Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Stars Shine on Sunset Boulevard

For the boys and ghouls among us, an alive-and-kicking organization called Cinespia presents classic Hollywood movies projected against a mausoleum wall on the grounds of the Hollywood Forever memorial park. It’s a weekly event staged during L.A.’s spring and summer nights. The series started up in 2002: now on Saturday evenings some 3500 patrons crowd onto the hallowed Douglas Fairbanks lawn—blankets, picnic hampers, candles, and bottles of wine in tow—to enjoy the best of Hollywood oldies.

Labor Day weekend’s offering was so absolutely well suited to its locale that Cinespia sent out a special email notice: “The legendary film about the dark side of fame comes to Cinespia. A down-on-his-luck screenwriter stumbles upon a mysterious mansion on Sunset Blvd and enters a dark fairytale that could only be told in Hollywood. SUNSET BOULEVARD is brilliant, compelling and downright terrifying. [Fading star Norma Desmond] is played to perfection by Gloria Swanson in one of the most chilling performances in cinema.”

Is it fair to call Sunset Boulevard, as Cinespia suggests, “the greatest cemetery screening of them all”? This can be argued (The Night of the Living Dead, for one, is a pretty apt movie to show in a graveyard). But no one can deny that this location, right in the heart of old Hollywood, is hugely resonant when it comes to this particular movie. Here’s the Cinespia email again-- “You’ve never seen SUNSET BOULEVARD like this: next to the legendary Paramount Studios lot, where Norma Desmond plans her final comeback, by the resting place of director Cecil B. DeMille, who [inspires] her haunting close up, and the tombs of Valentino, Fairbanks and the stars of Norma’s milieu.” 
I wasn’t able to attend the Cinespia screening, but the hue and cry made me revisit the film on my own. It’s always surprising to recall that Billy Wilder, best known for such witty romps as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, was the co-writer and director of Sunset Boulevard. It’s a tragic tale of desperation, delusion, and death, but it’s also at times mordantly funny, especially in its view of the life of a Hollywood screenwriter. Here’s William Holden’s Joe Gillis describing his failed career as a crafter of screenplays: "The 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."  And when a fresh-faced studio reader (Nancy Olson’s Betty) says to Joe, “I’'d always heard that you had some talent, "  he shoots back, “That was last year. This year I'm trying to make a living." 

Joe’s sardonic words are a prime encapsulation of what Hollywood writers go through. By my own day, though, one aspect of the story had changed forever. Joe and his colleagues work (when they work at all) for the big studios.  Yes, they’re at the beck and call of honchos like De Mille (who plays a featured role in the film), but such men have the ability to make things happen. Betty, a lowly reader who wants to move up in the screenwriting ranks, has a steady job and a pretty cushy office on the Paramount lot. And when an old star like Norma Desmond happens onto a set, it’s like a family reunion. Today’s Hollywood is a great deal more decentralized. The bigshot decision-makers come and go so quickly that few remember their names.  When a legend is ready for her close-up, it’s hard to think of anybody who’d have the courtesy to put her in the spotlight one last time. 

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