Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb, Cecil B. De Mille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, Franklyn Farnum
Director: Billy Wilder
Release Date: November 26, 2012, 2:06 pm
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:50m:12s
"You see, this is my life. It always will be. 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." - Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson)An indelible piece of pop culture. The greatest movie ever made about movies. Maybe even the greatest movie ever made, full stop. On a sweet new Blu-ray.
Movie Grade: A+
DVD Grade: A
It's been ten years since the first DVD of Sunset Boulevard was released, and I wouldn't think it possible, but it's gotten even better over the past ten years. It's a dark and Gothic look at old Hollywood, certainly—The Artist is only the most recent picture to owe it a huge debt—but really, it's so much more, a movie about truth and illusion, about the power of the movies, about the darkness of the human heart. And it's everywhere, still. A Slate piece on the horrid Lohan/Liz and Dick movie just the other day sported the headline: "It's the Lifetime movies that got small."
William Holden plays Joe Gillis, struggling screenwriter, who is, for an Angeleno, anyway, one step from death: he's about to lose his car. He can't drum up any work at Paramount or via his agent, and has to hightail it through town just to escape the repo men. When one of the tires on his Chrysler blows, he pulls into the nearest driveway—he mistakes the house for deserted, but soon learns that it's very much inhabited.
Joe meets the lady of the house: it's Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), star of silent pictures, now all but forgotten by the film business and the town. Her enormous and gothic house is a shrine to all things Norma Desmond, and the high priest is Norma's butler, Max von Mayerling, played by a creepily effective Erich von Stroheim. Joe smells the money, and sees Norma as his meal ticket: he signs on to help her shape her screenplay for her comeback ("I hate that word," says Norma, for "it's a return!"), to be directed by her onetime collaborator, Cecil B. De Mille.
I don't want to spoil the unfolding plot for those who haven't seen it, but what makes this movie great is that it's about more than just Hollywood: it's about the nature of illusion, the lies we all tell ourselves to get through the days, and about the terrifying, unknowable business of death. It's very different in tone, of course, but this film has more than a little in common with Singin' In The Rain, another brilliant tale of the casualties of the coming of sound. But if Singin' In The Rain is about movies boldly going into the future, Sunset Boulevard is about how we dispose of the bodies from the past.
Part of the power of Sunset Boulevard comes from its time and place, and the close parallels between the characters' lives and the actors portraying them. Gloria Swanson wasn't as unhinged as Norma, but she was a great silent film star whose career was undone by the coming of sound; she hosts a bridge game of her colleagues, a group that includes Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner, each of whom was undone by sound in much the way Swanson was. Erich von Stroheim was, like Max, one of the promising young directors of the early days of Hollywood; when we see a clip of a Norma Desmond film directed by Max, it's in fact from Queen Kelly, which starred Swanson, and was directed by Stroheim. (Bonus fun fact: at that time, Swanson was the mistress of Joe Kennedy, who financed Queen Kelly.) And the tarnish on Gillis may have hit a little bit home for Holden, who made a big splash ten years previously in Golden Boy, but spent the 1940s in a series of forgettable roles, his early promise seemingly spent. One of the many fun things about Sunset Boulevard are the contrasting acting styles, between Swanson's melodramatic silent screen technique and Holden's cultivated 1940s Hollywood naturalism. It's a combustible combination, especially at a time when the Stanislavski method was considered to be the only game in town.
Parodies of Norma Desmond are so commonplace that it might be easy to dismiss the character as nothing more than a scenery chewer—Carol Burnett made her Norma impression a staple of her eponymous television show, and Glenn Close played Norma in a style bordering on Kabuki in Andrew Lloyd Webber's pointless Broadway musical version. But what shines through in Swanson's performance is Norma's humanity, and how her vanity is but an expression of her seemingly bottomless pit of insecurity. Yes, by the time she makes her final descent down the stairs, she's fully in the throes of madness and looks more than a little like Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein, but Gillis is right in his voiceover describing this: "Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond." For all the parodies, for all the jokes, Norma remains an extraordinary creature.
The influence of Sunset Boulevard remains everywhere—its view of Hollywood remains the pervasive on-screen one, and frequent mention is even made of it in movies like The Player. But it's not just Hollywood: the narration in American Beauty, for instance, is clearly an homage to Sunset Boulevard, as is the framing story in the novel The Lovely Bones, and David Lynch rarely misses an opportunity to slip in a reference to the picture, in Twin Peaks especially. The writing and the acting are so good that other elements of the filmmaking may have gotten short shrift over the years—nowhere is Wilder's composition any better, for instance, as when Norma presides over the dismissal of Joe's last best chance at happiness: a spotlight makes her ivory skin glow, and she's framed between bars of the iron lattice on her front door, the warden of Joe's high-rent prison.
This new Blu-ray transfer truly is a wonder to behold—you can make out the pock-marked pavement of the street of the film's title, and will flinch at every discarded flashbulb tossed into Norma's garden. The extras are all ported over from the original DVD release—Sikov commentary, script pages of the original opening—with a few choice new elements: a deleted scene (just a sing-a-long before Joe shows up at Artie's house, making you reflect on how Hollywood parties have in fact changed in sixty years), and a few new featurettes, in which Gloria Swanson's granddaughter is featured prominently. The packaging is actually a little low rent for such a high-profile title—but then, you shouldn't get this for the packaging. You should get it because it's one of the very best movies of all time. All right, Mr. De Mille.
Jon Danziger November 26, 2012, 2:06 pm