Sunset Blvd. (1950)
August 18, 2015 9:33 AM - Subscribe

A hack screenwriter writes a screenplay for a former silent-film star who has faded into Hollywood obscurity. The screenwriter's ambivalence about their relationship and her unwillingness to let go leads to a situation of violence and madness.

From AMC's Filmsite:
"Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a classic black comedy/drama, and perhaps the most acclaimed, but darkest film-noir story about 'behind the scenes' Hollywood, self-deceit, spiritual and spatial emptiness, and the price of fame, greed, narcissism, and ambition. The mood of the film is immediately established as decadent and decaying by the posthumous narrator - a dead man floating face-down in a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.

"With caustic, bitter wit in a story that blends both fact and fiction and dream and reality, co-writer/director Billy Wilder realistically exposes (with numerous in-jokes) the corruptive, devastating influences of the new Hollywood and the studio system by showing the decline of old Hollywood legends many years after the coming of sound. The screenplay was based on the story A Can of Beans by Wilder and Brackett - this was the last collaborative film effort of Brackett and Wilder who had worked together on many films since 1938.

"This classic, tragic film was highly-regarded at its time, honored with eleven Academy Award nominations and the recipient of three Oscars: Best Story and Screenplay (co-authored by Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman, Jr., and Billy Wilder), Best Black and White Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Franz Waxman). The eight unsuccessful nominations were for Best Picture, Best Actor (William Holden), Best Actress (Gloria Swanson, who lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday), Best Supporting Actor (Erich von Stroheim), Best Supporting Actress (Nancy Olson), Best Director, Best B/W Cinematography (John Seitz), and Best Film Editing."
"Gloria Swanson is nothing less than pure HOT DAMN in this movie." Indeed. Roger Ebert remarks of her performance that "Swanson's Norma Desmond skates close to the edge of parody; Swanson takes enormous chances with theatrical sneers and swoops and posturings, holding Norma at the edge of madness for most of the picture, before letting her slip over...".

Ebert goes on to outline the risks Wilder took in not disguising his sources and therefore leaving bite in his screenplay:
"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, 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."
The immediate response to the film from Hollywood industry was not positive; from IMdb: "Upon seeing the film at a star-studded preview screening at Paramount, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer screamed at director Billy Wilder that he should be tarred, feathered and horse-whipped for bringing his profession into such disrepute. Wilder's response was a terse, 'Fuck you.'"

From TCM's Triva and quotes page on the film: "Greta Garbo, who had worked with Wilder on Ninotchka (1939), agreed to let him mention her name in the film, but when she saw it she was sorry she had. She felt the mention depicted her as a star of the past, relegating her to the history books. 'I thought Billy Wilder was a friend of mine,' she said."

One meta-commentary within the film: "When Norma Desmond says to the guard at the Paramount Studio gates 'Without me there wouldn't be any Paramount Studio' the words could apply to Gloria Swanson as she was their top star 6 years running."

Sunset Boulevard (1950) trailer

Joe Gillis: "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big."
Norma Desmond: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (56 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This is possibly my favorite picture of that era. I have so much to say about it I don't even know where to start.

Also, there's an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures called Sepulveda Boulevard which is a surprisingly good parody, considering the intended audience.
posted by griphus at 9:43 AM on August 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Joe is a really ad kept man, just saying.

Karina Longworth of You Must Remember This said this was the single best movie about Hollywood ever made -- Meryl Streep totally lifted Norma's silent movie/vampire hands for Death Becomes Her (I mean that rope banister staircase in Death Becomes Her and in Sunset Boulevard is not a coincidence.)

I don't own a lot of movie soundtracks but I own this one. The final deranged burst of orchestra is my favorite - designed to recall a production of Salome' which of course Norma has been preparing for for years.

I took a friend to see this and she said the scariest moment was when she acknowledges the audience "all those people sitting in the dark" and LOOKS AT YOU AH AH AH
posted by The Whelk at 11:02 AM on August 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is a masterpiece of tone. The film's tone shifts wildly from scene to scene, and even intra-scene, all of it motivated by real characters. There are no stereotypes that one might expect in a picture about Hollywood. It never once rings false. Even the parts that might seem trite (mostly the parts involving Gillis's starving-writer woes) are saved from that fate by the sheer striving nature of Holden's performance.

