Toronto Film Society presented Sunset Boulevard (1950) on Monday, July 11, 1983 in a double bill with Movie Crazy as part of the Season 36 Summer Series, Programme 6.
Production Company: Paramount. Producer: Charles Brackett. Director: Billy Wilder. Script: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr. Photography: John F. Seitz. Editors: Doane Harrison and Arthur Schmidt. Art Directors: Hans Dreier and John Meehan. Music: Franz Waxman.
Cast: Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), William Holden (Joe Gillis), Eric von Stroheim (Max von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Fred Clark (Sheldrake), Jack Webb (Artie Green), Cecile B. deMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nillson (Themselves).
Billy Wilder’s mordant masterpiece is at a far remove from Movie Crazy. In fact, Sunset Boulevard may be the most savage indictment of Hollywood ever lodged in the court of public opinion (in an angry scene at the preview, Louis B. Mayer accused Wilder of biting the hand that fed him). And much of its savagery derives from its being the work of an insider, from the closeness of the fictive treatment to the facts of those involved. Gloria Swanson plays a faded movie queen with her past long behind her; in 1950 that was essentially what she was. Erich von Stroheim plays a once great director now performing menial service; in 1950 that was what he was. And the “Waxworks,” Anna Q. Nilsson, Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, were as much has-beens in real as they were on reel. Even Cecil B. DeMille, to whom it falls to tell Norma Desmond that it is a “New Hollywood,” implies in his performance (as himself) an indictment of himself, for he was the opposite of Stroheim–he prostituted his art before the Golden Calf which in The Ten Commandments he had both celebrated and condemned.
The tone of Sunset Boulevard is Wilder’s characteristic tone, even when he is in his predominantly comic mood: nostalgia directed into channels of deep bitterness. Wilder’s saeva indignatio rightly invoke Swift, sharing with him an extreme distaste for man, not least in his physical aspect. Sunset Boulevard begins with the body in the swimming pool, viewed from below with macabre attention; and as distasteful as this may be, it is a good deal less so than an opening scene set in a morgue, with tagged toes protruding from beneath sheets, and with those sheets becoming transparent as the corpses exchange the experiences which brought them there, and Joe Gillis begins his narration. This was the original opening of Sunset Boulevard setting the tone for what would follow; it was replaced not because Wilder wanted it gone, but because it was laughed off the screen at the first preview in Evanston, Illinois!
What especially distinguishes Sunset Boulevard rom most of the other films which make up TFS’s Summer of ’83 is that it shows not a young aspirant for Hollywood success, but a whole group of once successful Hollywood–“waxwork”–figures. Moreover, far from being at all concerned with the future, the film relentlessly looks back to the past; it is the waxworks who have our attention and even sympathy throughout the picture. Gillis is no innocent seeking his future in the film capital; he is already a has-been, though young, and he has already compromised his art. His creative urge is all but dead (how seriously do we take his collaboration with the scrip girl, except perhaps as a revolt against his role as gigolo?). Norma Desmond’s creativity, on the other hand, is very much alive, and expressed in her Chaplin imitations as well as in her creation of Gillis; even in her demented state she is still thinking in terms of her art–“I’m ready for my closeups now, Mr. DeMille.” And Nancy Olson with her quivery lip and retroussé nose is hardly a candidate to draw sympathy away from the faded star. A cynical townsman like Wilder does not nominate a country cousin for his heroine.
Sunset Boulevard is replete with Wilderian gibes at Hollywood, both old and new. But the gibes at Old Hollywood (when they had faces) are largely confined to its way of life (the monkey’s funeral). Norma Desmond’s mansion is compared by Gillis to Miss Havishams, but this may tell us more about Gillis’s literary self-deception than about Norma Desmond, whose way of life is not revengeful or self-consuming, but merely totally self-absorbed. And Gillis has no expectations at all, great or otherwise, even had he stayed with his benefactress. The film is also filled with the usual number of Wilderian hommages: Von Stroheim’s playing the organ with white gloved hands reminds us of The Phantom Of The Opera, and makes us wonder whether Max Von Mayerling (a name which once presided over another celebrated murder of passion) is not still Norma Desmond’s Svengali.
It is, in fact, even more than Gloria Swanson’s, Von Stroheim’s performance that hangs over the film. In the final shot-counter-shot, who is primary, Max standing behind the camera, or Norma posturing in front of it? In one inescapable sense, the latter of course, but in another sense the former. Is not Sunset Boulevard finally a film about the tendency of Hollywood to destroy its best, and does not Erich Von Stroheim himself embody that tendency absolutely? Sunset Boulevard is the film in which /wilder is furthest away from his master Lubitsch, and closest to Von Stroheim: Von Stroheim actually suggested the use of his own Queen Kelly in the film, and the incident of Max’s writing the fan letters to Norma Desmond (He also suggested, a characteristic touch, that Max be shown washing Norma’s underclothes, and deriving from it a fetishist’s pleasure. That Wilder did not adopt the suggestion show that there were more mordant directors than Billy Wilder!)
Wilder, like Lubitsch (not to mention Von Stroheim) has often been accused of poor taste. Sunset Boulevard caused the final rupture between the director and his oldest collaborator, Charles Brackett, who had worked on all of his previous films. Brackett had come up with the story idea for Sunset Boulevard but deplored what Wilder had done with it, especially in the montage sequence of Gloria Swanson’s being made over by the beauticians. The break with Brackett removed the brake on Wilder’s mordancy and cynicism (and tastelessness?). Except for the fairy-tale films of the mid-fifties (Sabrina, The Seven-Year Itch), Wilder’s later films (The Apartment, Fedora) are predominantly darker even than those of his noir period (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend).
It is surely unnecessary to say anything about the leading players: Swanson, Von Stroheim, Holden, now all dead. It is interesting, however, to note the players that Wilder originally tried to get or these leading roles. For Norma Desmond, he first approached Mae West, who was incensed by the thought that she was a faded movie queen. He then approached Mary Pickford, who thought the original treatment did not make enough of the Desmond role. It was taken for granted that Montgomery Clift, at the very start of his career, playing primarily brooding failures, would play Joe Gillis; but other commitments called him away. But for Max there was only ever Eric Von Stroheim, who had played for Wilder before, in Five Graves to Cairo (1943), and who over and over again, frim Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives through Greed to Queen Kelly, first charted those wilder shoes of love.
Notes by Barrie Hayne