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Drama, Film-Noir
IMDB rating:
Billy Wilder


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William Holden as Joseph C. 'Joe' Gillis
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
Erich von Stroheim as Max Von Mayerling
Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer
Fred Clark as Sheldrake
Lloyd Gough as Morino
Jack Webb as Artie Green
Franklyn Farnum as Undertaker - Chimp's Funeral
Larry J. Blake as First Finance Man (as Larry Blake)
Charles Dayton as Second Finance Man
Hedda Hopper as Herself
Buster Keaton as Himself - Bridge Player
Anna Q. Nilsson as Herself - Bridge Player
H.B. Warner as Himself - Bridge Player
Sunset Blvd. Storyline: The story, set in '50s Hollywood, focuses on Norma Desmond, a silent-screen goddess whose pathetic belief in her own indestructibility has turned her into a demented recluse. The crumbling Sunset Boulevard mansion where she lives with only her butler, Max who was once her director and husband has become her self-contained world. Norma dreams of a comeback to pictures and she begins a relationship with Joe Gillis, a small-time writer who becomes her lover, that will soon end with murder and total madness.
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The films that SHOULD have won Oscar for Best Picture: 1951
This was the first of Billy Wilder's work I've even seen, sure I've heard of him, just not seen any of his movies. Made in the fifty's "Sunset Blvd." is simply timeless & it's easy to see why this movie of a washed up writer/ turned gigolo to a washed-up has-been actress is rated so highly. A superb indictment of everything that's wrong and distasteful about Hollywood and probably even truer now that it actually was when it was made. This film is also crammed with in-jokes and references that practically beg for multiple viewings. The acting by everyone is perfect & this movie is such a wonder to behold.

DVD Extras: Audio commentary with author of "On Sunset Boulevard: The Life And Times Of Billy Wilder" Ed Sikov ; Three featureless ("The Making Of Sunset Boulevard"; "The Music Of Sundet Boulevard", and "Edith Head: The Paramount Years") ;Morgue prologue; "Hollywood Location" map;Photo galleries; Theatrical trailer

My Grade: A+
Greatest star of them all?
I just watched SB again -- three times -- this past week, for perhaps the 100th time.

The film is virtually flawless, IMHO. (Except for the distracting shadow of the camera on William Holden's back as he moves to Norma's bed to wish her, "Happy New Year, Norma . . . ," a technical flaw I've never understood: why wasn't the move re-lit and re-shot, since everything else in the film is perfect?) But what continues to haunt me is Swanson's performance. Her silent-screen "theatricality" is always remarked upon. Yet there are several moments of utterly contemporary "naturalism" that show she knew exactly what she was doing as an actress (and Wilder, as director).

Her sweetness in her "bathing beauty" scene, where she recounts her days in the line with Marie Prevost and Mabel Normand, then leaps onto the sofa beside William Holden -- is so beguiling that you completely understand her sex appeal and warmth (for a moment). When she asks for his match (for a moustache for her Chaplin impression) and tells Holden to close his eyes, "Close 'em!" -- the "Close 'em!" is clearly an ad lib that is so real and intimate that it is almost instantly lost in the macabre sequence that follows -- all flashing eyes and volcanic eruption that C.B. DeMille himself hasn't phoned her.

Soon afterward, believing she will be making "Salome" for DeMille, there is the astonishing montage of Norma's marathon beauty treatments in preparation for her "return." Extreme closeups of Swanson's face, without makeup, reveal a still-youthful, lovely woman with flawless skin. Even under the magnifying glass, even with the "worried" expression of Norma Desmond, Swanson is stunningly beautiful for a few moments. Ironically, for the rest of the picture, she had to be made up to look older. Yet here we get a glimpse of the real Swanson at 50-whatever, and she looks merely a few years older than Holden.

Finally, the entire sequence when Holden returns to find Swanson phoning Betty Shaefer to tell her the truth about Joe Gillis, Swanson is in cold-cream and "wings" to smooth her cheeks and eyes -- an actress completely exposed and without vanity.

She plays the entire sequence "naturalistically" and in complete contrast to her theatrical, "I AM big. It's the pictures that got small," style.

Here, in her bed, caught by Holden, realizing she's going to lose him, she begs him, "Look at me!" The desperation and helplessness, the momentary admission of reality as Norma acknowledges her fears and insecurities and pleads with Holden, are heartbreaking. Swanson's playing in the scene is astonishingly courageous for any actress, and deeply true to the character.

