I don’t wonder L.B. Mayer rushed director, Billy Wilder at the end of a private screening of Sunset Boulevard (1950); angrily pointing his finger at Wilder and shouting “How could you do this?!” For Sunset Boulevard is a very cruel depiction of Hollywood, indeed. And Mayer, the imminent star maker of his generation could likely see the parallels between Wilder’s fine art and the murky realities he had exposed about studios like MGM; their publicity department working like hell to keep it all hidden from the public at large; Hollywood then, still considered a fantasy realm, far more light than shadow, where every dream dared, really could come true. The mythology of Hollywood has largely been eroded today. There are no more invented creatures among us; the Garbos, Gables, Garlands, Tracys, Brandos, Hepburns and Crawfords having decamped the back lot long ago. Yet, Billy Wilder’s movie suggests an even more unflattering truth; that the background machinery making their likenesses possible in the first place was as harmfully a contributor to the destruction of these Teflon-coated images later on, once dedicated to their deification. In essence, Sunset Boulevard reveals Hollywood’s inbred psychosis for the very art of creation, exploitation and ultimate displacement of these rarefied assets; the industry merely going through the motions while looking for the next best thing.
Wilder is blatantly unapologetic about poking holes in Hollywood’s hypocrisies; the barbs as well as the verisimilitude cutting very deep into ancient wounds; referring to time-honored legends, H.B Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton as ‘the waxworks’; coaxing no less an impresario than director, Cecil B. DeMille to play himself (the sequence superbly lensed by cinematographer, John F. Seitz, right in the middle of DeMille’s own shooting of his Samson and Delilah), and presenting then governing gossip maven, Hedda Hopper as the epitome of that heartless poison-penned ‘grave-robber’ in search of a good byline. The Brackett/Wilder screenplay is merciless at stripping bare the façade perpetuated by Hollywood’s dream factories. The veracity behind the illusion is potent; Wilder illustrating exactly how the ambitions of behind-the-scenes moguls lays waste to the creatives infusing their product with glamor and passion. What’s the oldest cliché in Hollywood? You’re only as good as your last picture. No one ever leaves a star…except their studio. And Wilder was well aware of stories about the last days of such legends as John Gilbert and John Barrymore, departing without fanfare or even so much as a goodbye ‘thank you’ for time put in – or perhaps, ‘served’ is a better analogy. Wilder must have been at least mildly concerned Sunset Boulevard would be the picture to submarine his own future prospects in town; he, biting the proverbial hand outstretched, to which he owed his success.
Wilder’s sardonic wit had been honed in Europe at UFA, the Tiffany of pre-war Berlin film production; later, well-grounded in Hollywood with pictures like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945). Permitted to write his own ticket in a very autocratic industry, usually run with exclusive impunity from the front offices, it is a minor miracle Billy Wilder was even allowed to consider, much less make Sunset Boulevard. Primarily written by Wilder and his collaborator, Charles Brackett (with an assist from D.M. Marshman Jr.), Sunset Boulevard would borrow far too many ‘hidden truths’ about the motion picture business from its own historical record, largely unknown outside its own cloistered social circles. Moguls like L.B. Mayer likely worried what exposing these peccadillos could do to Hollywood’s reputation with the public. Alas, by 1950, Mayer was fast approaching the end of his seemingly indestructible reign, soon to become as much a part of the withering past as Wilder’s fictional creation, Norma Desmond. Wilder had first considered Mae West, then Pola Negri and Mary Pickford for the pivotal role of this fading – and marginally psychotic movie queen. Eventually, he came upon the inspired notion of Gloria Swanson – indeed, herself a forgotten star by 1950 and perfectly cast in this ‘art’ imitating ‘life’ drama with film noir underpinnings.
