The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (UK Cert 12A)


SPOILER WARNING! This review discusses and/or mentions a few important plot points. If you would prefer not to have these spoiled, please stop reading now and come back once you've seen the film.

And so we return to that galaxy far, far away for Solo: A Star Wars Story, an origin story for the titular roguish pilot. From his early days on the mean streets of the shipbuilding world of Corellia, to meeting up with his Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca, we follow Han's life as we also find out exactly how he managed to do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs and how he got control of the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian. 

I should preface this review by saying that I personally don't consider myself to be a massive Star Wars fan. Watcher Rhys is, and his articles on the original trilogy and the prequels make for interesting and informed reading. I've seen them, enjoyed (most of) them, but that's where it starts and ends. I wouldn't go to a midnight screening, for instance. So, there's probably a lot in this film that goes right over my head. The reappearance of a character from the Star Wars prequels, for instance, will have more importance to others. For me, I just went 'oh, that's cool'. That said, I enjoyed the film a lot more than I had any right to, and a lot more than I expected to. 

To say this film had something of a challenging and chequered production would be like saying it's a bit nippy in Antarctica. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs) were dismissed from the project after approximately six months into production due to 'creative differences' (ah, that old chestnut). With a vacancy in the director's chair, Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (Rush, A Beautiful Mind) took over to complete the film, although there are rumours of extensive re-shoots as well. So tonally, you could expect the film to be a bit of a mess. Stylistically different. Performances different. To be honest, with some films (I'm looking at you, Justice League) where two directorial styles clash, you can tell where the joins are. There's nothing that glaringly obvious in Solo, so if nothing else the editor can be commended for a bang-up job. 

There was concern in some quarters that the trailers and such didn't feature much of Han in them, and that was a sign that Alden Ehrenreich wasn't up to the task. Utter nonsense. Ehrenreich's performance is really good. Better than good, actually. He's not Harrison Ford (obviously) but it would be folly to try and emulate him. He brings his own energy and his own charm to the role. For me, he takes a while to really grow into the character, but even at the beginning when he's finding his feet, there's the occasional flash of the cocky swagger that Han needs. Following on from strong supporting roles in Blue Jasmine and Hail, Caesar!, Ehrenreich's star is definitely on the ascendant. 

There's a great turn by Woody Harrelson (following his dramatic and Oscar-nominated performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Tobias Beckett, a mercenary and thief who acts as Han's mentor. For a man whose credo is 'assume everyone will betray you', there's at least a kind of grudging respect between Han and Beckett. Thandie Newton (Crash, Westworld) is great as Val, Beckett's partner, although I was disappointed not to have seen more of her. Jon Favreau (Chef, Spider-Man: Homecoming) gives a nice voice performance as the third member of Beckett's crew, the multi-limbed Rio Durant.

Emilia Clarke (Game Of Thrones, Terminator Genisys) plays Han's childhood friend and love interest Qi'ra. She does well with what she's given, but there are a few missed opportunities to flesh out her character; she's allied to the nominal bad guy with some hints that she's done 'terrible things' but that's never really explored. The nominal bad guy is Paul Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War) who plays the villainous Dryden Vos, to whom Beckett, Han, and the others are in debt to after an initial heist goes wrong. He's supercilious, slimy, but a bit stereotypically evil. 

Donald Glover (Atlanta, Community) was inspired casting to play the young Lando Calrissian. He's got the charisma and the magnetism that Billy Dee Williams has, and he exudes confidence. After Solo, I'd love to see a young Lando spin-off: Glover has the chops to pull it off. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Goodbye Christopher Robin) gives a brilliant voice performance as L3-37, Lando's militant co-pilot robot, warm and amusing in equal measures.  

I have two main criticisms of the film: for certain sequences, the screen was really dark and it was difficult to tell what was going on. Couple that with a bit of nauseating shakycam and some bits were difficult to watch. The other was that the script- by Star Wars legend Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan- doesn't always take chances to expand on characters and occasionally comes out with dialogue that's a bit clunky, a bit obvious or on-the-nose. 

All said though, these minor gripes didn't overshadow the rest of the film. A thoroughly enjoyable space opera romp. 

Rating: 4 out of 5


Tez

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Murder By Death (1976)


An elegant pastiche of the country-house murder-mystery, Murder By Death is written by Neil Simon (The Sunshine Boys, California Suite, The Odd Couple) and directed by Robert Moore (The Cheap Detective, Chapter Two).

