Thursday, January 28, 2010


Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman, Jr. (authors), Billy Wilder (director),
Sunset Boulevard / 1950

There is perhaps no better example of a voice speaking from the dead than the man lying face down in the pool at the beginning of Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard (1950), a voice which, despite the murder of the body it inhabits, proceeds to “narrate” the rest of the movie.

Few films have attempted such audacious narrative stances—even Raymond Maté’s movie of the same year, D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival), in which a poisoned Edmond O’Brien (as Frank Bigelow) must convince the police of his murder before he actually dies, cannot compare with Wilder’s talking corpse. Sunset Boulevard continues, moreover, in a manner that alternates between film noir and the macabre and absurdist worksof Tod Browning two decades earlier. In between these extremes, writer-director Wilder, along with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr., conjure up fairly realist episodes of ordinary folk, fellow writers and other young people whose lives are subject—both financially and spiritually—to the whims of studio heads.

William Holden (the actor embodying the narrating corpse, Joe Gillis) portrays a near has-been scriptwriter, trotting out stale plots and story lines to fulfill his understandably cynical reaction to his chosen profession. Real-life MGM head Irving Thalberg once described writers as “necessary evils,” and Joe recognizes that audiences as well “don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” Having just been visited by creditors in search of his unpaid automobile he must also face the fact that he hasn’t long to survive in Hollywood. Perhaps he should return to the small town newspaper for which he previously worked, admitting defeat. As fellow scriptwriter Betty Schaefer says, “I’d always heard you had some talent. Joe’s answer: “That was last year. This year I’m trying to make a living.”

Having ditched his car in a nearby parking lot, Gillis attempts to make a get away until he can scare up enough cash to leave. In the process, however, he is spotted while driving down Sunset Boulevard by the creditors, and is forced to speed away in escape. The viewer hardly recovers from the implausible coincidence of Joe’s being discovered in a city of such vast spaces, when Wilder presents his character with the apparition, among some of the wealthiest properties in the world, of a seemingly abandoned mansion with an open garage perfect for his disappearance.* Thus begins an ongoing series of incredulous events that make this film such an improbable masterwork, a work that has often seemed to me, at least, far less appealing than most of Wilder’s other movies.

Watching the film this time around, however, I perceived that the seeming improbabilities and strange mix of genres of Sunset Boulevard are, in fact, intentional challenges to the credibility of the work.

As if the accident of the two previous incidents was not enough, for instance, Wilder ups the ante, so to speak, as his heroine Norma Desmond—whom we soon discover is a former great silent film star (played by the former great silent film star Gloria Swanson)—and her butler/former husband Max van Mayerling (performed by the great former director of Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, who, after Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg severely cut and reedited his last films, was never able to direct again) appear to have been awaiting Joe’s arrival: “What took you so long?” the imperious Desmond demands to know of Gillis. Before we even have time to recover from the multiple mirrored images of fiction and reality Wilder has set into play, Gillis is led upstairs to what appears to be a waiting corpse—“I'd like the coffin to be white, and I want it specially lined with satin. White... or pink. Maybe red! Bright flaming red! Let's make it gay!,” Desmond babbles—the body of which we soon after discover is her recently deceased chimpanzee. Without missing a beat, Joe parlays his mistaken identity into a job to rewrite Norma’s dreadful comeback script of Salome! It’s significant to note that absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco’s first play, The Bald Soprano, was first performed the very same year, and that his The Lesson and The Chairs appeared over the next two years! The events and interrelationships of the actors with their characters in Sunset Boulevard, if not the dialogue, seem to parallel, almost, the French playwright’s daffy thematics.

Indeed, Wilder created in Sunset Boulevard a drama that—just as von Stroheim’s slightly insane rendition of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue”—pulls out the stops. To Joe’s offhanded
dismissal of her attentions, for example, (“…I’m all wrong for you. You want a Valentino, somebody with polo ponies, a big shot.), Nora histrionically reacts: “What you’re trying to say is that you don’t want me to love you. Say it. Say it! [slaps him hard across the face].” The wild gestures and eye flutterings of Swanson’s Norma Desmond evidently resulted—according to a Paris Review interview with Wilder—in a “strong reaction,” as actress Barbara Stanwyck “went up and kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s robe, or dress, or whatever she was wearing” the night of the film’s preview. It is, in fact, quite extraordinary, a performance I cannot help but think of as what later would be described as “high camp.”

