Movie Review By Monica Sullivan
One of the most difficult things to explain is a phenomena that is ground into our collective consciousness so deeply that it becomes an instant cliche. The shock of recognition is immediate, intense & irreversible. We can never go back to seeing the world as we did before. Prior to "Sunset Blvd.," only employees within the film industry knew the truth about stars like Norma Desmond. They were rich, isolated & unemployable, but why make a film about such a depressing subject? When Billy Wilder did make a film about the twilight world of Norma Desmond & her live-in lover Joe Gillis, Louis B. Mayer told Wilder that he'd disgraced the industry & should be run out of town. Wilder gave Mayer a two-word dismissal evocative of Mayer's dismissal from MGM the following year, after a 27 year reign. The future belonged to harshly critical mavericks like Wilder: Mayer was history.
Originally, Wilder intended for Joe's ghost to tell us the story of his wasted life from a slab in the mortuary, surrounded by corpses. Instead, we get the story from the bullet-riddled body in Norma's swimming pool. The body might have been played by Montgomery Clift, but the story of "Sunset Blvd." evidently hit too close to home: Clift was living with a fading star from the flapper era, Libby Holman, & he turned down the revealing role. William Holden had never played such a sleazy role as Joe Gillis. He knows that spoon feeding hope to a doomed & desperate woman is wrong, but he doesn't care. After all, Max the butler is doing the same thing & Max used to be a great director. So was the Oscar-nominated star who played Max Von Mayerling: Erich Von Stroheim. Von Stroheim, who once insisted that film extras wear meticulously accurate underwear, plays a supporting role with all the autocratic swagger he can muster, but Wilder's pitiless dialogue reveals the truth: Max was Madame Desmond's husband before he became her butler.
Youth is represented by Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer & Jack Webb as her fiance Artie Green. Betty & Artie are bursting with unjaded artistry & untested idealism, & are thus the perfect pigeons for a cynic who wants to forget that he's already sold his soul. The past is represented by glorified versions of Hedda Hopper & Cecil B. DeMille, who play themselves as savvy survivors, & by silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson & H.B. Warner, who appear as musty, if still breathing, waxworks at the altar of Gloria Swanson's Norma. The bright-eyed young girl who'd first bounced around a movie set in 1918 & would still be making movies over 65 years later, gives Norma a jolt of satire amidst the sparks of restless energy. Earlier choices for Norma included Mary Pickford (who could not have played Norma to save her soul) & Pola Negri (who might have been able to give Norma a uniquely exotic spin), but no one was better at capturing a woman who lived in the past than Swanson, who really didn't give a damn about the past. "Sunset Blvd." nurtured a new mythology about Hollywood which has persisted since its release in 1950. It fuels the content of tabloids & chat shows. Movie stars do not live happily every after in the year 2000. They can't gain a pound at the waist or lose a dime at the box office without whispers of their sad last days being routinely recorded with all the delicacy of an ambulance siren. Billy Wilder, who left Hitler's Germany to toil in the blinding California sun, came, saw & showed us ourself in striking & unforgettable ways. "Sunset Blvd." drives his indelible observations home.
© 2000 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 5/3/00
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