It is important to remember that, in life, Gloria Swanson was hardly the deranged and camera-hungry grand dame, bloodthirsty for a comeback (excuse me…return) to the movie screen. Although she possessed both the deportment and never waning discipline of an old school workaday actress from the silent era like Norma Desmond, Swanson shared none of her alter ego’s maniacal and overweening self-importance; marking her incarnation as the benchmark by which all other ‘crazy ladies’ of the screen have long since taken their cue. Ironically, Swanson’s own career would profit very little from this trend-setting performance – Oscar-nominated, no less – but losing out to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday; frankly, an unforgiveable sin. I could almost forgive the Academy if they had bestowed the Best Actress statuette on Bette Davis, for her towering achievement in All About Eve. But Judy Holliday?!? Transparently, Hollywood’s nepotism had kicked in; the industry, while begrudgingly forced to embrace Sunset Boulevard’s popular reception with the public and some film critics, decidedly not about to honor any picture, basically exposing them as a bunch of disturbingly shallow and remorseless sycophants, by affording it their industry’s highest honor.
We must consider the irony of Sunset Boulevard; a picture with not one – but three has-beens in starring roles. Swanson’s ruination, along with co-star, Eric Von Stroheim (cast as Norma’s devoted butler, Max von Mayerling) had come the earliest. In an utter stroke of genius, Wilder exploits not only these two legendary personages, but also the movie that brought about their demise – 1929’s unfinished masterwork, Queen Kelly; even more ironically, directed by Von Stroheim. Funded by Swanson’s then lover, Joseph Kennedy, Queen Kelly was a debacle, condemned by Von Stroheim’s inability to reign in the budget. The plug was eventually pulled by Kennedy; Swanson and Kennedy going their separate ways shortly thereafter, and, Swanson’s movie career never recovering. Von Stroheim too was immediately cast out of paradise; his temperament and previous fiascoes on Greed (1924) branding him an impossible personality. How quickly these two artists had found themselves persona non gratia in Hollywood: how easily too.
The third wheel in Sunset Boulevard, William Holden, equally was a very unlikely choice to play the part of suffering scribe, Joe Gillis. Paramount had all but urged Wilder to cast Montgomery Clift in this part; Wilder most enthusiastic about this choice – particularly since Clift had made such a noteworthy splash in The Heiress (1949). Clift had actually committed to the part, taking a copy of the screenplay with him to peruse whilst on vacation. Somewhere during this respite, Clift had a change of heart, leaving Wilder befuddled – if only, for the moment. If anything, it allowed Wilder to rethink the part outside of the box. The role of Joe Gillis did not require a star of Clift’s caliber anyway, but a sullen, slightly stubborn and scorned cynic. It received all of these aforementioned qualities in the embodiment of William Holden. In 1939, Holden was nearly fired from Golden Boy, the picture to which he owed his early prominence, costarring opposite ensconced great lady of the screen, Barbara Stanwyck. It was largely due to Stanwyck’s diligence Holden remained on the picture. Alas, in the interim, even after the pictures success, Holden lingered in the background, steadily working, but with his star seemingly affixed to a sinking ship in smaller and less distinguished roles, destined to go down as a minor blip on the radar of a once promising prospect. It is safe to surmise that without Billy Wilder’s confidence in Holden, there would have been no parts for him in Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (1955) or The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957); to name but a handful of the memorably movies in the actor’s later canon. Sunset Boulevard literally resurrected Bill Holden from oblivion.
Viewed today, Sunset Boulevard has lost none of its grandly affecting misfortune. It remains a seminal masterwork, encompassing Wilder’s razor-sharp, often caustic wit at its most acerbic. Wilder really gives Hollywood a tongue-lashing in Sunset Boulevard. Ostensibly, only Wilder could get away with this, mostly because he is offhanded in his admonishments of the system, as in the scene when script reader, Betty Schaffer (Nancy Olsen) tells Joe Gillis she was assured he had talent, to which he bluntly replies, “That was last year. This year I’m trying to earn a living”, or the final moments, as Joe, thoroughly defeated and (either oblivious to Norma’s emotional fragility, fast spiraling into madness, or spitefully meant to push her over the edge) cruelly endeavors to dismantle Norma’s illusions, smiting her with “The audience left thirty years ago. Grow up. There’s nothing wrong with being fifty…unless you’re still trying to be twenty-five.” These are very poisonous insinuations, and not simply meant for the fictional characters inhabiting the pseudo-reality of Wilder’s picture. Rather, they speak directly to the rather menacing nature of Hollywood at large; an industry callously mining the easily impressionable, exploitable and even more easily corruptible for the briefest wrinkles in time.