And Nancy Olson should have been a goddamned star.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:04 AM on August 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Like griphus I'll have more to say but don't even know where to begin except that just seeing it here means I'll use it as an excuse to watch it tonight when I get home.

I basically love this movie more than I'd want to attend a monkey funeral (which is to say A LOT), and yet somehow it isn't my favorite Billy Wilder movie. God I love him.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:17 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is probably my favorite movie of all time, and yet somehow every time I try to show it to my partner he falls asleep. This concerns me for our relationship. But it gives me an excuse to watch the movie over and over again, so there's that.

I am on a bus right now but I'm watching that Tiny Toon Adventures clip the instant I get home.
posted by Stacey at 12:40 PM on August 18, 2015

...and yet somehow it isn't my favorite Billy Wilder movie.

I was kind of hoping that was gonna link to Sabrina so we could throw down about it but sigh.
posted by griphus at 12:45 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

[Lana Kane NOOOOOOOOOPE.gif]
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:55 PM on August 18, 2015

Wilder followed it with Ace in the Hole, perhaps the bleakest film ever made.
posted by maxsparber at 1:02 PM on August 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Guess I'd better give this one another try; I notice it's on Netflix. I have a hell of a time tuning in on Wilder's frequency, for some reason. I end up thinking his dramas are funny and his comedies aren't.
posted by Flexagon at 1:08 PM on August 18, 2015

Flexagon, this one's very funny at times. Preview audiences laughed out loud at an early test cut, forcing the filmmakers to completely rewrite and reshoot the now-iconic opening.

Even though it's often quite funny, it's pervaded by a sense of dread, from the opening music and title sequence. Now that I think about it, it's an early example of the New American Gothic that MartinWisse has posted about on the blue.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:48 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's very Gothic in tone, with touches of absurd or dark humor (like say the Monkey Funeral) and the whole Vampire Castle vibe, the decadent and unhealthy Norma compared to the fresh faced young reader. As mentioned, she totally whips out some Nosferatu hands when she's embracing Joe.
posted by The Whelk at 1:53 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just noticed how, in the movie poster on the side here, Norma is floating above them as they recoil in fear like she's a Universal horror creature.
posted by The Whelk at 1:54 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

How much tragedy could have been avoided if Joe had just written It Happened in the Bullpen: The Story of a Woman
posted by griphus at 1:58 PM on August 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

If Joe really wanted to be an effective kept man he would've found a way to get rid of the manservant, worm his way into her finances, marry Norma, and then arrange for her to have a little accident.

But that's another Gothic Noir movie, possibly Rebecca
posted by The Whelk at 2:02 PM on August 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Billy Wilder is God, and Ninotchka is underrated.
posted by Diablevert at 2:39 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's very chicken-and-egg, this one. Is Swanson's performance campy per se, or has it merely been mined so hollow by camp performers ever since that the latter has retroactively subsumed the former? She "skates close to the edge of parody," says Ebert, but parody of what? Of nothing other than Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, surely.

But, of course, the character is an overstylized, set-chewing silent film actor. That's the whole point. It's not just that she's too old to play the part she wants, but too old-fashioned. There's just no other way to play it but totally over the top.

Indeed, it may well have been Sunset Boulevard that put the final nail in the coffin of the overwrought ac-TORRR by rendering it a sad joke, and ushered in the era of Actors Studio method realism.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:52 PM on August 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

I just noticed how, in the movie poster on the side here, Norma is floating above them as they recoil in fear like she's a Universal horror creature.

This poster hangs as you walk up the stairs to my apartment for just this reason. I'm also a huge fan of the one done by Waldemar Swierzy for the Polish release (scroll down)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 3:09 PM on August 18, 2015

I don't know how well this is remembered anymore, but Carol Burnett had a recurring sketch character based on Norma Desmond, with Harvey Korman as her Max.