A group of the world's greatest detectives, each accompanied by an associate or relative, are invited to the home of the eccentric multi-millionaire Lionel Twain for dinner... and a murder. Twain proclaims himself the world's greatest detective and offers $1 million to anyone who can solve the crime that's about to happen. Sure enough, a body is soon discovered. But with a house full of tricks and traps and somebody behind the scenes pulling the strings, can the bickering detectives survive until morning, and work out- not so much whodunit- but what the hell is actually going on?


A star-studded cast bring this story to life. David Niven and Maggie Smith give an air of suave class as sophisticated crime-solving socialities Dick and Dora Charleston (a take on Dashiell Hammett's characters Nick and Nora Charles who appeared in The Thin Man stories and films). Smith is often seen as purely a dramatic actress- something she excels at- but, here, she channels a fine comedic streak as the debonair Mrs Charleston, showing some impeccable comic timing throughout. 


Another Hammett character is spoofed with Peter Falk's hardboiled Sam Diamond an obvious rip-off of Sam Spade, accompanied by his long-suffering secretary Tess Skeffington (played by Eileen Brennan who, nine years later, would return to a country-house murder-mystery spoof in the frankly wonderful Clue). Diamond is a gumshoe of the old school, and he parodies the sexist, racist, misogynist attitutes of the 1940s hardboiled noir tradition. Some of the lines are a bit close to the bone but Falk's performance softens any offence. 


Agatha Christie's two major sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple get parodied here with James Coco and Elsa Lanchester playing Belgian detective Milo Perrier and English spinster Jessica Marbles respectively. Coco's meticulously fussy portrayal of the perpetually hungry Perrier is nicely observed and his relationship with his chauffeur Marcel- played by James Cromwell in his film debut- provides a couple of great moments- the two of them bicker like an old married couple. Lanchester's turn as Miss Marbles is equally as good, making her a hale and hearty tweed-clad woman accompanied by her aged nurse Miss Withers (the final film role of Estelle Winwood) whom everyone initially mistakes for the fabled detective. 


The last of the detectives is Inspector Sidney Wang (based on Charlie Chan, created by Earl Derr Biggers). Now, here's where things get a bit tricky. Wang is played by Peter Sellers, heavily made-up to look more Oriental, and speaking in broken English and dispensing gnomic fortune-cookie-esque statements (without prepositions or articles). Thing is, Charlie Chan was also portrayed on screen by other Occidental actors (J. Carrol Naish, Sidney Toler, and Peter Ustinov among others) so it's perhaps less of an issue than it could be. But this is one performance that hasn't aged well, although we're not in Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-At-Tiffany's level of offensive. 


Rounding off the cast are Alec Guinness as blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum, Nancy Walker as the deaf and dumb maid Yetta, and writer Truman Capote taking a rare acting role as the mysterious Lionel Twain. Guinness' understated performance as the blind butler is hilarious, and it's a pure joy to see an actor usually associated with serious drama cutting loose. Walker's performance is great- she gives a great physical performance in her few scenes, with no dialogue. Capote's performance as the eccentric Twain is probably the weakest link in the film but, given that he's surrounded by actors of the calibre of Guinness, Smith, and Niven, can be excused. That said, Capote was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, in the Best Acting Debut In A Motion Picture- Male category (but he lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger). 

Simon's script is tight and has some amazing one-liners. The plot plays with the conventions of a murder mystery, including the outlandish motives people could have had to commit the murder, doors locked from the inside, hidden traps and so on. The solution to the murder makes absolutely no sense at all. None whatsoever. But that's the point. The denouement takes a metafictional jab at mystery writers who withhold important clues or information, or introduce characters at the last minute, or go for a twist in the tale just for the sake of it (at the expense of narrative cohesion or sense). Simon was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award for Best Comedy Written Directly For The Screen. 

Murder By Death is a perfect Sunday afternoon film. It's a wonderfully pleasant way to spend an hour and a half. Give it a try if you haven't before.

Tez

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Review: Avengers: Infinity War (UK Cert 12A)


SPOILER WARNING! This review discusses and/or mentions a few important plot points. If you would prefer not to have these spoiled, please stop reading now and come back once you've seen the film.

An epic cinematic event that's ten years in the making, Avengers: Infinity War pits the Earth's (and the galaxy's) greatest heroes against the Mad Titan Thanos who is in search of the six Infinity Gems which will give him power over all creation.  