Two decades earlier, but with decidedly more sentiment than saccharine, producer, David O. Selznick had endeavored to illustrate the darker side to fame in the original A Star Is Born (1937): the implosion of an established star’s life and career paralleling the meteoric rise of his wife’s fame and fortune in the movies. But in Selznick’s movie, Hollywood is not the villain; merely, an empathetic compatriot, unable to stem the tide of one man’s self-destructive personality. In George Cukor’s 1954 remake of A Star Is Born, the industry’s complicity is more transparent despite the fact, Cukor’s eye-opening classic – daring in spots – is a musical. But in Sunset Boulevard, Wilder clearly perceives Hollywood as responsible for destroying a career. Moreover, he identifies the hierarchy in Hollywood as the quintessence of evil having infected - nee poisoned - Norma Desmond’s once indomitable spirit, misusing her now for the most embarrassingly superficial of reasons (to borrow her vintage Isotta Fraschini for a new Bing Crosby picture). Interestingly, there has never been another film maker as daring to so recklessly proclaim Hollywood as its demigod.
But thanks to Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is both brazen and ballsy. Not once does Wilder suggest the film industry as anything better than a lowbrow ‘job’ one does merely for pay – like prostitution; the daily grind slowly machining its human cogs to their most threadbare disposability. In part, the effect is uncanny because cinematographer, Seitz has shot Sunset Boulevard in a starkly noir-ish style in black-and-white. In one of the picture’s most unsettling and heartrending moments, Norma returns to Paramount’s back lot under the false assumption DeMille has sent for her via his assistant, Gordon Cole (Bert Moorehouse). DeMille is heavily embroiled in problems shooting Samson and Delilah, but at least makes the effort to see this ‘young fella’ (a term of endearment DeMille once used to describe Swanson herself) to whom Paramount seemingly owes its entire existence. Yet, there remains something fairly queer about the ‘family-esque’ atmosphere on the set; DeMille, as its patriarch, scuttling off to telephone Cole and make inquiries, leaving Norma to be rediscovered by a lighting grip, Hog-Eye (John ‘Skins’ Miller) looking down from the rafters. He casts a klieg in her direction, its warm afterglow, like that of an artificial sun, causing the old-time scores of extras to take notice and gather around to briefly reminisce, welcoming Norma ‘home’. Perhaps more than any other scene in Sunset Boulevard, here is the moment where Wilder pauses to allow his audience to sincerely ‘feel’ something more than pity for Norma Desmond – sharing in a genuine empathy for this flesh and blood, made a grotesque caricature of a woman by the system presently wanting absolutely nothing to do with her.
Without the camera to make love to, Norma Desmond does not exist at all. Like the psychoanalyst’s explanation of Norman Bates at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), she likely only ‘half existed’ to begin with’ so described by DeMille as an impressionable girl of seventeen when fame took hold and full of zest to make good; Wilder, perhaps taking his cue from the oldest aboriginal superstition; suggesting that to capture a person’s likeness on film is to equally steal away with their soul. It is fairly unbearable to believe in Hollywood as ever being an escapist El Dorado after seeing Sunset Boulevard for the first time; Wilder carving indelible impressions to pit this Teflon-coated image. In the interim since the picture’s debut, such corrosion has only intensified; the decline and eventual decay of the system, allowing for the rag-mags to gnaw away at the last vestiges of make-believe; stardom distilled into a thoroughly unpleasant bottom-feeder’s pit of crass commercialism and very darkly realized celebrity. In some ways, it has become far easier today to believe in Wilder’s impressions of both the town and the industry; the fictionalized allure of ‘golden age’ Hollywood in 1950 still very much bucking Wilder’s perceptions; two warring factions – the latter, manipulative and deliciously cutthroat, populated by malevolent misfits, leaching off one another for their own shameless aggrandizements. If anything, Sunset Boulevard is Wilder’s alternative theory to all those manufactured mythologies long encouraged by Hollywood about itself: the sexual/psychological aberrations embodied in Norma Desmond’s dark manor, outwardly symbolic of her own sad decline, the crumbling stucco exterior and leaky red-bricked rooftops barely shielding her complete implosion from the outwardly sunny scenery that – at least in 1950, still marked Southern California as a starlit Mecca.
