest guy in the world either. If this had been made with Mae West and Montgomery Clift, I would probably not be writing this and no one else would give a damn about this movie either.

Both of them got Oscar nominations and I am sorry both lost. I am also sorry that "All About Eve" won Best Picture that year. Of course "Eve" is a great movie, but its not this.

This movie is part of our collective memory and most of the dialogue continues to be quoted even today. Thank God for whatever it was that brought Billy Wilder to Hollywood. I can't think of anyone who did such a wide variety of movies so well.

And please, no remakes.
very special look at Hollywood
Not a romanticised view of Tinseltown at all, this Billy Wilder movie was more or less ignored on release - the year that All About Eve took all the awards and the kudos. It is a bitter pill to swallow since it takes a kick at Hollywood's guts and has one of the bleakest endings in the whole of cinema.

Joe Gillis, a struggling writer, finds himself in the drive of a Hollywood palazzo when he wants somewhere to hide his car. The house belongs to Norma Desmond, who 'used to be big' in pictures, and Joe gets drawn to Norma and drawn into her weird world of flickering shadows.

The acting honours in this movie go squarely to Gloria Swanson, herself a 'star of yesteryear' as Norma, who is superb as the actress living in the past. Not that she plays Norma as exclusively tragic(the scene where she impersonates Chaplin is priceless) but perhaps no one could get to grips with the demands of this part better. William Holden plays Joe, his breakthrough role, and he does the part very well, while Erich von Stroheim plays faded Hollywood director Max von Mayerling (naturally a reflection of himself), and newcomer Nancy Olson plays Betty, a girl too nice to become submerged just yet in dreamland's poison.

The script is its moments of OTT-ness, but it is never less than interesting and draws in the viewer to the point when you are with Norma when she visits her old studio and talks of the joy of coming home; you are with Joe and Nancy as they fall in love among the cardboard settings of movie sets; and you are in the hall with Hedda Hopper watching Norma's last descent into madness.

The musical version which appeared in the 1990s had the heart and soul of this movie in mind, and was an excellent tribute to it.
Up To Date, Disturbing And Powerful, Despite A Few Dated Elements
Do you want to be disturbed?

Are you ready for a clammy, ice-cold classic that's relentlessly sad, chilling and upsetting?


Where else can you find a movie that starts -- actually starts -- with the main character being dragged out of a swimming pool dead? And then, the poor dope spends two hours telling you how he lost his job, his career, his girl friend, his self respect, and his life.

But he got that swimming pool he always wanted.

It's horrible to watch Joe Gillis lose everything. William Holden gives his character so much smarts and charm, you just can't believe he can be snuffed out so easily. But that's what Hollywood does -- and the message is that if it can happen to Joe, it can happen to anyone.

On the other hand, Norma Desmond is truly a fiend out of hell. Gloria Swanson will never be equaled in her courage, playing a woman who is more repulsive and hateful than any modern serial killer or hatchet wielding maniac. And yet all she wants is to go on being young and beautiful forever, sharing the magic of her stardom with "those wonderful people out there in the dark!" And the message is, if this monster is what's in front of the camera, who knows how many other monsters are out there -- in the dark?

At the heart of this movie is an intriguing contradiction. On the one hand, the chilling madness of Norma Desmond is as real and modern as the ghastly antics of the late Michael Jackson. (Funeral for a chimpanzee, anyone?) On the other hand, the anguish of Joe Gillis at being "kept" by an older woman is almost (and I do mean almost) too sexist and out of date to keep the viewer involved in the story.

Consider how this story would play if the gender roles were reversed. What if Norma Desmond were a tough, male Western star of the silents -- someone like legendary stuntman/cowpoke Tom Mix. And what if the young screenwriter were a pretty young woman with a cheerful, irreverent, upbeat personality, sort of like Carole Lombard or Katherine Hepburn? If the two of them got together it would seem sweet, romantic, not repulsive and chilling. Particularly if the eager young female helped him to get over the death of a beloved wife, or maybe his horse.

The point is, no one would be horrified if a 50 something male star seduced a bright young woman in her late twenties or thirties. In fact it would be regarded as rather romantic by a lot of people.

A lot of the "horror" of SUNSET BOULEVARD comes from an unthinking assumption -- that women with money and power are unnatural creatures and that they can only attract younger men through evil and manipulation. And there's also the double standard that a woman over 50 is no damned good to a man, but a man over 50 is still in his prime.

One final thought: William Holden had a wonderful career well into his seventies, and deservedly so. One of his last great performances was in THE WILD BUNCH, where he plays an aging outlaw named Pike Bishop. Note that Pike has the same basic concerns as Norma Desmond. Have I outlived my era? Can I still command respect? What was my life worth? Yet Pike's struggles to pull off one last job are not only not laughed at -- they're rendered as poignant, admirable, and unbelievably heroic. Pike plays the kind of noble, courageous life-giving elder whose wisdom and humanity -- and even his violent tragic death -- simply serve to rejuvenate an entire community.

That's the kind of part a mature actress should be able to play as well!
Greatest star of them all?
I just watched SB again -- three times -- this past week, for perhaps the 100th time.

