No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does,
straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.
I've fallen behind on my Recent Screenings. Seems like I've been too busy lately to do much more on the blog than toss out a YouTube video or an obituary notice. In case you missed it, though, I did add a rotating list of the last 10 films I've seen, under the heading Recent Screenings in the right-hand column. There have been a couple of great films in the last month, several good ones, and a few I could've skipped. I was going to offer a brief rundown of some of the more interesting ones, but I made the mistake of starting with Sunset Blvd. I enjoyed the film so much upon re-watching it, and had so much fun trying to write about it, that I never managed to get to the others. I'll try again when I have more time and I'm not unpacking.
Sunset Blvd. (1950) - Directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson.
One could write an entire book about Sunset Blvd., and, in fact, someone has: Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream (St. Martin's 2003), by Sam Staggs. I feel like I can't even came close to doing it justice. There are so many elements about the film and the filmmaking that one could discuss.
The plot of Sunset Blvd. is fairly straightforward. Joe Gillis is a struggling screenwriter who had one early hit but now can't sell anything. Circumstances haven't gotten so bad that his car is about to repossessed, which would effectively finish him off in Hollywood. By accident, or fate, his car has a blowout in the driveway of an abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Except the mansion isn't abandoned after all, but inhabited by a former silent movie star named Norma Desmond and her devoted and somewhat mysterious butler. Desmond, planning a supposed comeback, has written a long screenplay based on Salome, and she offers Gillis the job of refining it. Thinking he can make some quick money, he accepts the task and winds up staying in the eerie mansion, where he gets sucked deeper and deeper into the dusty, psychotic but alluring world of Desmond, her wealth, and her increasingly unhinged mind. When Gillis begins sneaking out at night to work on a screenplay with a young woman from Paramount, Desmond's jealousy erupts and the whirlpool turns faster and faster until it pulls everyone towards the bottom.
The famous opening sequence features William Holden, as Joe Gillis, delivering a voice-over narration while floating dead in a swimming pool. Right away, you know this isn't going to be your typical film. Ironically, this wasn't the original beginning of the movie. The first version, which featured several corpses conversing in a morgue, provoked unintentional laughter from the audience at a sneak preview in Evanston, Illinois. Director Billy Wilder was stunned. Years later, he admitted that it had been one of the worst moments of his life. The release of the film had to be delayed for six months while he worked on a new beginning. It was worth it, though, as the swimming pool sequence became one of the most iconic in the history of cinema. Interestingly, Franz Waxman, who composed the excellent score for the film, didn't change his music at all for Wilder's new opening. The power, I suppose, of creative serendipity.
One of the greatest achievements of Sunset Blvd. is the seemingly impossible balance it strikes between film noir, drama, mystery, love story and some of the most exquisite black humor ever produced. Oh, and it's also the best film ever made about Hollywood. But the slightest wrong turn here or there and one feels like the entire work could unravel. I think some of the appeal of Sunset Blvd. comes from the tension that builds up as we wait for Wilder to slip and fall from his cinematic highwire. But he never does. It's one of the most spectacular daredevil acts by a director in film history.
This daredevil aspect is also exemplified in Wilder's choice of subject matter and in his casting decisions. An Austrian-born Jew, Wilder came to Hollywood as a screenwriter in 1933. His career immediately took off and by the time he began Sunset Blvd., he had notched six Oscar nominations for writing and two for directing, winning one each for Lost Weekend in 1946. But he was still something of an outsider, and to make a film about Hollywood's dark side after so much success there might have seemed like he was biting the hand that fed him extremely well. In fact, Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, was so incensed by Sunset Blvd. that he screamed at Wilder after the premiere that he should be tarred and feathered for showing Hollywood in such a bad light. [The highly cultured and intelligent Wilder could only manage a two-word reply involving sexual intercourse.] If the film had turned out badly, or if the tone had been any sharper, or the writing had been the least bit self-serving, Wilder's career could've been seriously damaged, Hollywood not being the most forgiving place on earth. But it's a testament to the brilliance of Sunset Blvd. that it remains the film about Hollywood against which all other attempts are judged.
Wilder also took a tremendous gamble with his casting decisions. By 1950, the silent movie star Gloria Swanson had virtually disappeared from Hollywood, moving to the stage not long after the advent of talking pictures. Erich von Stroheim, one of the great directors of the silent period, had been reduced to acting in mostly bit roles after the colossal failure of his 1929 film, Queen Kelly. One of the great stories within the story of Sunset Blvd. is that Gloria Swanson was the main actress and co-producer of Queen Kelly. She and von Stroheim fought bitterly over the film until she eventually fired him and brought in someone to else to finish the production. He, in turn, owned rights to parts of the film, which he wouldn't allow to be released in the United States. The two had not spoken for 21 years before filming Sunset Blvd. When Norma Desmond (Swanson) watches herself on screen in one of her famous silent movies, with her butler (von Stroheim) running the projector, it is, in fact, a scene from Queen Kelly that we are shown. And though it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Norma Desmond, Swanson was actually Wilder's fourth choice after being turned down by Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri.