Whilst #ThanosDemandsYourSilence (and for several very good reasons), there are some points about the film that can't really be discussed without spoilers. So, if you didn't notice the bold, italiced and underlined warning at the start of the article, here's your last chance to turn back. 

...

Still with us? OK. 

So directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War) ramp things up to eleven with the action sequences: the battles are epic, befitting a film of this magnitude. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Thor: The Dark World) deserve massive praise for delivering such a tightly-plotted, well-balanced script. Make no mistake, this film is packed. With over 30 main characters spanning the universe (literally and metaphorically), so much plate-spinning going on, it's a testament that no character feels short-changed or shoe-horned in. Every character on screen has a purpose: they're not just there for the 'hey guys, remember this one?' (which could easily have happened). There are a couple of notable omissions, but these are explained well. Each character also has their moment, which is also good. The humour of characters like Rocket, Thor, and Drax is there and is allowed to flow naturally, which is great. These moments of levity are needed as the drama- and there's a lot of it- unfolds. And not just drama- tragedy, too. 

In the first ten minutes of the film, two main characters are killed off, brutally, with no mercy. Thanos and the Black Order aren't messing around. There is a real sense of jeopardy in the film: no character is truly safe, and as things progress, the death toll starts to rise. And you care. You care about who lives and who dies. Marvel have taken the time to build these characters up, over multiple films spanning the last decade, so you have that emotional bond. There were more than a few gasps and sniffles as one particular character died. I even had a lump in my throat. 

If I were to discuss the performances, frankly, we'd be here until Avengers 4 came out. All performances across the board are great- some of the actors have been playing these roles for 10 years, so they know the characters inside out; others, such as Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland, have only played them for a short time, but they have struck upon the essence of their characters straight away-  but there is one performance that I do want to highlight in particular: Josh Brolin. 

Thanos is dangerously close to being the best villain MCU have put out. That's been a major criticism of the Marvel movies: the villains have sometimes just been caricatures or archetypes. The last few films have shown villains with nuance and with an understandable motive (Killmonger in Black Panther, for instance). Thanos continues that trend: his desire for balance- given what he saw on Titan- is understandable, although taken to extremis by the idea of being able to get rid of 50% of the population of the galaxy with a snap of his gauntleted fingers. He's not just mad; there's a recognisable (albeit twisted) logic to his plan. And whilst you don't sympathise or agree with him, you can at least see where he's coming from. This is paired by some absolutely sterling CG work (not just on Thanos but on all of the Black Order) and a dignified, stoic performance by Josh Brolin.  

Honestly, I could discuss and dissect the film for hours. This is a truly brilliant film. See it. See it again. See it on a big screen. It's just superb. 

Rating: 5 out of 5

Tez

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Mini-Countdown: 5 Favourite Disney Villain Songs


There's an old saying that 'the devil has the best tunes'. And whilst it's true that Disney has had more than its fair share of great songs, the bad guys definitely get some of the most memorable music in Disney history. So here's five of my favourites.



5. 'Trust In Me' (The Jungle Book)


The sinuous, hypnotic lullaby that the python Kaa uses to entrance his victims (including man-cub Mowgli) is calming and sinister at the same time. Also, there's a fantastic cover version of this song by Siouxsie And The Banshees 




4. 'The World's Greatest Criminal Mind' (Basil, The Great Mouse Detective)


Voiced with silky charm by the legend that is Vincent Price, Professor Ratigan is witty, urbane, and utterly convinced of his own superiority. There's a deliciously camp edge to Ratigan's paean to himself as he plots to take down Basil of Baker Street, and it's an absolute joy to watch and listen to. 


3. 'Be Prepared' (The Lion King)

  

In a similar vein to 'The World's Greatest Criminal Mind', Scar's mission statement of evil has a sly and knowing edge which Jeremy Irons plays to the hilt. It also provides a nicely cynical counterpoint against some of the cheesier songs in the soundtrack (I'm looking at you, 'I Just Can't Wait To Be King' and 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight?') 



2. 'Poor Unfortunate Souls' (The Little Mermaid)


When Ursula the Sea Witch proposes her nefarious trade to Ariel, the camp goes up to eleven as she sashays and flounces around her cave, enticing Ariel to take the devilish deal. It's unashamedly theatrical and simply divine.



