Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Down and Out in Beverly Hills: “Sunset Boulevard”

Sunset Blvd. is one of the most memorable thoroughfares in SoCal, winding graciously from the Pacific Ocean through the leafy residential neighborhoods of the very rich and on to the glitz of the Sunset Strip. And Sunset Blvd. is one of the most memorable movies ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system. Part of why it resonates is because director (and co-writer) Billy Wilder, after years of churning out stellar films like Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, knew everything about that system. His shelf full of Oscars and other awards gave him the confidence to bite the hand that had fed him nicely since he emigrated from Germany one step ahead of the Nazis in 1938. Before I watched the film again recently, I had forgotten all the little pokes Sunset Blvd. takes at studio bosses, like the producer who admits he turned down the chance to film Gone With the Wind because he figured no one cared about the Civil War. And then there’s the young director who’s so ignorant about the legendary silent star Norma Desmond that when she visits the Paramount lot he’s only interested in renting her vintage limo to use in his next picture.

 But if most studio types don’t come off well in Sunset Blvd., the film is fundamentally more interested in those at the very top and at the very bottom of the above-the-line food chain. At the top are the stars, those ethereal but rock-hard creatures so beloved by their public that they can get away with pretty much anything, including shrugging off those who helped them in their climb to success. One such is Norma Desmond (the unforgettable Gloria Swanson) , a silent-era queen of cinema who now employs the director who’d discovered her as a manservant in her crumbling Beverly Hills mansion. The fact that he also happens to be her former husband reminds us that stars feel entitled to use people and move on.

 One problem with stars, though: they generally have a lights-out date. They grow older and less beautiful: in Norma’s case the coming of talkies introduced an entirely different style of acting, one dependent as much on verbal dexterity as on facial expressions and pantomime. Starting in the 1930s the role of screenwriters changed too, with many bright young men (and a few women) imported from the east to add literate sophistication to studio films. That’s how former Dayton, Ohio newsman Joe Gillis (William Holden) showed up in SoCal, only to find himself trading his soul for the occasional studio paycheck. Here he is describing his most recent picture: “Last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.”  

Billy Wilder knew a thing or three about studio-mandated script changes, and about how writers in Hollywood both love and hate a system that abuses them without shame. He also, surely, knew something about faded stars. A current screenwriting student of mine, Paul Blyskal, commented recently about the film’s most famous Norma Desmond line: “I am big! It's the pictures that got small.” To Paul “the tone of the line is simple and proud. But it also resonates as deeply unhinged. And it contrasts beautifully with Joe Gillis' style of self-presentation. He is no less ambitious about his future, but his ambitions are more disguised and presented less confidently, buried under vacillations and self-deprecations, offered with the pretense that he doesn't really want what he wants. Norma Desmond isn't ashamed of what she wants.”





No comments:

Post a Comment