By 1950, Billy Wilder could likely see the end to this Hollywood as he had known it only a scant few years before; the klieg lights already begun to dim on that genuine and intangible enchantment from its golden epoch, now fast disappearing in the rear-view of history. Although Hollywood would maintain the pretext of its own invincibility for quite some time, Wilder wastes no time showing us an industry already in steep decline. The mansion where faded screen queen, Norma Desmond endures her self-imposed exile is hardly gay or glamorous; rather, the decaying relic chocked full of elegant memories from an abandoned era, all of it allowed to quaintly molder in the dim and dusty entrails of retirement. The exterior and courtyards are overgrown in withered wild vines and dead leaves, the remnants of the grand dame’s beloved Isotta Fraschini raised up on blocks inside a damp and cobweb-ridden garage. So long as Norma remains uncomfortably absent in the present, this spotlight from her intimate past can remain agelessly bound to ‘another time’, pleasurably intact. It is only when she attempts to resuscitate the past, as though it still was the present that a malignancy begins to form on both the sanctity and sanity of her self-preservation.
The real tragedy in Sunset Boulevard: Norma Desmond’s descent into madness is not entirely of her own doing. She might have remained as she was; forgotten, but pleasantly obtuse to the passage of time, ever-shielded by her devoted butler, Max Von Mayerling. Alas, Norma is given a rude awakening, ushered into the present by the accidental arrival of Joe Gillis, who rather cruelly admonishes her imperiousness by pointing out: “Say, you used to be Norma Desmond…you used to be big.” “I am big,” Norma coolly replies, “It’s the pictures that got small!” Gillis is not without his obvious assets; his outward muscularity and youth, both an elixir he contemptuously manipulates – at least, to a point – to perpetuate the lie he can aid Norma in her return to the silver screen. Her project is Salome (ironically, a film, later to be told, starring Rita Hayworth in 1953). Gillis is on the lam from a pair of spurious-looking bill collectors, come to repossess his automobile. Joe is desperate. So, who can really blame him when he decides to take advantage of this delusional star, desperately in need of a script doctor?
What follows is a malaise in the classic May/December ilk of romance Hollywood frequently loved to perpetuate – usually with an older man/younger woman at the helm. Herein, Wilder subverts our expectations. Though hardly past her prime, Swanson does her utmost to appear slightly older than she actually was; her stylized gesticulations as a deviant spider woman, contributing to a dreaded sense of entanglement that is even more distasteful and morally ambiguous. When Norma is not commanding Joe to remain at her beckoned call, she is placating his slightly emasculated male ego, reenacting bits of byplay from the silent screen as one of Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties or reincarnating a garish parody of Chaplin’s little tramp; subjecting Joe to weekly private screenings of her old movies, impatiently shouting at the screen, “We didn’t need talk. We had faces then. Those fools! Those imbeciles! Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again!”
In such sequences, Wilder’s intensely scripted drama is very close to devolving into grand guignol. He avoids this pitfall, however, with intervals that depart from this absurdly dramatic gargoyle; Swanson’s faded doyenne, counterbalanced by Eric Von Stroheim’s coolly understated Max, begrudging Joe’s sway over the star he made possible in his days as a director. There is a great deal of truth to unpack in Von Stroheim’s performance. His was the last picture Swanson ever made – Queen Kelly (briefly glimpsed in Norma’s private screening room); the movie ruining both hers and Von Stroheim’s careers in one fell swoop. Now, Von Stroheim is very much playing himself; embittered, outcast and out of step with the modern age – despising this newcomer in their midst who has the power to destroy Norma Desmond a second time, by revealing the truth to her: that Max has been writing her fan mail for decades. The genius in Swanson’s performance, is she denies us Norma’s absolute plunge into insanity until the very end of the picture; veering between hints of this mental implosion, but even then, pausing from the wild-eyed and leering effigy of this human pumpkin as she breaks into giddy excitement at being back in front of the cameras after a nearly thirty year absence.