1. 'Hellfire' (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame)


   

Quite possibly the messed-up song to feature in a Disney film, Frollo wrestles with his suppressed lust for Esmeralda, threatening to execute her unless she submits to him. It's incredibly dark and twisted and is, for me, the best Disney villain song around. Plus it gets bonus points for using the word 'licentious'. 


So which songs would make your Top 5? Would you place Dr. Facilier's creepy 'Friends On The Other Side' from The Princess And The Frog, or the fawning tribute that LeFou gives to 'Gaston' in Beauty And The Beast? Maybe Tamatoa's Bowie-inspired 'Shiny' from Moana is a great villain's song for you? Or, as it says in Tangled, does 'Mother Know Best'? 


Let us know in the comments!

Tez

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Milos Forman (1932-2018)


We at the Watchers were saddened to hear of the passing of film director Milos Forman, who passed away on 13th April 2018 at the age of 86.

He was born Jan Tomáš Forman in 1932 in Čáslav in what is now the Czech Republic. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Forman's mother and the man he believed to be his father were arrested and sent to concentration camps where they both died. Forman was raised by his uncles and family friends, but as an adult found out that his biological father was a Jewish architect. Forman went on to study screenwriting at the prestigious Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague. 

 

Along with filmmakers such as Elmar Klos, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec and Ján Kadá, Forman was a major figure in the artistic movement known as the Czech New Wave, which took place during the 1960s in Czechoslovakia to 'make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.' Two of Forman's Czech films- Loves Of A Blonde [Lásky jedné plavovlásky] (1965) and The Firemen's Ball [Hoří, má panenko] (1967)- were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. However, during the tumultuous events of 1968, Forman was in Paris, negotiating the production of his first American film. When his employer found out, Forman was promptly fired and he decided to move to America,  becoming a naturalised American citizen in 1977.

His first film in the US was Taking Off (1971), a comedy-drama about parents who discover their love of life again when their daughter runs away from home. Despite a critical panning and poor box-office receipts (Forman said he ended up owing Universal Pictures $500 because of it), Taking Off was nominated for six BAFTAs, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay (which Forman co-wrote). Forman was nominated for the Palme d'Or and the film won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Forman then contributed to the 1973 documentary Visions Of Eight, about the 1972 Munich Olympics. But the film that was about to send him into the stratosphere was just around the corner. 


That film was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975), a film adaptation of Ken Kesey's 1962 cult novel about the battle of wills between a criminal and the steely head nurse who runs the mental institution in which he has been committed. Starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher as Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, the film won six BAFTAs, six Golden Globes (winning every award it was nominated for), and five Oscars, becoming only the second film in Oscar history to win 'The Big Five' (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). This was the first of Forman's three nominations for the Best Director Oscar. 

Forman's next two films were a film adaptation of the cult 1960s Broadway musical Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981), an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's epic novel about the life of an uipper-class white family in early 1900s New York. Ragtime was nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Supporting Actor for Howard E. Rollins Jr and Best Supporting Actress for Elizabeth McGovern), and was the last film for James Cagney, who came out of a twenty-year retirement to play Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. Incidentally, Forman was not the original choice to direct Ragtime, however; he replaced Robert Altman in the role.  


In 1984, Forman directed Amadeus. Based on Peter Shaffer's play of the same name, about the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporary Antonio Salieri, the film starred Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri. Filmed in Prague, Forman shot scenes in the Count Nostitz Theatre where Don Giovanni and La Clemeza di Tito had debuted in the 1700s. Nominated for eleven Oscars, the film won eight, including Best Picture, Best Director for Forman (his second nomination) and Best Actor for Abraham. Whilst Hulce was also nominated for Best Actor for his broad, larger-than-life performance as the title character, it is Abraham's brooding, jealous turn as Salieri that truly impresses. It won four Golden Globes, four BAFTAs, and Forman won his second Directors' Guild Award too. Forman would later go on to say he was surprised at the success of the film, finding the response of the audience to be 'overwhelming'. 