Burnett's show may seem dated and corny to modern viewers, but my gosh did those people have fun making it.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:49 PM on August 18, 2015 [14 favorites]

There's a moment near the end that I just noticed for the first time tonight, when Max is directing her as she comes down the stairs, he blinks back a tear the final (I think) time she calls him Mr. Demille. It's hardly anything but it's actually everything.

(And not to derail, but though I suppose I'd politely listen to some modern viewer who didn't think the Carol Burnett show was anything other than timeless comedic genius, but I'd probably be biting my tongue until it was bloody.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:35 PM on August 18, 2015

Montgomery Clift was originally supposed to be Joe Gillis. It's never been confirmed,but several of his contemporaries who were interviewed thought he turned it down because it smacked too much of his relationship with the singer Libby Holman.

In the original production of the SB musical there were reproductions of the issue of Life with Monty on the cover.
posted by brujita at 8:59 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's true. The pictures really did get small.
posted by briank at 5:16 AM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Montgomery Clift was originally supposed to be Joe Gillis.

Wow. That would have been horrible. I readily admit, I am not a Clift fan, and just can't imagine how Clift in the role could have been anything other than bad.

This is such a great, disturbing movie. Probably my favorite Wilder film. Oddly, the cinematography rarely gets much mention, but the camera and lighting work in the mansion really work hard in setting the tone of the film.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:58 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Norma is very consistently shot through soft focus in a way none of the other characters are.
posted by griphus at 6:06 AM on August 19, 2015

I AM a huge Clift fan. Chacun à son goût.
posted by brujita at 6:59 AM on August 19, 2015

On the cinematography side, I always loved the contrasting shots of the New Year's Eve parties, the crowded lively cramped apartment full of people right next to Norma's huge tomb Like party full of things and possessions
posted by The Whelk at 8:26 AM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

The zoom into the sketchy sales clerk at the men's fashion store is one of the most memorable in cinema for me.
posted by griphus at 8:40 AM on August 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

He really should've gotten the camel hair
posted by The Whelk at 8:52 AM on August 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

Is Joe Gillis supposed to be considerably older than Artie and everyone else at the party? He always came off as that guy who always hangs out with people ten years his junior.
posted by griphus at 9:02 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I find it hard to age anyone in the pre rock era cause all the teenagers dressed like 40 year olds so everyone seems vaguely the same age?
posted by The Whelk at 9:06 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wow, William Holden is apparently only two years older than Jack Webb.
posted by griphus at 9:08 AM on August 19, 2015

Well Webb has a ...youthful ...some might say festive energy about him
posted by The Whelk at 9:11 AM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I actually saw this for the first time a week ago based on the recommend from The Hairpin's article. I was pleasantly surprised, mostly in seeing Buster Keaton (I didn't recognize the other waxworks) and Cecil B. DeMille in it. The other quite striking thing about it was that it's probably the only movie I've seen where the voiceover works.
posted by Catblack at 10:32 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was just talking about this : I think voice over works a lot more times then people realize but bad voice over will RUIN a movie, so you don't notice it so much when it works.
posted by The Whelk at 10:55 AM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I reread the Anne Helen Peterson piece because of this thread, not that that's ever a bad thing. But in re waxworks, she raises the comparison that Swanson in the 50s would have been like some forgotten 80s pop star in a movie now. And there's something about that comparison that doesn't quite fit to me, and I can't tell if it's me or culture. But it's just, the gap between the 80s and the 2010s feels so much narrower to me than the gap between the the 20s and the 50s. The thing that gives Sunset Boulevard this incredible atmosphere is the sense of Jack falling into this land that time forgot, with people, e.g. the waxworks, walking around as if still living in the remote past, adhering to the mores and fashions of another era. And we the audience, too, thinking that they belonged there, that just seeing them up and moving around was somehow uncanny. Can you imagine feeling that way about, I dunno, Eric Estrada? David Hasselhoff? Eddie Murphy? Harrison Ford? Michael J. Fox? Is it just that nobody really goes away, now? That the nostalgia industry means no one's ever utterly forgotten, in that same way? That with Netflix and YouTube and Nick at Night, that we never cease to see these old things, they're always accessible to us? Or is it just that I am old and it seems natural to me to remember the 80s, whereas the 20s and the 50s were both equally history to me, memorised and catalogued by a small set of symbols and emblems? Or is it that culture and society really did change so much more profoundly in the 30 years surrounding WWII than they have in the past 30, so that the recent past seems much more similar to our present?
posted by Diablevert at 11:23 AM on August 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