Wilder begins his story with its tragic finale; the discovery of a lifeless Joe Gillis, floating face down in Norma’s swimming pool. The scene of police and paparazzi equally savoring this moment is at once grisly and ghoulish, even as Joe begins to narrate from the beyond, the circumstances that led up to his murder; Wilder’s rather ingenious way of subverting the awkwardness of the traditional flashback and effortlessly rewinding this sordid tale to a scant six months earlier. Wilder had intended to open Sunset Boulevard with an entirely different prologue; Joe’s lifeless corpse wheeled into the County Morgue, whereupon the various, as yet departed, spirits from other bodies lying on the slab begin to converse about ‘the new guy’ in their midst. On paper, it sounded bone-chilling. In the staging, however, the scene became farcical, eliciting rancorous laughter from the test preview audience, deflating the irony and forcing Wilder to completely rethink his opener before the general release. In flashback, we are introduced to Joe Gillis, jaded and practically penniless, shopping his screenplay ‘Bases Loaded’ around the majors with no luck. His last ditch effort to sell the property to Paramount producer and fair-weather friend, Sheldrake (Fred Clark) on spec never goes beyond a two page synopsis written by precocious script reader, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who offers her own unflattering critique of Joe’s work – that it has been written from hunger with absolutely no heart.
The next few scenes are a tour de force, Wilder illustrating the cold-shoulder isolationism of a very unfriendly Hollywood and how it can brand a man with the scarlet letter of failure in an instant with very little chance for a reprieve. Attempting to outrun the bill collectors come to repossess his car, Joe gets a flat and is forced to take refuge beyond the gates of a dilapidated Italianate mansion; its grounds forlorn and foreboding; overgrown and faintly smelling of rot and formaldehyde. Joe is mistaken for an undertaker and summoned inside by a mysterious female voice calling to him from one of the open upstairs windows. Entering the once proud villa, Joe is greeted by Max Von Mayerling, the austere butler; shown to a bedroom where the remains of a chimpanzee have been laid out. Joe reveals his true identity, temporarily incurring Norma’s discontent. But his cagey recognition of her past tenders her disapproval moot. Moreover, Norma is mildly intrigued when she realizes Joe is a screenwriter. Perhaps their accidental meeting is kismet. Norma has been plotting a return to the movies; her immense draft of Salome in dire need of a cunning rewrite - nee pruning – to get it ready for the cameras.
Joe has little interest in the project until Norma offers to pay him handsomely. He could sure use the money. Even better, she absolves most all of his outstanding debts and sets about remaking Joe into the spitting image of a very dapper gigolo. Appealing to his greed, Norma convinces Joe to abide by this transformation – at first. But very soon Joe will begin to realize, like all deals made with the devil his too will be hell to pay. Norma is luring him away from his own dreams and worse, she is quite mad in her lost pursuits to resurrect her career. Ensconced in the apartment above her garage, Joe feverishly works on rewriting Norma’s screenplay, determined to escape her suffocating presence before it is too late. The tragedy for Joe is, of course, he fails to acknowledge it is already too late.
Max quietly informs Joe he will not allow anyone to intrude on ‘madam’s’ self-inflated opinion. In fact, he has been solely responsible for writing Norma all of her fan mail these many lean years, sustaining her delusions. Joe also learns Max was once Norma’s first husband. Madam has been married three times! Since their divorce, Max has kept a vigil over Norma’s various affairs – staunchly determined to coddle her obsessions in order to stave off her increasingly frequent bouts of extreme melancholia. Once, she even attempted suicide. Since then, Max has had all the doorknobs removed so Norma cannot barricade herself in any room to try and take her life again. Joe is empathic. But over time, he begins to resent Norma’s patronage, particularly as her gifts to him come with dispassionate patronizing as her ‘boy toy’. Norma eventually confesses her affections run deeper than anticipated. To ease his mind and regain some sense of self-respect as a man, Joe abandons Norma on New Year’s Eve after a particularly nasty disagreement, to go slumming at a house party given by his friend, Artie Green (Jack Webb). There, Joe is reintroduced to Betty who also happens to be Artie’s fiancée.