The film is virtually flawless, IMHO. (Except for the distracting shadow of the camera on William Holden's back as he moves to Norma's bed to wish her, "Happy New Year, Norma . . . ," a technical flaw I've never understood: why wasn't the move re-lit and re-shot, since everything else in the film is perfect?) But what continues to haunt me is Swanson's performance. Her silent-screen "theatricality" is always remarked upon. Yet there are several moments of utterly contemporary "naturalism" that show she knew exactly what she was doing as an actress (and Wilder, as director).

Her sweetness in her "bathing beauty" scene, where she recounts her days in the line with Marie Prevost and Mabel Normand, then leaps onto the sofa beside William Holden -- is so beguiling that you completely understand her sex appeal and warmth (for a moment). When she asks for his match (for a moustache for her Chaplin impression) and tells Holden to close his eyes, "Close 'em!" -- the "Close 'em!" is clearly an ad lib that is so real and intimate that it is almost instantly lost in the macabre sequence that follows -- all flashing eyes and volcanic eruption that C.B. DeMille himself hasn't phoned her.

Soon afterward, believing she will be making "Salome" for DeMille, there is the astonishing montage of Norma's marathon beauty treatments in preparation for her "return." Extreme closeups of Swanson's face, without makeup, reveal a still-youthful, lovely woman with flawless skin. Even under the magnifying glass, even with the "worried" expression of Norma Desmond, Swanson is stunningly beautiful for a few moments. Ironically, for the rest of the picture, she had to be made up to look older. Yet here we get a glimpse of the real Swanson at 50-whatever, and she looks merely a few years older than Holden.

Finally, the entire sequence when Holden returns to find Swanson phoning Betty Shaefer to tell her the truth about Joe Gillis, Swanson is in cold-cream and "wings" to smooth her cheeks and eyes -- an actress completely exposed and without vanity.

She plays the entire sequence "naturalistically" and in complete contrast to her theatrical, "I AM big. It's the pictures that got small," style.

Here, in her bed, caught by Holden, realizing she's going to lose him, she begs him, "Look at me!" The desperation and helplessness, the momentary admission of reality as Norma acknowledges her fears and insecurities and pleads with Holden, are heartbreaking. Swanson's playing in the scene is astonishingly courageous for any actress, and deeply true to the character.

Finally, as Joe packs to leave her and Swanson pleads with him to stay -- grabbing his luggage and begging, "What do you want? Money?" -- again her playing is ratcheting up emotionally into madness, yet is still as contemporary as any Stanislavski method.

Everyone tends to remember Swanson's over-the-top stylized performance: yet her total control as an actress, and her naturalistic moments and emotional nakedness, however fleeting, are something to behold.

Swanson's is truly one of the most astonishing performances on film. Her range here is jaw-dropping.

Watch her transitions in the Chaplin scene alone, in one continuous take, from heart-rending comedy to blind rage. No cutaways. Amazing.

I happened to see Swanson live at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood, on Vine, in the late sixties, in a stage show written especially for her, called "Reprise." This piece-of-fluff comedy about a famous movie star returning to her home town was hardly Tony-Award winning. But from her first entrance, you were in the presence of a great actress.

Barely five feet tall, she swept in and immediately established a bodily "line" that commanded attention from then on.

Her performance was delightful. Even more so when, after intermission, the second act began with her character giving a Q&A session at the local Rotary Club.

Swanson walked down steps and into the actual audience, greeting "old friends" (that night's audience members), reminiscing about her career -- even sitting in a man's lap and "teasing" him for not remembering when they "dated" -- as real film clips from her silents played on a giant screen onstage.

She was outrageous and girlish (she was approaching 70 at the time) and delightful, poking fun at herself and her "character's" career.

It was a brilliant bit of stagecraft and an impressive revelation of the "real" Gloria Swanson.

Audiences were captivated and irresistibly charmed by this still-stunning-looking yet down-to-earth "young fellow" -- over fifty years after she first took the world by storm.

Swanson was the antithesis of Norma Desmond. She was entrancing, magical, adorable, and everybody wanted to take her home.

Honestly, perhaps the only other two live theatrical performances I've ever seen (and I've seen hundreds) that could compare to Swanson's sheer talent and charisma were Maggie Smith in "Lettuce and Loveage" and Vanessa Redgrave in "Orpheus Descending." Believe it.

Not every actor understands the difference between film and stage performance, nor can every actor deliver that difference vocally and physically (this was WAY before the days of amplified body mikes). Swanson did.

I was in first grade when "Sunset Boulevard" was released. I was in my 20s when I saw Swanson onstage in "Reprise" in Hollywood.

You could still see the magic that had made her the global phenomenon she had been in silents. You could still see the technique that astounded audiences with "Sunset Boulevard" three decades later.

