February 2015 Blind Spot: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

SunsetBlvdPosterAs the Oscar ceremony is still fresh in my head, I thought it’d be interesting to see this iconic film for this month’s Blindspot. It’s always fascinating to see a film about Hollywood and the narcissistic nature of that industry, and there’s not a better commentary of that than this timeless classic.

The story is told in a flashback, with the narrator telling his own story. As the film opens, the narrator’s fate is already revealed, I’m not going to say what happens just in case some of you still haven’t seen it. Let’s just say it instantly made me curious just why and how he got there. It’s a familiar story that’s superbly told. Two people on opposite spectrum met on a fateful day when a down-on-his-luck screenwriter had a flat tire whilst fleeing from repossession folks seeking his car. As luck would have it, Joe Gillis (William Holden) ends up in the mansion of a faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), immensely wealthy but desperate for a comeback. It’s a toxic relationship from the start, one that you know would not end well.

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Apparently director Billy Wilder came up with the story as he was inspired by those grand Hollywood houses in L.A. with former silent film stars still living in them. He wondered just how they spend their time and how they deal with losing their celebrity and box office appeal. Well, I’d imagine this story could’ve easily been a biopic.

It’s really quite a tragic story as it starts off as a desperate situation and it goes on a downward spiral from there. Neither Norma nor Joe is exactly the most likable people, they basically use each other for their own personal gain. But you can’t help being drawn to their twisted story and feel pity for them.

It’s a thought-provoking tale of how far fame could corrupt people and drive them into absolute madness and self-destruction. Joe might seem as if he was only a victim but he too was driven by the desire of living a good life even if it’s based on a lie. The strength of Sunset Blvd. isn’t so much the plot twist or mystery of what’s going to happen next, but in the character study and psychology of the story.

SunsetBlvd_Swanson_HoldenCasting wise, it’s absolutely spot on. I can’t imagine anyone else but Gloria Swanson in the role of Norma. According to Wiki, she shared many similarities with her character. Not only is she the same age as Norma (around 50 when she made this film) she was once a famous silent-screen star who lived extravagantly in a Sunset Blvd mansion. Unlike Norma though, Swanson wasn’t obsessed for a comeback, but surely she must’ve been able to relate well with the idea of losing one’s fame. She is deliriously creepy here, chewing the scenery every time she’s on screen.

William Holden fits nicely into the role of the desperate screenwriter and he certainly has that matinee-idol look for the part. He handles the disillusionment of his character well, and there’s such an apparent fear in his eyes when he realizes Norma was falling in love obsessed with him. His ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ expression when he’s looking all dapper in a custom-made tuxedo is palpable. His style of acting is very laid back here, I don’t know if that’s his style but it offers quite an amusing contrast to Swanson’s intense and decidedly over-the-top performance.

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But it’s the cameos that adds an extra dose of realism and amusement. Buster Keaton and a few other actual silent-stars of that era had a quick cameo in the card game scene in Norma’s mansion. But it’s the iconic filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille extended cameo that’s the real highlight. Mr. DeMille played himself working in Paramount Studio in what looks like to be The Ten Commandments set. It’s a key revelatory scene about Norma’s diva reputation and her inability to transition into talky pictures. But the moment people recognize who she was, it feeds into her obsession of fame and being the center of attention.

This is a good looking film with fabulous dramatic lighting and elaborate sets. The B&W, German-expressionist cinematography by John F. Seitz adds that noir touch. He worked with Wilder previously on Double Indemnity. But what’s even more memorable are those iconic quotes:

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!”

“All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,”

Those two from Norma are what people remember most, but I also love this one from Joe about the predicament of actresses that’s still being talked about today in contemporary Hollywood:

“There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.”

This film is quite a bold story to be told in that era as it doesn’t exactly paint the film industry in a flattering light. According to IMDb trivia, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer was upset by the film for that very reason. Big kudos to Billy Wilder for having the guts to do this, and for co-writing the marvelous script (with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.). Despite the tragic story, the film isn’t sullen or somber. It’s atmospheric and even eerie at times, but it also has some humorous moments and Holden’s narration has some snarky wit about it. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but certainly lots of moments that made you chuckle, especially that midnight chimp funeral scene. “It was all done with great dignity. He must have been a very important chimp, the great grandson of King Kong, maybe.” Ha!

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There’s a subplot of romance between Joe and script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), as the two end up secretly working together on a screenplay. The love story is perhaps what gave Joe back his conscience, if you will, though it’s a little too late. I have to mention the shadowy figure of Max (Erich von Stroheim), Norma’s loyal butler who’s key in keeping Norma’s delusion of grandeur alive years after her audience had left her. The revelation about his character took me by surprise, I think that was one of the few moments that really hit me out of left field.

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So they were turning after all, those cameras. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.

