Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sunset Blvd.

One of the great things about The Warehouse as a shopping chain (and I'm bound to have said this before in this blog) is that they have continuous sales of DVDs, mostly at good prices. And amongst the innumerable copies of movies no one decided to buy are usually single copies of some classic movie that's somehow just been put there for me to pick up. Today I picked up High Noon and Pygmalion, for example, and Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, a movie I don't remember seeing, but which will no doubt be worth seeing because of Wilder's input alone.

And talking of Billy Wilder, I found a copy of Sunset Boulevard (or Blvd., as it actually appears in the titles) recently, and watched it a couple of weeks ago. It's an unusual film, takes a lot of risks, and yet succeeds admirably. Hollywood loved it so much it was adorned with Oscars and nominations, in spite of the fact that it shows Hollywood for what it is: a factory that spews out old models as soon as they're use-by date is up.

In terms of the risks, it has William Holden narrating the movie, even though he's shown to be dead right at the beginning of the movie, and it has him, an established star, in a role that verges on sleasy. And then there's Gloria Swanson playing a parody of her own life, and even being seen in one of her own silent movies at one point. Not only does she parody her own stardom, but time and again she goes to the very edge of what the audience might accept, allowing herself almost to be ridiculous, and possibly absurd.

The third of the main characters is Erich von Stroheim, himself a former director, (and like Wilder, a Jew) whose movies in the silent area had been regarded as highly as anyone's, but who never made much progress with talkies. Here he plays a role in which the character's history is very similar to his own.

Roger Ebert sums up something of the movie's integration with the real Hollywood in one paragraph of a 1999 review:

Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett knew the originals of the characters. What was unusual was how realistic Wilder dared to be. He used real names (Darryl Zanuck, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd). He showed real people (Norma's bridge partners, cruelly called "the waxworks'' by Gillis [Holden's character], are the silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). He drew from life (when Norma visits Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director is making a real film, "Samson and Delilah,'' and calls Norma "little fellow,'' which is what he always called Swanson). When Max the butler tells Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,'' if you substituted von Stroheim for von Mayerling, it would be a fair reflection of von Stroheim's stature in the 1920s.

Sunset Blvd. isn't a pleasant picture; it's full of sadness, loss and thwarted ambitions. The only character who isn't prey to all this is played by Nancy Olson, in one of her earliest roles. (Still alive at 82, she's just appeared in an episode of a TV series.) Olson makes a bright contrast to all the other characters - though her character has been born into the movie business, she doesn't (yet) have that sense of pessimism that pervades everything else. Olsen almost invariably played sweet and innocent characters - the maid in Pollyanna for instance - and here she's a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the tainted atmosphere.

As Betty Schaefer (sic) she's the only person moving forward in the story: Swanson is stuck in her own glorious past, a past that will never come again; Holden gets stuck in the same past, and stuck in a relationship that stains everything else he tries to put his hand to; and von Stroheim's character, desperate not to let Swanson know the truth about her career (or lack of it) encourages her to live a lie to 'protect' her sanity, unable to believe that the truth might actually get them out of their state of near rigor mortis.

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