William Holden & Gloria Swanson
Finally, there is the case of William Holden. Though he made something of a splash in his 1939 debut, Golden Boy, Holden's career in the 1940s had basically gone nowhere as he got stuck in one mediocre film after another. He wasn't exactly a hot property when production began on Sunset Blvd. In retrospect, it seems like the role of Joe Gillis, a one-hit wonder whose career fizzles out, was written especially for William Holden at that point in his life. But Holden, like Swanson, wasn't Wilder's first choice either. Montgomery Clift was originally signed to play Gillis, but he backed out of the contract two weeks before filming began. Wilder then offered the role to Fred MacMurray, who turned it down. Marlon Brando was briefly considered, and the producers approached MGM about using Gene Kelly, but the studio refused to loan him out to Paramount. Someone mentioned the idea of Holden, but Wilder had seen some of his films and wasn't impressed. He agreed, though, to have lunch with the actor. As it turned out, Wilder realized that Holden was much more intelligent, sensitive, and charismatic than he had seemed in his movies up until then, and that he had never really been given a chance to shine. In the end, the two became lifelong friends and wound up making three other films together, including Stalag 17 (1953), for which Holden won Best Actor; Sabrina (1954); and Fedora (1978), a disappointing quasi-sequel to Sunset Blvd. So, Wilder not only took a chance on the controversial subject matter of his film, but he did so with a group of actors who in Hollywood terms in 1950 were pretty much has-beens, disappointments, and unknowns (Nancy Olson). And his two main stars, who had to carry the movie, were his fourth and fifth choices. His gamble on the cast paid off in spades, however, as the four principal actors in Sunset Blvd. were all nominated for Academy Awards: Holden for Best Actor, Swanson for Best Actress, von Stroheim for Best Supporting Actor, and Nancy Olson for Best Supporting Actress.
One more aspect of the film that seems risky now is Wilder's extensive use of voice-over. Seeing this classic for the second time, I was struck by how much of the story is told to us by Joe Gillis. It's a happy accident for Wilder that he wound up with William Holden in the role. Roger Ebert once said that Holden had one of the best screen voices of all time, and I concur. It's one of his underrated qualities as an actor. If you think the voice-over in Sunset Blvd. wasn't risky, imagine, if you can do so without cringing or laughing, Marlon Brando going on and on about Norma Desmond in that nasal accent of his. Or consider the different feel the film would've had if Gene Kelly had done the narration. Could he have maintained that incredibly fine balance between drama, noir and black comedy? Fred MacMurray does an excellent job with his voice-over in Wilder's Double Indemnity, but that film had a much different tone than Sunset Blvd. I think his higher-pitched, quasi-tough guy voice would've become grating after a while. And finally, though I like Montgomery Clift as an actor, I'm not sure he had the necessary weight or gravitas for Joe Gillis' extensive narration, or for the role in general for that matter. Holden, who always had a hint of sadness in his eyes and in his voice, no matter how cheerful or funny he was in his films, talks to us for almost two hours, and yet we never grow tired of listening to him tell us this strange, sad and darkly humorous tale.
Wilder was riding high when he made Sunset Blvd, and it's to his great credit that he was willing to take so many chances on his next film. A lesser director might have easily gone for the safe project. But you can't make great art without taking great risks. And in the end, Sunset Blvd. will probably go down Wilder's legacy film.
So what holds the movie together so well? I think Wilder's intelligence and great skill as a director are crucial. To weave together disparate genres so well, to have seen something in Holden, to have chosen Swanson and von Stroheim, despite their bitter past, all testify to his greatness as an artist and filmmaker. But the writing may be the key. Billy Wilder is rightly remembered as one of our greatest directors, but he was also one of the finest screenwriters to ever work in Hollywood. He received a total of eight Academy Award nominations for Best Director, winning twice. But he received an astounding 11 nominations for Best Screenplay, and he took an Oscar home for his work on Sunset Blvd. and two other films.
Billy Wilder's grave at Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles
If you read through some of the movie's Memorable Quotes on IMDB, you'll see how many are famous and, more importantly, how many are so damn good. It's one of those rare films that feels like it must have come from a great novel, even though it was written for the screen. When Gillis first spies Norma Desmond in the window of her sprawling, seemingly deserted mansion, he says it reminds him of Mrs. Haversham in Dickens' Great Expectations. And the movie itself has a bit of Dickensian feel in a modernized form. The kind of details that Gillis notices when he enters the house - the monkey's paw slipping out from under the cover, the wind blowing through the old pipe organ, the pictures everywhere of the young Norma Desmond - are the details one normally encounters in a book. Using such extensive voice-over allows Wilder and his co-writer, Charles Brackett, to give the film a more literary feel, a story-telling quality. It only works, however, because of the great cinematography and editing, the set design, and the wonderful pace that Wilder sets. Few films could feature so much narration and get away with it.
If you've never seen Sunset Blvd., I highly, highly recommend it. If you've already seen it, watch it again! It's so good, it gets better with each viewing. It's truly one of the greatest works of cinema ever produced in this country.