Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Sunset Boulevard

(Some balance after 3 dry-as-dust posts about politics). 

Autumn, read John Clare's poem "Decay", think about transience and watch Sunset Boulevard. What can be more perfect? 
The film is brilliant, by the way, astounding. Right when I thought nothing could impress me, for a while, after On the Waterfront, here Billy Wilder's working his magic again. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is an ageing, forgotten silent film star living in the past and dreaming of a comeback, a blend of Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in All About Eve and Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) in A Streetcar Named Desire and Miss Havisham in Dickens's Great Expectations. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is an unemployed and perhaps not very talented screenwriter- in character, quite similar to Bud (Jack Lemmon) in The Apartment, who does wrong things for money but who, retaining some dignity and hating himself for what he does, "rebels" in the end. 
Sunset Boulevard makes The Artist, an excellent film that is also about a forgotten silent film star, pale in comparison- it's realistic, sad and heartbreaking, without being bitter. Like The Artist, it deals with loss of fame and the refusal to face reality, but because the star is a woman, the film also tackles ageing (she wants a young man to assure herself that she's still attractive), illusions, unrequited love, jealousy, etc. and pushes it all further by making Norma descend into madness. Perfect plot, deeply sad story, good dialogue (like other Billy Wilder films I've watched such as The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, etc.*) and powerful performances by the 2 leading actors, Sunset Boulevard has 2 other memorable characters, juxtaposed, Betty Schaefer, a young writer full of hopes and aspirations and Max, a once-great director now reduced to working as a butler to the woman he made a star and was married to. These 2 characters add more layers to Billy Wilder's dissection of the film industry, and more brilliance to a wonderful film. As Time put it, this is a story of Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best. 
Highly recommended. If you have watched it already, I believe it's time to see it again. 

*: In his review of Sunset Boulevard, Roger Ebert wrote "Of all the great directors of Hollywood's golden age, has anybody made more films that are as fresh and entertaining to this day as Billy Wilder's? The credits are astonishing: Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina. And who else can field two contenders among the greatest closing lines of all time? From Some Like It Hot there is "Nobody's perfect." And from Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond's: "There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup."" That is so true. But Roger Ebert forgot The Apartment: "Shut up and deal". 


  1. I agree - Sunset Boulevard is a tremendous film. I often think of it as being the final part of an unofficial trilogy - the first two of which are Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend (all three are directed and co-written by Billy Wilder). They are all three dark and tragic films, featuring at the centre an ambivalent and self-destructive protagonist.

    One scene in Sunset Boulevard that always gets to me:
    Norma Desmond is buying expensive clothes for Joe Gillies, and Joe, though unhappy at being her kept man, goes through it, as she is obviously enjoying it. The tailor offers him a choice of two coats: he goes for the cheaper one. But then the tailor says with a knowing leer: "But if the lady's paying, why not go for this one?" The look of self-disgust on William Holden's face is unforgettable. He is made to face the truth about himself, and it isn't pretty.

    1. Yes! That look. Another scene is when Joe says he will buy cigarettes for Norma- the way she takes out the money and holds it in front of him, and the look on his face, are also unforgettable.
      Anyway, I have seen 6 films by Billy Wilder, but not those 2.