Finally, as Joe packs to leave her and Swanson pleads with him to stay -- grabbing his luggage and begging, "What do you want? Money?" -- again her playing is ratcheting up emotionally into madness, yet is still as contemporary as any Stanislavski method.

Everyone tends to remember Swanson's over-the-top stylized performance: yet her total control as an actress, and her naturalistic moments and emotional nakedness, however fleeting, are something to behold.

Swanson's is truly one of the most astonishing performances on film. Her range here is jaw-dropping.

Watch her transitions in the Chaplin scene alone, in one continuous take, from heart-rending comedy to blind rage. No cutaways. Amazing.

I happened to see Swanson live at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood, on Vine, in the late sixties, in a stage show written especially for her, called "Reprise." This piece-of-fluff comedy about a famous movie star returning to her home town was hardly Tony-Award winning. But from her first entrance, you were in the presence of a great actress.

Barely five feet tall, she swept in and immediately established a bodily "line" that commanded attention from then on.

Her performance was delightful. Even more so when, after intermission, the second act began with her character giving a Q&A session at the local Rotary Club.

Swanson walked down steps and into the actual audience, greeting "old friends" (that night's audience members), reminiscing about her career -- even sitting in a man's lap and "teasing" him for not remembering when they "dated" -- as real film clips from her silents played on a giant screen onstage.

She was outrageous and girlish (she was approaching 70 at the time) and delightful, poking fun at herself and her "character's" career.

It was a brilliant bit of stagecraft and an impressive revelation of the "real" Gloria Swanson.

Audiences were captivated and irresistibly charmed by this still-stunning-looking yet down-to-earth "young fellow" -- over fifty years after she first took the world by storm.

Swanson was the antithesis of Norma Desmond. She was entrancing, magical, adorable, and everybody wanted to take her home.

Honestly, perhaps the only other two live theatrical performances I've ever seen (and I've seen hundreds) that could compare to Swanson's sheer talent and charisma were Maggie Smith in "Lettuce and Loveage" and Vanessa Redgrave in "Orpheus Descending." Believe it.

Not every actor understands the difference between film and stage performance, nor can every actor deliver that difference vocally and physically (this was WAY before the days of amplified body mikes). Swanson did.

I was in first grade when "Sunset Boulevard" was released. I was in my 20s when I saw Swanson onstage in "Reprise" in Hollywood.

You could still see the magic that had made her the global phenomenon she had been in silents. You could still see the technique that astounded audiences with "Sunset Boulevard" three decades later.

You could understand where Billy Wilder got his line: "She was the greatest star of them all." Every time I watch SB, I think: "She probably damned well was."
A film that I would put in my Top 10 Best list.
I love this film and can't believe I never got around to reviewing it until now, as I've seen it many times. I think I just assumed that I'd written a review for it or neglected to do one since it already has so many good reviews. Regardless, it's one of the best films ever--and possibly the best film Hollywood has to offer--it's THAT good.

I think part of the reason I love this film so much is because it has perhaps the best opening scene in movie history. I adored the film's style and originality here. You hear William Holden narrating--narrating in a wonderfully cynical manner. And, as the camera pans down, you see a corpse floating in a pool. Suddenly, the camera is under water--and you see that the dead man is the narrator himself!! What an amazingly daring scene! And, to seemingly top it off, Norma Desmond's entrance is just sublime. But then you see that the film then works BACKWARD to explain how all this came to be--a truly wonderful style of storytelling! I could talk more about the film, but to me the beginning was THE film. Sure, Holden, Swanson and Von Stroheim were wonderful as well as Jack Webb in an interesting supporting role...but all you will probably remember is the introduction. And the directing and writing is wonderful...but you still keep coming back to the wonderful scene.

The bottom line is that all would-be film makers should be forced to watch this film and learn from it. And, if such a thing COULD be done, let's also force them to watch "12 Angry Men", De Sica's "Children Are Watching Us", Majidi's "The Color of Paradise", and.......
All is not as it seems in Hollywood
March 7, 2004

**** Excellent!

"Sunset Boulevard" ranks with "All About Eve" as one of the best written and best acted films of the 1950's. To me, 1950, ranks as high as the golden year of 1939 for Hollywood.

I have just seen "Sunset Boulevard" for the very first time. I was very favorably impressed. "Sunset Boulevard" is the inspiration for all other Hollywood inside story films that came after.

Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond who is a lonely insecure once famous silent film star living in isolation with her servant in a lavish, but neglected Hollywood mansion from the 1920's. William Holden plays the role of Joe Gillis, a down on his luck B film Hollywood writer who accidentally discovers her mansion. Erich Von Stroheim plays the loyal house servant Max Von Mayerling to Norma Desmond.

A combination film noir, satire with dark, cynical humor, "Sunset Boulevard" excels. Being narrated by a dead man is a nice dark touch. There are cameos of several famous silent film stars including Buster Keaton, who play themselves in the film. Most notably, Cecile B. DeMile plays himself, who directed Gloria Swanson (in real life) in some of her silent films.

The film has a romance substory that is done well. I believe this substory really serves as a distraction from the film's dark cynical tone.

Both "Sunset Boulevard" and "All About Eve" are two excellent films of the same year (1950). Both were nominated for Academy Awards in many categories including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Both films had similiar stories. To decide which film was the best film of 1950 was truly difficult and shows the folly of the Academy Awards. Both are excellent films (in different ways): most notably for writing and acting. "Sunset Boulevard" has the advantage of better cinematography for it's film noir, moody look and feel. "All About Eve" does have a "stagey" look and feel to it, using basic and simple cinematography. Both films excel with similiar stories, done with different tone and mood.

"Sunset Boulevard" stands the test of time as a classic film, perhaps better understood and appreciated by film buffs, nonetheless, one of Hollywood's best films.
Revisiting A Masterpiece.
After reading Wilder Times, one of the many biographies of Billy Wilder, just recently, I naturally revisted many of his films in the last few weeks. And today, I have just read of the death of the great Billy Wilder. This has prompted me to write my first review, on the IMDB, of my favourite of this man's long series of great films and screenplays.

Sunset Blvd is suspenseful, witty, and tragic. Brilliantly written and directed, it is a classic for many reasons, but most notably that it is possible to like the movie more each time with each viewing. It may not be possible to appreciate such a detailed and rich film in one viewing. Whether it be the real Hollywood stars in cameos(Buster Keaton, Cecil B. Demille etc), or the skillful casting of Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim, that adds such a grim reality to their, all ready, well written roles, to just how frank and bleakly honest this movie was for it's time, in it's portrayal of Hollywood.

For William Holden, a very handsome Hollywood leading man, to take on the role of a poor bitter writer,Joe Gillis, was, I consider a brave role, even by many of todays leading man standards. Gloria Swanson prevents the character of Norma becoming a ridiculous caricature and keeps her real and therefore tragic.(None the less, Ms Swanson also gives a famously delicious performance in this feisty role) And Nancy Olsen, who plays a very grounded and honest, Betty Schaefer, perfectly matches the unreality of the world of Norma Desmond.

Goodbye, Billy Wilder. You will be missed.

Better Late Than Never
Although this movie was made 8 years before I was, I saw it for the first time yesterday and I was blown away! I have spent my life missing what has just become one of my favorite movies of all time.

The acting was superb, the storyline riveting and the characters were people you could care about. Max was my personal favorite. There was a quiet, tragic dignity to him. I expected something to be revealed about him but was not prepared for the truth.

I've always liked William Holden but my experience with Gloria Swanson was limited to her brief role in "Airport 75". I will now look for more movies by her. What an expressive face.

It was fun to try to recognize some of the old time actors that were portraying themselves.

An all around excellent movie. One I truly regret having waited this long to see. But it is definitely a case of better late than never.
Dripping with Edgy Cynicism
Film Noir, as it was filmed in black and white in the late 40's, early 50's is divided into three distinct categories. For the lowbrow, there is the brilliant Detour, so primitive and shot so cheaply, yet delivering a massive result. Then there is The Big Heat with Glenn Ford, a middlebrow film with the dark shadows, tragedy, and cynicism of Noir. Finally, for the highbrows, we have Billy Wilder's finest film, a true landmark dripping with edgy cynicism by a man that lost his parents to the Holocaust.

In Sunset Boulevard, William Holden gives his finest performance. Holden is a very likable man and that comes through on the screen no matter which role he performs, but always that All-American persona, that likability leaks to the screen. Part of this quality is his obvious intelligence. As Norma Desmond's kept man, he knows it's wrong, at times it's downright creepy, but he works with Billy Wilder's vision and melds a bizarre group of Hollywood types into an indictment of the industry up to 1950.