You could understand where Billy Wilder got his line: "She was the greatest star of them all." Every time I watch SB, I think: "She probably damned well was."
A somewhat savage, somewhat sick peek behind the Hollywood curtain
"Sunset Boulevard," Billy Wilder's barbed take on the Hollywood studio system during its heyday is by turns volatile, funny, suspenseful, and--at its core--more than a little creepy. By today's standards, this 1950 film still takes some relevant shots at an industry that seldom acknowledges its superficiality, but is also just as dated in other regards. Wilder takes a truly original concept, bending Film Noir, satire, comedy, and pathos in the telling of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter (the repo men are threatening to take his car, for Pete's sake!), who winds up all but imprisoned in the lonely, secluded mansion of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a washed-up silent-film starlet harboring delusions of a comeback. When drafted to revise Desmond's self-scripted version of "Salome," Joe becomes very aware of his unhinged provider, and quickly begins a collaboration with the young, rhinoplasty-friendly Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). While Holden and Olson are--in the midst of this send-up--fresh-faced stars, "Sunset Boulevard"'s axis of madness hinges squarely on Swanson's full-bore performance, a blend of incestuous sexuality and mid-life crisis (she makes Baby Jane seem warm and cuddly by comparison) that makes her advances on Holden genuinely unappealing. The performance is a bit more tricky than one might give credit--as a woman whose fame has declined, her sustained hunger for it fuels her delusion, therefore rendering Norma Desmond an actress who literally acts out her everyday reality, to the point where any semblance of humanity is absent (her actions and words possess the overt dramatics of a woman seeking the Best Actress Oscar). While the film is beautifully photographed and performed, the sheer ambition of the project is something of a flaw--with so many genres represented, "Sunset Boulevard" is problematic in synthesizing a coherent vision. But what is here is quite influential, and certainly worth a look.
The Wild Roller-coaster of Fame
In many ways Sunset Boulevard is like the reverse side of the coin of A Star Is Born. In that film we have young Vicki Lester going through all the travails and heartache before achieving her goal of movie stardom.

Sunset Boulevard is the reverse. A Star Is Born has its tragic figure in Norman Maine who commits suicide rather than face being a has been. In Sunset Boulevard we have the character of Norma Desmond who has not taken that route. She lacks for nothing in the material world, she wisely saved and invested her money. But the acclaim of the audience is a drug she craves. She's been at the top on the celebrity roller-coaster and now is at the bottom.

Into her life comes Joe Gillis quite accidentally. Fleeing from some repo men looking to take his car, Gillis drives into the garage of what he thinks is a deserted mansion. It looks pretty run down from the outside. Gillis compares it to the house of Miss Faversham from Great Expectations, little knowing how right he was.

Billy Wilder was a casting genius though in some ways he fell into the cast he had. Gloria Swanson was not his first choice, he approached both Mary Pickford and Pola Negri for the Desmond role first. Gloria Swanson who actually had made the transition to sound well, but had gone on to stage and radio since her success in Music in the Air, drew from the experiences of many of her colleagues. At the time she was cast in Sunset Boulevard she had a radio show out of New York.

Bill Holden was sheer serendipity. Originally Montgomery Clift was to do the part, but at the last minute he said no, feeling that this was to similar a part to the one he played in The Heiress. Wilder then went through the list of contract leading men at Paramount.

Wilder saw something in Holden, God bless him. Holden had done a whole series of what he termed 'smiling Jim' roles. He was considered an amiable and non-threatening leading man. Although he had done well in a role as a psychotic killer in The Dark Past, Sunset Boulevard brought him his first real acclaim as an actor. An Academy Award nomination came with the acclaim.

Nancy Olson and Erich Von Stroheim were nominated in the Best Supporting Player categories as was Swanson for Best Actress. Von Stroheim was another inspired choice. His is a strange part indeed. He was Desmond's first director in silent films and left his career behind to take care of her. He was also her first husband.

Sunset Boulevard for it's time and with the Code firmly in place was a brutal look at the sexual needs of a middle-aged woman. Before Holden knows it, he's giving up his life as an aspiring screenwriter to be a kept gigolo. He doesn't like it, but can't leave it. When he does, it results in tragedy.

Nancy Olson plays a reader at Paramount studios where Holden is trying to sell a script. She and Holden had good chemistry and after this they did four more films together.

Casting Cecil B. DeMille as himself was of necessity for who could play the great DeMille, but DeMille. DeMille in fact was a former actor and playwright at the turn of the last century. In his autobiography DeMille lets us in on a private joke. He in fact did direct many of Gloria Swanson's early silent films and a pet name he had for her was 'young fella.' Note that when Norma Desmond comes to the Paramount lot to see him, he greets her with that same expression. Note that DeMille got a plug for his own film Samson and Delilah which was in production at the same time. It is the set of that film where Swanson and DeMille meet.

You will never forget the finely etched characters of Sunset Boulevard. You can see it many times as I've done, but if you see it only once you will have it burned in your memory. Especially that last scene before the newsreel cameras where Swanson loses whatever sanity she has left. She descends down the stairs of her mansion and descends into the comfort of insanity.

I've often wondered should a sequel have been done covering the trial of Norma Desmond. I'm sure Billy Wilder wanted to move on to other projects. Still that would have been a film to see.
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