Shame on me, I know, 49 years old and I’ve just watched ‘Sunset Boulevard’ for the first time.
I know the word ‘genius’ is bandied about too much but it seems so right to attach it to Billy Wilder – what a director! One of my favourite films of all time is Wilder’s 1954 ‘Sabrina’ but ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is right up there! I don’t know if Wilder worked with William Holden before ‘Sunset’ but it’s no surprise that he worked with him after ‘Sunset’ (he’s perfect in ‘Sabrina’). Wilder’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ (1957) is another of my favourite films – the man is no one trick pony!!
William Holden, what a Hollywood film star! Got a touch of Leonardo DiCaprio about him but Holden has more magic, a magic which no stars have today. Gloria Swanson, inspired casting. Turn the clock back and one can imagine a director wanting Bette Davis or Joan Crawford to be Norma Desmond and maybe they could have pulled it off but the movie is a black comedy and Gloria Swanson is frighteningly good. Gloria Swanson, of course, is one of THE faces of the silent movie era and I think that that adds authenticity to the Norma Desmond role.
What a joy to see Buster Keaton playing Bridge (great comedy, the ‘dead’ Joe Gillis referring to the Bridge players as ‘the waxworks’), Cecil B DeMille as himself, also Hedda Hopper, it also adds a strong element of authenticity to the film. I imagine that a lot of actors and actresses from the ‘silent’ era, the ones who couldn’t jump the ‘talkie’ hurdle, felt uncomfortable watching the movie in 1950.
Edith Head, of course, on ‘wardrobe’/costume design and another great job by the legend – William Holden’s suits, how he, Joe, looks when dressed up to satisfy Ms. Desmond’s desires (Joe loves the clothes, too)!!
“Sunset’s” misfortune was its timing, up against ‘All About Eve’ in the 1951 Oscars. Surely Billy Wilder would have won Best Director but, of course, Joseph L. Mankiewicz won it for ‘All About Eve’. ‘All About Eve’ won Best Picture. William Holden lost out to Jose Ferrer (Best Actor, ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’), even Bette Davis and Anne Baxter lost to Judy Holliday (Best Actress, ‘Born Yesterday’) and what a shame that Erich von Stroheim didn’t win Best Supporting Actor but I can’t argue against George Sanders winning (‘All About Eve’) – George Sanders deserves Oscars for his voice alone (so does James Mason)! Nancy Olson, adorable, she was in the running for Best Supporting Actress but lost out to Josephine Hull (‘Harvey’).
However, Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman and Billy Wilder jointly won the ‘Best Writing, Story and Screenplay’ Oscar and Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Samuel M. Comer and Ray Moyer won the ‘Best Art Direction – Set Decoration (Black-and-White)’ Oscar. Franz Waxman won an Oscar for ‘Best Music (Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture)’. These are/were worthy winners. It is quite a technical feat to achieve that black comedy effect. What a great scene when Norma Desmond does her Charlie Chaplain ‘act’. The lighting on Gloria Swanson’s face throughout the movie has such dramatic effect. A great comedy touch when Norma is sitting in Cecil B. DeMille’s Director’s Chair and nonchalantly flicks that nasty little overhead microphone out of the way, that is brilliant! How Norma catches sight of herself in a mirror near the end of the film, it is comical and frightening and that big scene at the end, Max’s “Lights, Camera, Action”, Norma Desmond’s ‘grand entrance’, the slow walk down the stairs, her speech, her walk towards the camera…that is spine chilling.
This movie has it all: ghoulish “Adam’s Family” humour – the mansion, the monkey’s funeral, Max ‘Uncle Fester’ von Mayerling, Film Noir/black comedy, suspense, a twist, pathos, horror, tragedy, romance.
‘Sunset Boulevard’: what a joy!