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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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I did a brief search of the A&F forums, and it became clear that we had a thread on the proposed film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation of Billy Wilder's film, but not on Wilder's film itself. This strikes me as inexcusable. SUNSET BOULEVARD, one of the landmark achievements of classic Hollywood, deserves a thread all its own. Whether it is a comedy, a tragedy, or something more, SUNSET BOULEVARD plays broadly but does it with such finesse and gusto it's impossible to decry it. Who can deny the beauty of John F. Seitz's atmospheric black-and-white cinematography, or the sharp wit that Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D. M. Marshman brought to the screenplay? Even its few missteps--a somewhat misjudged beginning and some unnecessary narration--are unable to really harm it. It's a powerhouse.

But you can't talk about SUNSET BOULEVARD without talking about the performances. One, in particular, shines above the rest: Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond remains perhaps the greatest personification of faded stardom ever created. She plays the role with such theatricality that she almost crosses the line into farce, but her Norma remains perfectly pitched. As Norma says herself, she's too big for contemporary motion pictures. But she's also sad. So desperate, so lonely, that she has our sympathies even as she embodies everything irksome about the Hollywood star.

As her manservant, Max, Erich von Stroheim turns in equally magnificent work. Like Norma, Max remains a prisoner to obsession. But on some level, his obsession is more fascinating. Unlike Norma, he knows the difference between the reality and the fiction, and has chosen to continue the fiction out of love. In the film's final moments, which, truly, is Norma's final show, it's the look in Max's eyes that stays with me.

Then there is William Holden, who plays the aloof, sarcastic lead, Hollywood screenwriter Joseph Gillis. His arc has a darkness all its own, as he prostitutes himself for the rewards of wealth and fame that he will never enjoy. Holden has the right amount of charm, appeal, and distance to make the character work. His chemistry with Swanson allows for some of the most iconic exchanges in film history, and it also enables us to buy into Norma and Joe's very strange and complicated relationship. Who's using whom? Well, both of them are using the other, but I daresay Joe seems more despicable, even if he appears to dislike himself as much as I dislike him.

SUNSET BOULEVARD offers the audience the dark side of the Hollywood fairytale, the place where all those dreams go to die. It does its best to echo the reality; Swanson and von Stroheim's careers parallel that of their characters, and we have cameo appearances by many of the old Hollywood guard (deemed the "waxworks" by Joe Gillis). SUNSET BOULEVARD even serves up an appearance from Cecil B. DeMille himself, starring as himself. These connections only strengthen the film's bite; it may be a fiction, but as absurd as SUNSET BOULEVARD sometimes is, it feels like it could somehow be a true chapter from Hollywood's history.

Edited by Ryan H.
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DeMille played a significant part in making Swanson a star in the first place, did he not? If that memory is correct, then yeah, there's a LOT of subtext here.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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This was a fascinating film--I've only seen a few Wilder movies (this and Double Indemnity are the ones I recall). But what a great film. RyanH's right--the performances are wonderfully realized.

I'm always surprised by the level of mature themes that Wilder injected into his Hollywood studio pics. They seem really risque for the context of their times.

I don't think I felt that Holden's character was despicable--opportunistic and in the end way over his head given Norma's madness and Max's enabling. He makes his effort to cut bait--but ends up with the fishes himself. The relationship between him and the other screenwriter provides a great counterpoint to the gothic creepiness of Desmond's world.

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Thanks Ryan. Wilder is one of my cinematic heroes. So how is the opening so questionable to you? For its time, it was earth shattering. It's one thing to have a dead guy narrate. Quite another for the narrator to confess that the dead guy onscreen is, in fact him. At least in 1950. I think that it has been done a few times in the last 20 years as Wilder has risen in estimation and film students have gotten opportunities to steal from ole' Billy.

Rather than despicable, I see the Holden character as an archtype of the descent from temptation and opportunism into Hell. Remember, he barely gets away with his car from the repo guys. The whole thing starts from hiding in Norma's garage from the repo guys. Baby steps. A place to hide, a place to stay. A job! Heh, the "rewrite" is a reasonably classic Hollywood con. I'll bet that Wilder got that subplot from his own career. And it just snowballs from there. Is the Holden character a closet clothes horse? Norma is buying him tailored stuff that he may have only read about..... And on and on. Rationalization is a universal human gift.

Edited by Rich Kennedy

"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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