After Amadeus, Forman's next project was Valmont (1989), starring Colin Firth, Annette Bening, and Meg Tilly. Based on the 1782 French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Valmont invariably suffered by comparison to Dangerous Liaisons (1988), a film released less than a year earlier and also based on the same novel. He was first choice of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and producer Irving Winkler to direct Basic Instinct (1992), and he was interested in doing so, but the production company had instead made a deal with Paul Verhoeven to direct instead. Similarly, Michael Crichton picked Forman to direct Disclosure (1994) but he subsequently left the project due to 'creative differences' 


Forman went from French literature to American pornography with his next film, The People Vs Larry Flynt (1996). A biopic of the outspoken publisher of Hustler Magazine, the film starred Woody Harrelson, Edward Norton, and Courtney Love. Harrelson was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Flynt, while Forman received his third Best Director nomination (but lost to Anthony Minghella for The English Patient), He did, however, win the Golden Globe for Best Director. His next film was another biopic of an eccentric American cultural figure. Man On The Moon (1999) tells the story of the life and career of comedian Andy Kaufman, best known for his appearances on Taxi and Saturday Night Live. While the film wasn't a commercial success- and had a mixed critical reaction- Jim Carrey's  performance as Kaufman was highly praised and he won a Best Actor Golden Globe. Forman's final English-language film was Goya's Ghosts (2006), a biopic of Spanish painter Francisco Goya, starring Stellan Skarsgard as Goya, with Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem, Randy Quaid and Michael Lonsdale in supporting roles.

As well as his incredible body of film work, Forman is a renowned academic, and was the professor emeritus of Columbia University's film division (having also worked as its co-chair with his former teacher František Daniel), He also occasionally worked as an actor, appearing in Heartburn (1986), New Year's Day (1989) and as Father Havel in Keeping The Faith (2000). There is also a cinema in his hometown of Čáslav which is named after him. 

A double Best Director Oscar winner, a theatre director, screenwriter, actor, and academic, Milos Forman was a man of many talents and a towering figure in the landscape of cinema. He will be missed. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Review: I, Tonya (UK Cert 15)


Most people around my age will remember what I, Tonya refers to as 'the incident'- the brutal attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The attack was arranged by the ex-husband of Kerrigan's skating rival Tonya Harding. Now, this unbelievable true-life story has been brought to the big screen in a raucous biopic, directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm, Lars And The Real Girl) and starring Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf Of Wall Street) as Harding. 

Harding is a fascinating figure who ended up being used as a punchline to many 1990s comedians. As far from the wholesome American family you can imagine, Harding's roughscrabble white trash upbringing, foul mouth and uncompromising attitude is anathema to the more genteel folk who hold the power in the figure-skating world. Emotionally and physically abused not only by her mother, but by her husband, Harding rose above it to become the first American woman to complete the technically challenging triple axel jump (an amazing feat, recreated by visual effects and shown lovingly in slow-mo). But her life changed forever when the attack on Kerrigan happened. Unaware that Kerrigan was going to be physically attacked, Harding nevertheless knew that there was going to be an attempt to mess with Kerrigan in order to give Harding an advantage. This is what ultimately does her in. 

Robbie's performance is great. She's really strong, never playing the victim (although Harding undoubtedly is, but probably wouldn't ever see herself as) and makes for an engaging, sympathetic lead. There's a poignant twist towards the end when Harding, about to banned from skating for life, begs the judge to send her to jail instead, and Robbie's vulnerability in that moment is just heartbreaking. 

Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Logan Lucky) plays Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. He could have just been easily played as a trailer-trash caricature, but Stan's performance makes him more sympathetic than perhaps a self-confessed wife-beater should be. He cuts a pathetic figure when he tries to get Harding back and it's his machinations that unwittingly spells the end for Harding's career, a fact that is acknowledged towards the end of the film. 

The star turn of the film, however, comes from the frankly brilliant Allison Janney (The Girl On The Train, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children) who steals the show as Tonya's foul-mouthed mother LaVona. Never without a cigarette or an obscenity on her lips, LaVona is a darkly comic mix of stage-mother and Svengali, pushing her daughter to be the best at any cost. Janney is a brilliant character actress and it's been great to see her get the recognition she deserves in this brash and out-there role. 

Other good performances come from Julianne Nicholson (Black Mass, August: Osage County) as Harding's skating coach Diane Rawlinson, who helps mentor her to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and attempts to smooth down some of Harding's rougher edges, whilst Paul Walter Hauser is a scream as Harding's bodyguard Shawn Eckhart, a deeply delusional man who believes he's some sort of security expert (but really isn't). He hires Shane Stant to attack Kerrigan, but Eckhart's braggadocios nature soon gets him into trouble. It's a wickedly funny turn that really wouldn't be out of place in a Coen Brothers film. 

