The Watchers

The Watchers

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.


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

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