IMO there hasn't again been such a drastic and catastrophic sea change as going from silent films to talkies. That change destroyed a lot of careers in a way that hasn't happened again. There have been shakeups, sure, but I can't really think of something that would absolutely wreck the careers of a large number of A-list film stars the way talkies did. And that's not even considering the effects of the culture of nostalgia that started in the 1960s.
posted by griphus at 11:39 AM on August 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just as an aside, assuming Norma Desmond and Gloria Swanson are rough peers, Norma is the same age as Sarah Jessica Parker.
posted by griphus at 11:43 AM on August 19, 2015

One thing I love about this picture is that Swanson and Erich von Stroheim are basically playing themselves, and in a not very flattering way. I've always tried to figure out whether they were actually in on the joke or whether they were more or less oblivious to it; I've never been sure.
posted by holborne at 12:29 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

My wife rented out our local art house theatre for my 40th birthday and i got to watch this (my favorite movie that I've seen numerous times) on the big screen again with 30 pals. Some came in costume. One wore a giant coat made from a mountain goat pelt (and we all took turns posting in it with Hollywood glasses). It was fantastic to watch this in a huge group with seasoned watchers making pithy commentary and newbies who had never seen it. Best birthday ever. The stars are ageless.
posted by ikahime at 1:45 PM on August 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

Just as an aside, assuming Norma Desmond and Gloria Swanson are rough peers, Norma is the same age as Sarah Jessica Parker.

That I'm smack in the middle between William Holden's age in Sunset Boulevard and Gloria Swanson's age in Sunset Boulevard hit me like a ton of bricks last night.

I instead focused on the difference on silent film and the talkies and wondering, not just if anything change that big had happened since (the popularity of television is maybe close, but it's different because it happened in paralell) or if anything like that would happen again. I came up with nothing, but I did start imagining a Sunset Boulevard from 2035 starring that dude from the Vine article/thread last month.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:40 PM on August 19, 2015

Diablevert, a while back somebody posted a link to an essay about how little has changed since 1990, compared to similar spans of time in the 20th century. And it is truly strange, when you notice it. Yes, we have the web now and there are all kinds of ways you can see big differences between now and 1990... but a lot of the fashions and attitudes of 1990 are very similar to today, much more similar than, say, 1950 was to 1975. When you see a movie from the early 90s, sometimes the hairstyles or shoulder pads date it. But you could find a lot of movies from 1992 that basically look like they were shot yesterday. A lot of the movies on this list don't seem like quaint artifacts. They're just movies. But in 1985, movies from 1962 seemed antique. If somebody did a Back to the Future reboot where a new Marty McFly went back to the early 90s, they'd have to do a lot of extreme, cherry-picked stuff to make it seem like a distant era.

If you were trying to make a story like Sunset Boulevard now, I think it'd have to be about somebody who was a 1980s one-hit wonder. You could do something about somebody who was in a new wave band or was an early rap star or whatever, had a brief moment of glory and never moved on from that era. That could seem anachronistic enough to be eerie and funny, maybe. But it's true, there aren't a lot of stars from that era who have totally fallen from view like Norma Desmond. If somebody was on the A-list back then, they could at least be in SyFy movies or be on a reality show or something.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:23 PM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you were trying to make a story like Sunset Boulevard now, I think it'd have to be about somebody who was a 1980s one-hit wonder. You could do something about somebody who was in a new wave band or was an early rap star or whatever, had a brief moment of glory and never moved on from that era.