Throughout the film, Wilder and his fellow writers keep the story at high boil with their verbal wit: (Desmond: My astrologist has read my horoscope, he’s read DeMille’s horoscope. Gillis: Has he read the script?). But it is Wilder’s continued use of real individuals destroyed or ignored by Hollywood that lends the film another dimension that is both poignant and hilariously satiric: among Desmond’s regular visitors, characters Gillis refers to as her “waxworks,” are the lyricist and composer team Ray Evans and Joe Livingston, who throughout the late 1940s and 1950s wrote songs such as “Buttons and Bows,” “Mona Lisa” (the same year as Sunset Boulevard), “Que Sera Sera,” and “Tammy”; Swedish-born actor Anna Q. Nilsson, another true-life star of the silent films whose career went into sharp decline with the advent of the “talkies”; H. B. Warner, a silent film actor who performed Jesus Christ in Cecil DeMille’s 1927 epic King of Kings, and went on to play character roles in notable movies of the 1940s such as You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life; and the great Buster Keaton, one of the most renowned of silent film actors and directors, whose career was destroyed by his decision to sign on with MGM in 1928.**

Along with the appearance in the film of another of Swanson’s directors, Cecille DeMille—older than the supposedly agèd Swanson, actually only 52 at the time of filming***—and other cinematic incidents (at one point in the movie Norma and Joe watch one of her past films, actually a scene from Queen Kelly, the film from which Swanson [as co-producer, bankrolled by her then-lover Joseph P. Kennedy] fired von Stroheim, thus ending his career) that create a bizarre relationship of events past and present. In another such moment, Max, awaiting Norma’s return from her visit with DeMille to the car, points out a nearby studio building to Joe: “You see those offices up there? That was Madame’s dressing room, the whole row.” Gillis’ sardonic answer, “Didn’t leave much for Wallace Beery,” refers to the silent film star and director who, when purged by his studio upon the advent of talkies, was hired for MGM by the ubiquitous Thalberg. Beery was also Gloria Swanson’s first husband.

In short, as the spider-like Desmond weaves her web around the increasingly trapped young writer, Wilder and his co-writers weave their own web of relationships and circumstance around their actors and the fictional beings they portray, helping us to understand exactly how the studios entrapped and continued to hold their actors and actresses, gradually sucking them into an unreal world from which they could never again return to the normality of everyday life.
Gillis tries to recapture his artistic aspirations and his manhood through his innocent relationship with co-writer Betty Schaefer, but to do so he has to hide that friendship and later love from Norma, and, in turn, keep the fact of his life with Desmond from Betty. Ultimately, he has no choice but to reveal the brutal truth to both women: because of the web of lies he has lived he can offer little to either.
As he prepares to escape, the mad fury of Norma plays out like an operatic aria, absurd and unbelievable as all other events of the film. As Desmond’s previously unacknowledged madness is now manifested to the world, we watch in horror as she rouges her face while real-life ghoul Hedda Hopper (often called “the ferret” by Hollywood insiders for her tenaciously vicious attacks of actors, attempting to “out” Cary Grant and, soon after this film, naming names for the McCarthy committee) hovers in the background, after which Desmond morti-fyingly slinks down the staircase where Erich von Stroheim stand-in for Cecil DeMille, invisibly capturing her grand descent into hell.
Is it any wonder studio executives were outraged, Mayer loudly yammering at the movie’s screening, “We need to kick Wilder out of America if he’s going to bite the hand that feeds him.”? (Paris Review interview with Wilder)
Wilder and his co-writers have presented us in Sunset Boulevard a tragic satire about filmmaking—its writers, actors, and directors whose lives were destroyed by the Hollywood system—seemingly so exaggerated that, strangely enough, it reads as a somewhat credible depiction, as if that celluloid being had cried wolf so many times that we have no choice but to believe in the worst. But then that voice of the man lying face down in the pool begins to speak all over again and we recognize this is, after all, an artifice, another imitation of life.
*One is reminded here of the abandoned mansion in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 masterwork, Rebel without a Cause.

**Swanson had also invited William Haines to perform with her in the movie, but he declined. Haines, often described as the first openly gay Hollywood star, was a major silent film actor who, after his arrestment for picking up a sailor in L.A.’s Pershing Square, was given an ultimatum from studio head Louis B. Mayer to choose between a sham marriage (often called a “lavender” marriage) or his relationship with Jimmy Shields. Haines chose the latter, leaving filmmaking to become a designer for Hollywood clients such as Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. In 1936 he and his companion were assaulted by members of the White Legion, wearing hoods to hide their faces, who dragged the men from their home and beat them. Among his later clients were Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

***(First Assistant Director: [about Nora Desmond] She must be a million years old. Cecil DeMille: I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father.)

Los Angeles, April 9, 2008

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