Are exploitation, money grubbing, and the status quest pertaining only to the early era of Hollywood? I don't think so. Ha, ha, ask Jessica Simpson, Jana Jamison, Michael Jackson, adnauseam.

Gloria Swanson is a great actress. She lures Joe Gillis like a black widow spider. Her delirium is a cross between silent movie actress and Betty Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Perhaps Davis got the idea from Gloria's earlier film. Curiously, Betty's 1950 picture All About Eve won the Oscar. It is a fine film, but SB scared the studio heads, indeed horrified them, and the picture was passed over. Anyhow, this was a comeback for Swanson and she went for it. I don't know if she did a lot of work after this film, but it solidified her reputation as a Prima-Donna film actress. Her performance is unforgettable.

Also kudos for Erich Von Stroheim as Max, Nora's butler, ex-husband, and first director. Stroheim indeed was a fine silent film director and remarkable in Renoir's Grand Illusion. This fellow looks like he was born to wear the Kaiser's helmet.

Finally, Nancy Olsen, pulled from obscurity, a college girl from Wisconsin, she is lovely as Holden's inspiration, and love interest. Her wholesomeness certainly contrasted with all the other grubby Hollywood types in the film.

I have seen thousand's of films; many are of very high quality. I can't rattle them all off for you, but SB is in the top 25. Think about that!
The Hollywood Myth FOREVER Shattered !!!
Until 1950, American films were strictly entertainment, some deeper than others. Studio executives were very protective of image and star-making. In essence, everything seemed perfect. Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr. created a stunning work of art that splits the Hollywood sign in two and exposed a dream factory for what it really is: a struggle to both gain and keep notoriety in the limelight. "Norma Desmond" and "Joe Gillis" are at opposite ends of this warped Hollywood mindset, with Gillis, played by that most cynical of actors, William Holden trying to pay the rent and Norma (Gloria Swanson) living a lie as a silent queen whose star burned "10,000 midnights ago". How a picture with such a snide look at the industry could come out in 1950 is simply mind-boggling, considering some of the light fodder that came out of Hollywood at the time. It has inspired many modern day disciples such as Altman's THE PLAYER, and Sonnenfeld's GET SHORTY, both of which took their vicious, hilarious parodies to the jugular of the movie capital of the world. SUNSET BLVD is the father of all socially oriented pictures regarding the movies and is by far the best.

The images of this beautiful black and white powerhouse are fascinating and unforgettable: the dead writer floating in a pool, eyes wide open, looking right at us at the beginning; the eerie pipe organ that plays by the breeze in the middle of one of the most deep and dustiest sets ever; the funeral ceremony of the dead monkey in Norma's courtyard ("That must have been one important chimp. The grandson of King Kong perhaps." says Holden in a delightfully crisp and wise voice-over.) Holden pulls his car into a driveway off of the boulevard that will change his life forever. He is the emblem of the struggle to get notoriety. He has only a few B Movies to his credit. Swanson as Norma Desmond is the symbol of lost fame and has become the talk of legend. What is ironic about her character is that she may be playing herself in an odd way. She WAS an actual silent star whose career went down the tubes after the talkies came about. Her madness combined with Holden's last drop of naiveté combine to give us one of the most electrifying "give and take" between actors I've ever witnessed.

Both lead parts were passed over by several actors. Holden was eventually forced into it as a contract player. How could you pass on such a script? Even "wax figures" (as Holden calls them) Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson come to Norma's to play bridge, of course being Hollywood outcasts themselves, after the invention of sound in film. Some of the dialogue takes a swing at actual movies and people (GONE WITH THE WIND, Zanuck, Menjou). This must have brought the house down in Hollywood screening rooms throughout the town. Louis B. Mayer even condemned Billy Wilder for "ruining the industry". The film is sad and darkly humorous depicting the antics of Norma, who is quite insane, and Holden who is going along with what Norma is giving him, but has plans of his own. Another wax figure still alive and kicking in 1950 appears as himself in an important role. Cecil B. Demille, who once directed Norma/Gloria back in the silent heyday, tries to set her straight, telling her pictures have "changed". They had indeed, especially after this searing comment on celebrity status. I wonder if they knew what they were creating while making this gem.