I’m glad I finally saw this iconic and timeless piece of cinema. As the end credits roll, I was mulling over that this film defies genre convention. It’s a film noir that’s also a dark comedy and psychological drama. I love how Wilder’s films always deal with the human condition. It transports you into another time and place, whilst at the same time make you ponder on the themes and symbolism that’s relatable to us, whether we want to admit it or not. You could consider this Billy Wilder‘s magnum opus that will stand the test of time.

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5Reels


2015BlindSpotCheck out my list of 2015 Blind Spot Films


Have you seen Sunset Blvd? Well, what did YOU think?

 

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50 thoughts on “February 2015 Blind Spot: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

  1. One of the all-time greats, for sure. I’ve always looked at this as comedic tragedy. Joe and Norma meeting the best and worst in the other. Each hero and villain in the piece. Both brought down by their meeting.

    1. Hi Michael! Yes indeed this is a masterpiece. You are so right that each is a hero AND a villain, what an astute observation! It’s a doomed union right from the start.

  2. Ahhh yes! Sunset Blvd. It’s funny that you should talk about it today. I saw this years ago and liked it but didn’t love it. Just recently I realized that I really need to rewatch it. And after reading your review I see that there are so many things I missed. I’m actually really excited to see it again. Great stuff Ruth!!!

    1. Hi Keith! I reckon this is a GREAT film to see multiple times, like Casablanca 😉 It’s just a rich and layered story that’s intriguing and thought-provoking. I actually changed my rating to 5/5 as I really can’t find a single thing wrong with it. I hope you would give it another shot.

  3. Tom

    Fascinating stuff Ruth. I’m so poorly experienced in older films, bit I’ll add this one to my long list, right behind Ten Commandments, Gone with the Wind, Rear Window, Rope, Metropolis, and a few others I’m too embarrassed to mention. Lol!

    1. Hello Tom! No problem man, I am too that’s why I signed up for this Blindspot series so I can catch up on classic films. Haven’t seen Metropolis either, that’ll be on my my next year’s Blindspot!

  4. Marvelous job, Ruth! The balance is superb in the film–Wilder is at his best. I feel so for her even after it’s clear she’s manipulating him. Ah, but then, he’s manipulating her. They are perfect together.

    1. Hi ya Cindy! I can’t believe it took me so long to finally see this. Wilder is a cinematic genius, amazing how he came up w/ this story himself. Btw, Holden was so gorgeous here, esp in that New Year’s Eve scene when he’s wearing that tux. Yowza 😉

  5. Nice write up of a classic Ruth! Great choice for a Blindspot 🙂 I’ve seen this a couple times but I’ve never reviewed it myself… I need to fix that one of these days. This movie has always creeped me out and it’s great because of that! Swanson and Stroheim are tragic figures but also a bit terrifying. Also you’re absolutely right to point out the dialogue; it’s wonderful! I love All About Eve but I still think this should have won (if we’re talking Oscars ha ha).

    1. Thanks Melissa! Swanson is sooo creepy here and so is Max though he became less so the more we knew about who he really was. WOW I didn’t know it was up against All About Eve, I gave that one a full 5/5 stars too!

  6. Great film, just watched it again recently after seeing the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical. While the stage version is an interesting interpretation it has nothing on the movie. Swanson and Holden’s casting is so perfect it’s seems incredible they weren’t the first choice. Hard to imagine Mae West and Montgomery Clift, Wilder’s initial preferences, in those parts. Sometimes things fall in to place.

    You mentioned that this could be a biopic which is sadly true. I can think of two silent stars that ended up living in an illusory world. Mae Murray, who ironically worked with Von Stroheim in one of his major opuses “The Merry Widow”, ended up indigent and delusional-the name of her biography “The Self-Enchanted”. The other is Mary Miles Minter whose career was destroyed by the scandal of the William Desmond Taylor murder and her involvement therein. She ended a reclusive shut-in writing nonsensical poetry behind closed drapes. The whole story is laid out in a fascinating book called “A Cast of Killers” that looks at the whole serpentine case.

    1. Hello Joel, what a fantastic comment, thank you! I totally forgot there’s a stage version of Sunset Blvd, I definitely want to check that out now. I could see the story working well on stage. Yeah, I can’t imagine Mae West and Montgomery Clift in those roles either. I did like Clift in The Heiress but he’s soooo good looking it’s actually distracting LOL.

      You have so much knowledge of classic films! Wow that’s some interesting trivia about the *real life* stories of those silent stars, I guess sometimes reality can be more fascinating than fiction!

  7. Wonderful review Ruth. Sadly I saw this one so long ago. But the quotes provided in your review are just small examples of the film’s brilliance.

    Strangely enough – casting Swanson could not have been a bolder stroke. She did a feature film in 1934, then her next was in 1941, then she did this one in 1950. She was just 51 when she made Sunset Boulevard but she had only done two feature films in the 16 years preceding this one.