So basically, it would be Zoolander.
posted by rocketman at 11:25 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

In about ten years Tara Reid will be perfect for this.
posted by griphus at 11:32 AM on August 20, 2015

If Winona Ryder never gets leading lady work again, in ten years she'd be perfect for it.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:38 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I thought Old Timey Film Club was going to be bigger than this, but when I looked at my browser settings, I realized it IS big, it was my font size that got smaller.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:47 AM on August 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Great post, btw. I am appreciating the way jcifa and others are shifting the expectations of movie club posts to having denser, more blue-like content. I think it's a good move sure to spur more discussion.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:48 AM on August 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't really have anything to say about this movie (other than it was awesome) -- I'm not much of a film buff -- I just wanted to again thank jcifa for starting this since it will give me a chance to view sweet old movies that I otherwise would not take the time to watch, or even know about.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:11 AM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

This was much, much better than I'd remembered; the crucial thing is that we relate to Joe and that his narration works, and boy does it (as someone mentions above). It's remarkably fresh given it was written/shot in 1950.

Watching the DVD extras, I was struck with how Nancy Olson (who played Betty) saw the film's main storyline or theme as being about opportunists - how everyone in the film is an opportunist. It surprised me when she said this as I was expecting other themes - greed, vanity, emptiness of Hollywood celebrity - to be cited by her. I think some of the shock value of this theme is lost now than when it first aired, as people are more aware of Hollywood as teaming with opportunists and people trying to claw their way into legitimacy, fame, and money.

Some random thoughts:

- The swimming pool (small as it was!) was a real status symbol; pools are more common in middle-class backyards now.
- The way that Norma dances to Joe when he first appears at the New Year's party is so hilarious I had to rewind; it also foreshadows her last, more extreme and intensely rooted in fantasy decline from the stairway at the very end of the film.
- One of Norma's endearing, and redeeming, qualities is she devalues material things when it comes to Joe: she tosses the theatrical veiled tiara when he complains that it scratches, and at the very end she sweeps the presents she's given to Joe off the bed ("It doesn't matter!").
- Gloria Swanson's performance has been quoted in pop culture so much it's very hard to see it with fresh eyes, but she absolutely nails it mixing the humor of someone who is detached from reality with the pathos. (There are some humorous moments here that give the film a light touch.)
- You don't realize how things have gotten slowly claustrophobic until you escape with Joe to the crowded apartment of his peers (and yes, he does seem a bit older than the people he's hanging with - I think that is subtly acknowledged by the giggling girls who he's trying to get the phone from; he's not interested in them because they're way too immature).
- Wilder puts in a lot of details, a couple I noticed: the watch chain catches on the door handle as he tries to flea the New Year's "party" at Norma's home.
- Cecille B. DeMille keeps reminding Desmond that her work was very long ago; to quote my partner, "he's kind of a dick to her".
- The moment on-set when people recognize her and she has a happy moment - ah that's heartbreaking. Then DeMille comes to break it up...
- Delicious moment when the security guard at Paramount doesn't want to let her in, and the older one (whom she hails) does and waves her on in; this is Desmond using her star remaining power to get what she wants. I think this moment and the one on set gives you some faint hope that maybe she could make a comeback ("Don't say that - I hate that word! It's a return...")

Never liked William Holden in his subsequent career but he is immensely watchable here in this key role.

(I forgot to mention how remarkable that opening is - with the narrator's body floating in the pool, shot from under the water looking up at it and the police. The DVD extras talk about how they got this shot - apparently they used a mirror under the water and shot what was shown on the mirror. It's cited in many a film studies class!)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 6:27 PM on August 25, 2015

Okay, it took a few sits, but I finally finished watching this. Don't know if you could call it a horror movie, like some people do, but I imagine you'd have to be a fan of horror movies to really enjoy it. The problem that Wilder gives me seems to be a matter of theme and tone. Maybe he's just too subtle for me. He seems to have a point, but I can never figure out what it is.
posted by Flexagon at 2:07 PM on August 27, 2015

I loved Sunset Boulevard as a teenager and watched it over and over again, but a recent rewatch was unnerving. Norma isn't that ancient, as you all point out, and there's something weird in how the story is so much about Hollywood's need for women to be disposable and yet always resolutely from Joe's point of view. So many of the renowned roles for older women (see also: Baby Jane) are inseparable from camp and grotesquerie. It's like there are all these brilliant, unhinged female stars with smeared makeup and wrinkles in the prop closet.