Gradually, Betty comes to understand Joe, despite being unaware of his present predicament, and offers to help him rewrite the kernel of an idea for a screenplay she hopes to jointly market to Paramount. For a while, Joe skulks off in the dead of night to work on this screenplay with Betty in her office at the studio. However, even as Joe has all but decided to break free of Norma’s influence, he is suddenly informed by Max she has attempted suicide yet again at the thought of losing him. Bitter and reluctantly feeling a sense of moral obligation, Joe returns to comfort Norma. Upon her recovery, the two drive over to Paramount Studios – Norma with a renewed sense of optimism for her ‘Salome’ project. Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) feigns knowing what her impromptu visit is all about, but quickly discovers a fellow producer has been contacting her merely to inquire about loaning out her vintage Isotta Fraschini for another movie concurrently being made on the back lot. Max and Joe discover this truth too, but elect to keep it a secret from Norma.
Meanwhile, Norma’s sudden reappearance on DeMille’s Samson and Delilah set draws out old time admirers to pay homage to the faded star. For Norma, this faux adulation proves a tonic. She retreats into her memories, embarking on an exhaustive regiment of exercise and beauty treatments to help her get back into shape. In the meantime, Joe continues his moonlit tete a tete with Betty at Paramount; the two eventually falling in love and commencing with an affair destined to break Artie’s heart. When Norma discovers a copy of the script in Joe’s coat pocket with Betty’s contact information, she decides to telephone Betty in a deliciously cryptic and unnerving plot to wreck the relationship. Instead, Joe overhears their conversation, taking the phone from Norma’s hand and ordering Betty to come over to the mansion at once to see for herself what has become of him. Joe is deliberately cruel to Betty when she arrives. He is most convincing in his jaded suggestions he would rather be Norma’s kept man than Betty’s lover. Wounded by her own foolishness, Betty departs in tears as Joe plots an even more crushing revenge. He informs Norma their time together is at an end. There is no future and no prospects for her at Paramount either. Joe lays all the cards on the table, exposing Max’s fake fan mail and urging Norma to ‘grow up’ and stop wishing she could remain twenty-five forever.
Traumatized by this jolt of sudden reality flooding in from all sides, Norma retreats into madness. She retrieves the pistol with which she intended to kill herself, demonically whispering “No one ever leaves the star.” Ignoring this threat, Joe is shot to death in the courtyard. He stumbles and topples into the pool, the scene dissolving to the moment that began our story; Joe’s body being fished out by the police and placed onto a coroner’s stretcher. Norma, now completely insane, descends the grand staircase, mistaking Max for DeMille as newsreel cameras capture the moment for posterity. Assuming this is the first scene to be shot for Salome, Norma pauses to thank DeMille, the police and photographers for their ‘support’, concluding her macabre epitaph with a rather sinister salutation to “all those wonderful people out there in the dark” – the fans who have unceremoniously abandoned her so many years earlier and will now likely remember her only for this morbid murder.
As Wilder allows Swanson’s leering screen queen to approach his camera, her image gradually going out of focus before fading to black, Sunset Boulevard achieves a rather grisly celebrity all its own; foreshadowing the high cost of fame that has continued to claim fragile egos throughout the ages, once both the industry and the world of adoring fans beyond its borders inevitably has finished with their own fickle obsessions in perpetuating a stars’ popularity. Grotesque, and yet heart-rending, Norma Desmond’s penultimate surrender to the psychosis of Hollywood dismantles our preconceived notions of this film-making empire as an idyllic paradise where presumably nothing bad could ever happen to either the bold or the beautiful. In retrospect, perhaps the greatest tragedy of Sunset Boulevard is that while it restored William Holden to his rightful place among the great stars of the mid-20th century, it did virtually nothing for resuscitate Swanson’s former glory. Swanson’s performance is undeniably the flashier of the two, and, to be sure, the actress does play it to the hilt with all the exaggerated grand mannerisms of a silent diva brought out of mothballs, decidedly very ‘out of season’ in the era of the talkies. Yet, Swanson’s portrait is far more subtly nuanced than most critics of the day gave her credit. She runs the gamut of emotions: from imperious prima donna to anxiety-ridden cougar, and finally, absolute lunatic; Norma Desmond’s mind a cluttered repository, eaten away by distortions of reality.