Scenes are shot right on the lot of Paramount Studios (even the front gate), and Norma's mansion is an unforgettable piece of history and gloom with a floor that "Valentino once danced on." There is so much to discuss, but little to enlighten you on how great SUNSET BLVD is without you seeing it. Just two years later, films began to crop up with the same tainted view of Hollywood, most with varying degrees of deception. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, one of the all-time entertainments quietly had a nasty taste in its mouth regarding celebrity and the invention of sound movies. Watch these films closely and see the skeletons of the modern Hollywood bash films.

RATING: 10 of 10
Landmark film
Although my recent revisit to SUNSET BLVD. must have been close to the twentieth time I've seen it, I'm just as stunned and captivated by it as the first time I saw it. In SUNSET BLVD, everything just clicks, complete with all the now classic taglines; "It's not me that got small, it's the pictures that got smaller." "We didn't need dialog. We had faces then." "I'm ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille." I can't think of any other picture about Hollywood - or the world of film in general - that has achieved this unique self-reflective look at the film community. Ironically, none probably could have dreamed of the magnificent performance Gloria Swanson turned in. At barely 5 feet tall, she commands the screen like no-one else and really towers above them all as Norma Desmond, the aging, completely delusional film star from the silent era. Hard to imagine Gloria Swanson wasn't first choice to play the part of Norma Desmond with Pola Negri (too much Polish accent), Mae Murray, Mary Pickford (too sweet) and even Mae West all considered for the part of Norma Desmond.

The movie opens with the bullet-riddled body of a young man floating face down in the pool next to a mansion. Soon, the story is told with the brilliant device of a voice-over of a dead man, Joe Gilis (William Holden), recounting the events leading up to his death. A broke screenwriter, down on his luck and desperate to take on any job, he stumbles upon what looks like a deserted mansion, when he's hounded by some creditors. Soon, he's ordered into the house by a female voice that turns out to belong to legendary silent screen star Norma Desmond who retreated from the outside world, now living a lonely and isolated existence with her aging servant (Erich von Stroheim). After some lamenting the current state of the film industry, she offers Joe a job of doctoring her script for SALOME, which she plans as her comeback vehicle. Clearly this is never gonna happen, but Joe decides to take the job, and he money, but soon becomes a virtual prisoner of the actress's creepy past and increasingly delusional dreamworld.

Almost every sentence, remark, Swanson's antiques and postures have become part of our cinematic heritage now, we sometimes forget how delightfully crisp and clever the dialog was at the time, and still is. After the death of Norma Desmond's chimpanzee, Holden acidly remarks; "This must have been one important chimp. The grandson of King-Kong perhaps." "And then the rains came, over-sized, like everything else in California."

This film closed the door to the old Hollwyood-generation, opened one to the new and basically started a new era in self-conscious film-making and - in the process - reconciled the until then completely forgotten silent film stars. Of the three directors featured in the film, Cecil B. DeMille was still well respected and would make some of his greatest films in the years to come. Erich von Stroheim, now degraded to being Desmond's butler, was largely an outcast by then, just as the totally forgotten Buster Keaton who's allowed to play card games at Desmond's mansion once in a while. It's quite outstanding how the cynical Wilder achieves to really make us care about the characters, all of them, but especially Norma Desmond's, whose oblivious outlook on the world surrounding her and her own long since gone fame (Von Stroheim writes her fake fan letters) really makes you pity her fate.

With the right ingredients, the right script, the right casting, Wilder was able to achieve phenomenal results. Needless to say, he made a whole string of films now considered classics, but this is the pinnacle of his career and head and shoulders above any other self-reflective turn Hollywood embarked on in all the years to follow. If forced to make a shortlist of ten films I couldn't do without, this one's on it.

Camera Obscura --- 10/10
The end of one film era in a film about the end of another film era
With Sunset Boulevard film noir hit it's crescendo. The genre would linger on, but only as an echo of it's former self, like wind blowing through an old pipe organ. This story of a down on his luck Hollywood screenwriter and his peril fraught associations with a fading silent film star plotting her return to the big screen has all the things a noir fan loves; dark mysterious places, a near constant sense of looming danger, rapid and smart dialog and great narration by William Holden. But the film is about more than that. It is about the rough and perilous life that goes with any work in a business as tumultuous as Hollywood, and the unpredictable nature of celebrity. This is Hollywood shining a spotlight on itself and when the cameras aren't rolling, and the makeup isn't on, it can be a very ugly place indeed.
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