My reaction this time reminded me of when I rewatched Vertigo as an adult and got sidetracked by caring more about Barbara Bel Geddes than anyone else in the movie. I need to work through my feelings about this, because reading through joseph conrad's notes reminds me just how great the film is.
posted by thetortoise at 3:16 PM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it;s in Ebert's review where he says the real scary scene in the movie is when you see her reflected in the makeup mirror, and she's not a washed up wreck, she's Gloria Freaking Swanson and she looks amazing, which sets the double question "What's wrong with an industry where Norma Desmond can't get work?" and "What the hell happened to Norma to make her a shutin cut off from the world and allowed to mutate into this film noir vampire?"
posted by The Whelk at 4:38 PM on August 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Looking at the architecture and design of the house, it reminds me of nothing so much as the great Atmospheric theater I used to go to as a kid - all Spanish tile and Moroccan detailing and gold leaf and putti.
"I am big - it's the pictures that got small."
That theater seated 900, easily - floor and balcony. The screen was enormous, a white cliff face looming over us, the mighty Wurlitzer beneath. Last month I went to the movies - the place sat 40 and the screen was 12 feet high.

The obvious connotations: Sunset, repeated over and over.
Joe mentions he gets sick from the sweet champagne. Champagne, back in the old days, was traditionally sweet - the more expensive, the sweeter.

She's right, she's right, they DID have faces back then! He's onscreen for all of eight seconds, and you can read every inch of him.

For those of you unfamiliar with your LA geography, Sunset Boulevard is basically the last major surface street before the hills and Canyons start. It runs into Laurel Canyon. Mulholland Drive isn't too far away wither.

Max is playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,a song I first remember hearing in Disney's Fantasia.

He really should've gotten the camel hair

It's vicuna. Nowadays a vicuna coat starts at $21,000. Remember to ask for CITES documentation.

The Coldstream Guards line is a particularly subtle one.

Swanson is 51 in this movie. The music when Norma (Gloria?) visits DeMille sounds like the strains around the Ark of the Covenant. Perhaps a choice? And all they want is the Isotta Fraschini.

Watching her come down the stairs, that predatory stalk, the claws,Salome and Samson and Delilah and all those sword-and-sandals epics - I'd love to see Norma Desmond play Clytemnestra.

"Turn that light back where it belongs."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:06 PM on August 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

The final music, with Norma on the stairs, "The Comeback" in all its lush silent movie over the top exoticism, is like, my favorite bit of classic movie music. I love it so much. It's so odd and overdone and huge, Franz Waxman just pushing crazy ass orchestral romanticism as far as it could go. I love it.
posted by The Whelk at 9:24 PM on August 30, 2015

if listening to the above linked yutube skip ahead to 2:30
posted by The Whelk at 9:25 PM on August 30, 2015

Well, when I proposed Billy Wilder Film Club, I failed to notice that joseph conrad is fully awesome had already posted this movie some years ago! So 2 years later, I'll share my thoughts on Sunset Blvd. Although all of y'all seem to have already posted lots of the interesting reflections already. And tragically, with the Hairpin gone, I can't read the Anne Helen Peterson piece. ):

I guess what I an add is, the voiceover use is interesting. I noticed Wilder uses it in One, Two, Three as well (though just at the opening). Was voiceover just a common a device in that era or something he liked in particular?

I love the way everything comes together in this film: Wilder seems to specialize in movies that fit together like snug puzzle pieces, where as the last few pieces snap into place you see the whole picture and you're blown away.