Told in a mix of direct-to-camera interviews, plus acted-out scenes, there's a fair bit of fourth-wall breaking and a couple of deliciously OTT moments- such as Harding firing a rifle at Gillooly as he runs from the house, or Harding wielding a baseball bat and battering Kerrigan herself- which (as we are told) never happened. It's no coincidence that the film begins with a disclaimer that it's based on 'irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly'. There's an interesting discourse on 'the truth' throughout the film, with Harding dismissing it as 'there's no such thing as truth... everyone has their own truth and life just does whatever the f**k it wants.'

The script, by Steven Rogers, is tight, but there are some bits towards the end which feel a bit laboured, especially when Harding claims that being used as a punchline made her feel abused all over again; no doubt that's exactly what Harding felt, but the script comes across as a little over-earnest at that point. 

It's a decently made mockumentary-style biopic with several incredibly strong performances and an anarchic streak that's impossible to dislike.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Tez

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Sunset Boulevard (1950)


Currently on tour around the UK is a revival of the stage musical version of Sunset Boulevard. Starring musical theatre star Ria Jones and actor Danny Mac in the lead roles, the musical takes its inspiration from the 1950 black-and-white movie directed by Billy Wilder. 


Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. While on the run from people who want to repossess his car, Joe finds an old Hollywood mansion and meets a former silent movie actress, Norma Desmond, living in seclusion. But Norma has a plan to make her triumphant return to the screen with a self-penned screenplay about Salome, to be directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille. Flattering his way to becoming Norma's script doctor, the relationship between the older woman and the younger man begins to shift and the path is laid for tragedy...

The film is something of a poisoned Valentine to Hollywood and the movie business, exposing its cynicism and venality, its preference for youth and beauty, and the somewhat shady goings-on behind the scenes. It's also, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made, with two superlative performances by Gloria Swanson and William Holden as Norma and Joe.  

In some ways, Swanson's career echoed that of Norma Desmond. Swanson was a big star of the silent era and, at the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929, was one of the first Best Actress nominees (losing out to Janet Gaynor). However, she was one of the many silent stars that didn't make the transition to talkies. But, unlike Norma, Swanson didn't dwell on her glory days: she took to radio, stage, and eventually television work. Prior to Sunset Boulevard, Swanson hadn't appeared on film since 1941 and was initially unsure about auditioning the role but was encouraged by her friend, the film director George Cukor, who told her 'if they want you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests. If you don't, I will personally shoot you'. She auditioned... and the rest is movie history. Norma Desmond is an absolute gift of a part and Swanson's incredible performance has left an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape, and also forever tied her to the character. Norma is a woman full of contradictions; flighty, generous, obsessive, forthright. She is a tragic figure but never played as one, not even at the end. Sadly, Sunset Boulevard didn't provide the career renaissance Swanson hoped it would; while she was offered roles after the success of the film, they were almost always pale imitations of Norma Desmond. She eventually retired from film-making and concentrated on television work. She made her final film appearance in Airport 1975. 

However, the film did provide leading man William Holden with a much-needed career boost. After making a big impression with the aptly-named Golden Boy (1939), Holden languished in second-rate romantic comedies until the role of Joe Gillis came his way. Montgomery Clift was originally attached to the role but, due to some personal issues, he quit the production two weeks before filming started. Joe is a gem of a part too; as equally exploited as exploitative, he initially sees Norma as a meal ticket but starts to see her as something more than that. After Sunset Boulevard, Holden's career picked up- he won a Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 (1953), and picked up a further nomination for his roles in Network (1976). His filmography also went on to feature such films as The Country Girl (1954), The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and The Wild Bunch (1969). 

Erich Von Stroheim was a former director- having directed The Merry Widow (1925), The Wedding March (1928), and Clipped Wings (1933)- who turned to acting, and takes the role of Max Von Mayerling, Norma's butler. Towards the end of the film, it's revealed that Max used to be a film director- and was Norma's first husband. After Norma's career faltered due to the advent of the talkies, Max gave up film-making to look after her. Indeed, when Norma is showing one of her old films, footage from her performance in Queen Kelly (1929) is shown... which was directed by Von Stroheim! Despite being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, Von Stroheim was dismissive of his role, calling it 'that butler role'. The film wouldn't have such an emotional impact without his stoic, dignified turn. 