    1. Hello there Mike! I’ve heard those quotes many times before, it’s nice to be able to see it in context. Yeah, the similarities between Swanson and her character is quite staggering, but fortunately in real life she’s not as psychotic as Desmond!

  8. Great film. One of my past Blind Spots that I love so much. I’m going to do more Billy Wilder films throughout the year. Notably his stuff in the 1950s and early 60s.

  9. Stu

    Funny how we were talking about a similar subject with regard to recent Best Picture winners…this is proof that the trend goes way back, I guess. Sadly this is one that I have never seen so I can’t really add anything of note but I enjoyed reading!

    1. Hi Stu! Yeah there are a number of films about Hollywood in the past, it’s a popular subject which ironically is proof about the industry’s own narcissism, ahah. It’s a fabulous film tho, hope you see it soon!

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  11. I greatly appreciate what Gloria Swanson did in this movie. It’s one of the most memorable performances of all-time. That said, I’ve never been in love with this one the way everyone is. However, you’ve done a great job with this post and I’m willing to revisit it.

    1. Hi Dell! I agree Swanson was iconic in her portrayal of Desmond, but there are lots of things to appreciate here. I might revisit it years from now and see how I’d feel about it then.

  12. Irene McKenna

    This sounds like something I need to watch soon, and I love what you said about the German expressionist style. Great review!

  13. PrairieGirl

    Flixy, OMG! It’s fantastic you finally saw SB! I haven’t even read your review yet, I just scrambled right to down to see how many reels you gave it and was pleasantly surprised to see five. Now I don’t feel so bad about needling you to see it ;-). I’ve seen it several times, but it’s one that can be watched again and again. Now, off to read the post!

    1. Hi Becky! Ahah, love your enthusiasm for this film. It is a masterpiece and totally lived up to all the hype. I really need to see more William Holden movies 😉

  14. Actually the casting of von Stroheim was just as spot on as Swanson’s. He was a huge director, producer and star of his own films in the 1920s (i.e. Foolish Wives, Greed, The Wedding March, etc.). In 1929 he started another epic titled Queen Kelly, but the studio took it away from him and it was never finished. It pretty much destroyed his career as a director. Guess who it starred and who was a producer on it? Gloria Swanson.

  15. I watched Sunset Blvd. in one of my classes. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the movie but I guess I can see why people like it. Personally, I found the choice to have the story be narrated by a dead man to be somewhat jarring and confusing. I mean, if he’s dead, how is he telling the story. Maybe it would have made more sense if the movie had opened with him being found in critical condition and then he related his story in the hospital, I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure what it was, but something about this film never quite worked for me.

    The odd thing is that I happen to know that Sunset Blvd. is a personal favorite of one of my favorite directors, David Lynch. Watching Sunset Bvlvd. it’s not hard to see how much it influenced his later work (I suspect it’s a little more than just a coincidence that the minor character of Gordon Cole in this film shares his name with a character played by Lynch himself in Twin Peaks), though most notably Mulholland Dr. It’s not hard to spot the similarities, right down to naming the movie after a street in Hollywood and using a road sign in place of a title card during the opening credits (http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-G_X9rJDtH8g/VA-NDfKttVI/AAAAAAAAE1s/hEhzHyN1Dsg/s1600/mulholland-dr-title-screenshot__span.jpg). There’s even a major character named Betty who is trying to break into the film business and gets mixed up in a complicated romantic affair. It’s weird, I love Lynch’s work but can’t seem to get into anything that inspired him. I have similar feelings about Fellini, I still don’t understand it all.

    1. Hello John! Thanks for the insightful comment. I can see that about the narration, it is a bit odd that a dead man is narrating it and at times I wonder if I’d have liked it better NOT knowing about his fate so early in the film.

      I didn’t know it was Lynch’s favorite film, but I haven’t seen Mulholland Dr yet. I should check that out at some point. Even from that title card I can see the resemblance. I’m not familiar w/ Fellini, I have to put 8-1/2 in my next year’s Blindspot list.

  16. Great read Ruth! 🙂 This just missed out on being on my own Blindspot list, as after loving Maps To The Stars I read that this was the movie to see if I liked ‘Maps’. After reading this, I think I’ll make this an ‘unofficial’ blindspot title ;D

    cheers

      1. Yeah people walked outta the theatrer in disgust, it was pretty funny. I loved it. Dunno if he was inspired by it (plus its based on an old screenplay by another bloke) but cos its sorta a Hollywood satire, among many other things, I was told I should check this one out. So I think I shall 😀

  17. Wonderful review! So glad you loved this, Ruth. I love everything about this movie, especially the dialogue, performances and atmosphere. At one point, it was my favorite film. I really need to rewatch it, as it’s been years since I last saw it.

    1. Thanks Josh! I’m glad I love it too, I was a bit worried it wouldn’t live up to my lofty expectations based on the high praises for this film, but it really was fantastic.

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