Finally, from a gender point of view, there's a way this character is like a terrible sexist trope of the entrapping woman - the myth that women are the perpetrators of romantic violence. But somehow her character is so rich and engaging that I didn't find myself offended.
posted by latkes at 9:15 AM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Alas, thanks to the Wilder film club schedule I finally broke down and watched Sunset Blvd. It was the only Wilder film I hadn't seen so now I have none left to look forward to. Very sad.

It was, nonetheless, an enjoyable viewing, so worth it in that regard. So meta! Not just the in movie references to other Hollywood films and careers, but in its very structure. The writer sets up a story, meets with a producer and his reader, is rejected and develops a new tale, that comes from a strange coincidence. He's given an assignment to do rewrites on a picture for a star, which he devotes himself to before being shot in the back and forgotten right before the director rolls camera and the star glides down to start, and end, the picture.

The movie is caustically amusing about each of the roles those involved play. With the writer more than a little prone to excess in his script, as heard in the voice overs, where Joe describes things in overly "literary" terms, but ends up relying as much on cliches and movie references. Betty, the reader, of course wanted to be a star, but failing at that is certain she can be a writer, as is Norma. That being seen as the easiest way to break in to Hollywood. Max, the director, dotes on his star, unable to leave her as his association with her has become total. He is forgotten, even compared to Norma, living in her shadow. Norma's existence is defined by what she once did, more alive on screen or reenacting her past than living, but the promise of a new picture turns brings her back to life, along with transforming her home from mausoleum to mansion once again. The empty pool is refilled thanks to Joe's attention to Norma, and fittingly Joe is the only one who'll make use of it in the end, and from the start.

The idea that the film is cruel to Norma over her age, I think, is a bit overblown as the movie itself makes reference to that unfairness on the visit to DeMille's set where DeMille chastises his assistant for thinking Norma old since DeMille is old enough to be her father. (Barely, he's only 18 years older, but the point of the exchange is no less meaningful given his stature in the industry.) Joe's discomfort with the relationship, due to the age difference, is also shown as a bit hypocritical when he flirts with developing a relationship with Betty. The two relationships are, to my eyes, equally flawed and artificial, which comes out in much of the dialogue between Betty and Joe, flavored as it is with references to Hollywood artificiality. Joe's vacillation between Betty and Norma is barely coherent on its face, it simply suits the plot more than comes from any character development on his own part. He flees Norma in disgust, flirts heavily with Betty, his pal Artie's girlfriend, and then flees Betty when Max tells him of Norma's dramatic gesture. The why of the actions are fit more for movie drama than character believability, but that works when all the characters are so engrossed in the artificial.

As to the discussion on Norma being forgotten, yeah, I'd say part of it is technology advancements mean recordings stay "present" longer and provide stars a longer shelf life than movies before we could get them whenever we wanted of course, but at the same time, if we were only talking about relative "knowness" stars from the eighties have sort of vanished from public consciousness, Jill Clayburgh, Bo Derek, and Kathleen Turner were big stars once and now are barely noticed for what they do by the public at large. They aren't forgotten, but more "remembered" than cared about for their current work. The same is more or less true for many women in movies and other areas of popular culture, which Sunset Blvd. sort of suggests as well. The movie, I believe, exaggerates the effect even more to make its points, since I'm sure many of the older audience members had no trouble remembering who Gloria Swanson was, even if they hadn't thought of her for awhile, which would be the case for many 80s era stars today.

Anyway, the movie was quite enjoyable, though, for me, not better than The Apartment or a couple other Wilder movies I like a lot. In part that may just be due to having seen so many movies where Hollywood looks at itself or at showbiz in general that the attitude here feels a bit heavy with exaggeration, a bit too caught up with its focus on artifice to let enough else show through. It's an excellent movie in terms of craft and nothing but a pleasure to watch, its just a bit too tidy in its referential nature and doesn't quite manage to find the necessary dissonance of effect to that would keep it active in my mind now that I've finished viewing it. It sums itself up so well that the effect of it stays mostly onscreen rather than asking me to supply anything. Nothing wrong with that, it just doesn't quite match up with my favorite films in that regard.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:46 PM on October 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

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