#39

Sunset Blvd.
(United States, 1950)


Comments:
Many film buffs believe the 1940s and 1950s to be the golden era of cinema, and considering the titles that hail from those two decades, it's not hard to understand why. Although some of the films produced between 1941 and 1959 are quaint and dated by today's standards, two of the best of 1950 - All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. - are as brilliant in the 2000s as they were in the 50s. Good dialogue never goes out of style, and that's something both films have in common. They are also equally blessed with powerhouse female performances (Bette Davis in Eve, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.). And both films take viewers behind the scenes of different facets of the showbiz crystal (stage for Eve, movies for Sunset Blvd.). Both arrived in theaters the same year and battled for many of the same Oscars, and each has aged like a vintage wine. While I adore All About Eve, I am nevertheless more partial to Sunset Blvd., which is a little less static in its location and a little more grand in its presentation. Sunset Blvd. is a classic in every sense of the word. It's a timeless motion picture that finds adherents in each new generation of movie-goers (at least those that aren't put off by the film's black-and-white composition). A recent Broadway musical version is just another example of how easily this material lends itself to re-discovery and adaptation. There are many films on my Top 100 list that probably wouldn't make anyone else's. Sunset Blvd. is not one of those.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a B-movie writer who can't find enough work to keep his head above water. When repossessors arrive to take away his car, he leads them on a merry chase that ends with him pulling off the road and turning into the driveway of a crumbling old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. At first, Joe thinks the relic is deserted. After all, the swimming pool is empty, the tennis court is in disrepair, and the ostentatious house is well past its prime. But, upon further investigation, he discovers that it is inhabited by silent movie queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who is attended by her stoic, faithful butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Her only other companion, a chimpanzee, has just died. Norma, once an audience favorite, has been out of the spotlight for more than two decades, and now her sanity teeters on the brink. Joe's first impulse is to extricate himself from the situation quickly, but, when he senses there's money to be made, he devises a plan. Norma has a script she is readying to take to Cecil B. De Mille, but Joe can see at a glance that it's a disaster. For a fee, he offers to doctor it. With thoughts of a comeback firing her imagination, Norma agrees. But Joe's plans to take the screenplay back to his apartment are aborted when Norma insists that he move in with her. She views him as a suitable replacement for her deceased monkey. (Although Max sees him as more of a stray dog.) Soon, Joe is living the life of a kept man a gigolo who has his every need cared for. It's an existence he is comfortable with until Norma's demands upon his time and person become too extreme. He realizes he needs a way out when he finds himself attracted to a young would-be screenwriter, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who wants to co-write a script with him. But the moment the jealous Norma fears she may lose him, she resorts to a drastic, and melodramatic, action.

Capsule:
Sunset Blvd. is considered by some to be a black satire, by others to be film noir, and by others as a character-centered drama. To an extent, all of these categorizations are correct, since elements of the three are present in the text. What everyone can agree upon, however, is that this is the greatest film about Hollywood ever put on celluloid by Hollywood. The script shines with biting observations and memorable lines. (Who can ever forget the exchange between Joe and Norma, when he observes, "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." She bitterly retorts: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small.") The acting is flawless, with each actor fully inhabiting the skin of his or her character. And the camera work and music are effortlessly wed to the project's other aspects. Sunset Blvd. represents the center stone in Billy Wilder's glittering cinematic tiara.

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