All of Billy Wilder’s best movies are glib affirmations of the fundamental flaws afflicting male/female relationships; either, the woman pretending to be a child in love with a soldier (The Major and the Minor); the seemingly trustworthy man, driven to self-destruction by a notorious mantrap (Double Indemnity) or the virtuous woman, passionately in love with a hopeless alcoholic (The Lost Weekend). In hindsight, the amalgam of these worrisome liaisons is most fully fleshed out and carried to its extreme in the toxic rapport between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. Wilder’s commentary on men, women and the havoc their interplay of emotions and hormones has on each other, reveals a dire impasse Wilder’s filmic protagonists either ignore or seem grossly unwilling to acknowledge until it is too late. This central theme is regurgitated throughout Wilder’s career – occasionally with happier outcomes than this, but always culminating in an imperfect denouement. Even the ending of Some Like It Hot, Wilder’s sublime farce, ends with Jack Lemmon’s confessional in drag, thwarted by his millionaire ‘boyfriend’s (Joe E. Brown) unwillingness to secede fiction from reality, resulting in the riotous rebuttal: “Well…nobody’s perfect.” Sunset Boulevard’s conclusion is perhaps Wilder’s bleakest ever; Joe left to his watery grave, the fallen man and the faded idol – a match made in hell; the pair perfectly realized in all their mistaken notions about life, love and the promise of glories attained through ill-gotten gains.
Paramount Home Video’s Blu-ray is welcomed, though with slight imperfections. Released in 2012 to mark their 100th anniversary in film-making, Sunset Boulevard sports a generally impressive 1080p transfer. Occasionally, the gray scale suffers from slightly bumped contrast levels. Grain is present, at times a tad clumpy, and at other intervals, virtually absent. We never reach the egregious waxy levels of DNR compression. While Paramount’s efforts easily best their defunct 2008 Centennial DVD, Sunset Boulevard was a somewhat problematic movie to preserve and restore. Its original nitrate negatives are no more and its preservation acetates are gone too, leaving only a dupe negative to work from. This could spell disaster, except in Sunset Boulevard’s case the results are mostly impressive. Fine detail pops and overall clarity and consistency are quite good. There is some slight gate weave. One would have thought this to be easily correctable. Alas, no. It doesn’t affect the whole movie, but on larger screens it is present and accounted for nonetheless. There is also a minute hint of edge enhancement; again, sporadic and not altogether distracting. The DTS 5.1 audio gets punchier this time around; Franz Waxman’s marvelous underscore the real benefactor.
Extras are impressive: almost 2 ½ hours, many imported from the old Centennial DVD. My biggest complaint herein is the new extras are basically repurposed from the old stuff, now presented in HD with a lot of overlapping interviews and stock footage produced by Laurent Bouzereau and featuring recollections from A.C. Lyles, Nicholas Meyers, author Ed Sikov, film critic, Andrew Sarris and co-star, Nancy Olson. Compartmentalizing these comments into brief featurettes is a disconcerting practice, done primarily to limit the pay scale of the participants involved, far less to partake in shorts than a full-blown documentary. In addition, we get Sikov’s academically dense but highly intellectual and thoroughly fascinating audio commentary, an interactive ‘map’ to take us on a Cook’s Tour of the real locations in the movie, a pieced together ‘outtake’ of the original morgue opener, and two very careworn featurettes produced nearly two decades ago; one on Paramount’s film output from the 1950's, the other devoted to costumier extraordinaire, Edith Head’s immortal contributions to the studio. Bottom line: Sunset Boulevard is a certified classic by any barometer one chooses to ascribe to cinema greatness. If you don’t already own it on Blu-ray, you should. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)