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Sunset Boulevard  

Billy Wilder made some great films throughout his career. I would personally pick Some Like It Hot and Stalag 17 as a couple of his very best. Sunset Boulevard is another great one.

The film stars William Holden, Gloria Swanson, and Erich Von Stroheim in the bizarre, satirical tale of the madness which exists beneath the Hollywood glamour machine. Holden is a cynical would-be screenwriter, with only a few B-movies to his credit, and who is now so low that he cannot even make payments for his car, which the dealers attempt to repossess, even if it means chasing him throughout Beverly Hills. During this chase, Holden hides out at what he thinks is an abandoned mansion, but is actually the home of a long-forgotten, formerly famous, silent star, Norma Desmond, and her butler. Desmond is a madwoman, who believes that she is still famous, and in fact is cooking up a comeback, with a screenplay she knows Cecil B. DeMille will direct. She forces Holden to stay and fix up the screenplay, which is of course impossible. The screenplay is a horrible, incohert piece of garbage, and his corrections can never satisfy her, since the purpose of the movie is to bask in her glorious image, not to tell a realistic story. The rest of the story details his inability to escape from this powerful, threatening presence, even with the introduction of another woman in his life, a young screenwriter from Paramount whom he eventually sneaks off to every evening to help with a screenplay.

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Norma Desmond is certainly crazy, but she can also be seen as a casuality of the ruthless business ethics of Hollywood. When the industry converted into sound, many careers were ruined, since the styles of silent pictures were abandoned by the studios to be replaced by the novelty of talking pictures. The world was not big enough for both sound and silence. Desmond rages on about this, saying that body language, faces, were all that needed to tell a story in her days. This may sound like egotism, but she is only telling the truth. She acted in an era which placed more emphasis on faces, and appearance, and overall glamour. The movies were more heightened and fantastical without words, and now that the pictures are filled with words, people like Desmond are replaced by a more common, worldly cinema, in her view. It is also telling that DeMille also makes an appearence in the film. I am recalling the sequence when Desmond actually does speak to him again. DeMille tries to comfort her; after all, he was her director in those days. Yet he really has no desire to make this movie, or to work with her, now that she is steeped in sadness and insanity. The impression seems to be that DeMille doesn`t care about her. Yet my new realization is that this sequence says just as much about DeMille`s status as it does Desmond`s, since he, too, appears to be just another director now, not a legend. Even if he wanted to hire Desmond and do her script, the odds would be slim that Paramount would bankroll the project.

Another swipe at Hollywood`s abandonment of the old players is in the casting. Gloria Swanson was a famous silent star, who did work with DeMille. Von Stronheim was a German silent director, best known for directing Greed, a film that the studio cut down from nine hours to two, and for acting in Jean Renoir`s Grand Illusion. As well, there are cameos by stars such as Buster Keaton, stars which Holden viciously refers to as "waxworks".

Yet Wilder doesn`t let anyone off easy. The implication is that Hollywood is filled with egos of all sorts, from Desmond, who seems to feed off of Holden, in order to regain her youth and her fame, to the butler, who allows Desmond to wallow in her delusions, and even Holden`s screenwriter, who could easily escape the pull of Desmond, yet sticks around, certainly because of the pay, and the chance that perhaps he will become famous in this town. And the ending seems to say that Hollywood`s pull on people is so great that noone can escape it even with their lives. This movie is certainly one of the best about the subject, and also one of Billy Wilder`s best.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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