The last member of the main cast is Nancy Olson, who plays Betty Schaefer, a young script reader at Paramount who initially clashes with Joe over a spec script he'd written. Olson was a relative newcomer- Sunset Boulevard is only her second credited film appearance (after Canadian Pacific in 1949) but she more than holds her own against her more experienced cast-mates. The relationship that develops between Betty and Joe is tender and believable, which makes the events at the end even more poignant. Olson went on to appear opposite Jerry Lewis in The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son Of Flubber (1963) and reunited with co-star Swanson in Airport 1975

The film also features several cameo appearances by real-life people associated with the movie business. Director Cecil B. DeMille (The Greatest Show On Earth, The Ten Commandments) appears as himself, meeting Norma on the Paramount lot to discuss her Salome film while he was shooting Samson And Delilah (1949). He and Swanson worked together in the late 1910s and early 1920s and DeMille uses his term of endearment for Swanson- 'young fellow'- to Norma. Former silent movie stars H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton appear as Norma's bridge partners (dubbed 'the waxworks' by Joe), whilst former actress turned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (memorably played by Helen Mirren in Trumbo and Judy Davis in Feud: Bette And Joan) plays herself at the end, reporting on the tragedy at the house. 

Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Anna Q. Nilsson,
H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton appear as themselves.
The screenplay is particularly quote-worthy with several lines, such as the now-iconic 'I am big; It's the pictures that got small' and the killer final line- 'All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up'- entering the cultural consciousness. There's also some inventive camera-work at play too; the opening shot of the dead body floating in the pool was achieved by shooting the scene through a mirror at the bottom of the water tank which would- from the right angle- be able to show the body in the water, and the police and photographers standing at the pool's edge. In several scenes, cinematographer John F. Seitz sprinkled dust in the air to be caught in the lights to create atmosphere. A lot of the photos of the young Norma that are around the mansion are genuine publicity photos from Gloria Swanson's silent movie career. 

A body is found in the swimming pool... but whose is it?
The film was widely praised by critics when it was first released, and was approved of in some Hollywood circles: after a private screening, Barbara Stanwyck reputedly knelt before Swanson and kissed the hem of her gown. However, not everyone in Hollywood was as pleased as Stanwyck. Studio head Louis B. Mayer told Wilder he should be tarred, feathered, and horse-whipped for bringing the movie business into disrepute. Wilder's response was a terse, two-word one. Former silent movie stars Norma Shearer, Mae Murray, and Mary Pickford (whom Wilder and Brackett initially approached to play Norma, but soon realised their mistake as her discomfort over the story became more and more apparent as they discussed it with her) found the movie offensive. 

Composer Franz Waxman with his Oscar
Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Oscars- including Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Actor (Holden), Best Actress (Swanson), Best Supporting Actor (Von Stroheim), Best Supporting Actress (Olsen), Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography- and won three: Best Music, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Original Screenplay. This was also the last collaboration between Wilder and longtime screenwriting partner Charles Brackett. To the great surprise of many, Swanson didn't win the Oscar for her performance. She was up against some fierce competition, including the truly stellar performance by Bette Davis in All About Eve. With Davis' co-star Anne Baxter already nominated in the Best Actress category, it was felt this may have split the vote, allowing Swanson to win. However, in the end it was Judy Holliday who won for her role in Born Yesterday. In 1989, Sunset Boulevard was one of the first films to be selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry having been deemed 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'. 

The many faces of Norma Desmond
(Top L-R: Patti LuPone, Rita Moreno, Petula Clark, Glenn Close
Bottom L-R: Elaine Paige, Ria Jones, Betty Buckley, Diahann Carroll) 
The stage musical version- with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton- made its West End debut in 1993, with a Broadway debut in 1994. The role of Norma Desmond has become a choice role in musical theatre circles- getting two songs ('With One Look' and 'As If We Never Said Goodbye') which have become musical theatre standards- with Oscar-nominated actresses Diahann Caroll and Glenn Close, Oscar-winning actress Rita Moreno, singer Petula Clark, and musical theatre royalty Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige, and Betty Buckley all taking the lead role at various times. There have even been longstanding rumours that a film version of the stage musical will be made, with Glenn Close in talks to reprise her Tony-winning performance. 

But none of that would be possible without the 1950 original. It's a truly brilliant piece of film-making.

Tez

'All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up...'