Blog Directory CineVerse: Tinseltown unmasked

Tinseltown unmasked

Friday, March 6, 2020

Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” can’t be denied as a near-perfect work of cinematic art, a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking genre hybrid that had the chutzpah to indict Hollywood’s hollow values and inability to adapt to the changing times. In honor of the 70th anniversary it celebrates in 2020, CineVerse took another look at this classic with fresh eyes this week (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film) in an attempt to answer key questions.

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s arguably the best film made by one of the great American directors, Billy Wilder, known for many masterpieces. This film ranks #16, Wilder’s highest-ranked movie, on the AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list.
  • It boasts a stellar combination of talents, including Wilder and Charles Brackett who wrote the Oscar-winning original screenplay together; Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim, who each received Academy Award nominations for their performance; a brooding, brilliant score by Franz Waxman, who earned Oscar gold for this music; and fantastic lighting and composition by cinematographer John Seitz. In all, the film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three, including Best Art Direction-Interior Design.
  • It’s regarded by many as the finest movie about Hollywood ever made. This is one of the first and greatest meta films created, in which the movie is self-reflexive about the making of motion pictures. We are given an insider’s look at how the industry works, Tinseltown’s winners and losers, and the cynicism inherent in this industry. Turner Classic Movies describes it as “one of the first serious treatments of life in Hollywood, coming at a time when most movies about movies were irony-free comedies and musicals.”
  • It’s also a picture that works across several genres and categories. It plays like a classic film noir, with Norma Desmond serving as a femme fatale that leads men to danger; it functions as a striking black comedy and self-reflexive satire on Hollywood; you could build a case that it works as a horror film, with Norma as a kind of vampire creature capable of insane violence; and it checks the box as a character-driven drama, too.

In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • Thanks to its meta approach that provides textual and subtextual commentary on the film industry, "Sunset Boulevard" likely inspired subsequent movies to adopt similar approaches, including the casting of actors and filmmakers who play themselves and riff on their personas. Without "Sunset Boulevard," you don’t have films like "The Bad and the Beautiful," "The Star," or "The Barefoot Contessa" (released just a few years later) that give us a continued inside look at the workings of Hollywood. Consider, too, how movies like Robert Altman’s "The Player," Spike Jonze’s "Being John Malkovitch," and "Wes Craven’s New Nightmare" feature actors and directors playing themselves to somewhat comedic effect. By casting the director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, playing themselves, and by using former actors and directors in roles that riff on their previous fame—like Stroheim as a washed-up prior director who in real life actually shot a movie starring Gloria Swanson, and silent comedy star Buster Keaton as an over-the-hill actor friend—authenticity and offbeat excitement were added to "Sunset Boulevard." And this picture was undoubtedly an influence on later films like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," "Day of the Locust," "Woman in the Dunes," and "Mulholland Drive."
  • The movie also seemed prescient in its focus on the dark side of fame and celebrity culture as well as celebrity crime. Norma killing Joe makes us think of the later murders associated with Robert Blake and O.J. Simpson, for example. And "Sunset Boulevard’s" cynical tone helps peel back the façade of the Hollywood dream factory, exposing its rotten underbelly and preoccupations with past glory.
  • It was also controversial for its depiction of an older rich woman essentially paying a man for companionship and, presumably, sex.
  • This film helped catapult Holden to stardom, too.

What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in "Sunset Boulevard"?

  • The dangers of living in the past and not evolving as a person or artist. We see how Norma is living in a delusional fantasy world and refuses to learn or accept the truth: that she is no longer in demand or attractive to audiences. She can’t escape the sins of pride, vanity, and obsession with self-image.
  • Determinism and dark fate. It’s crucial that the story begins at the end and is told in flashback, as many classic noirs are. We see that Joe is dead, and he’s ironically telling his story as a voiceover narrator from beyond the grave. This makes the viewer feel that the character’s fate is predestined—we know upfront how his luck will turn. Consider, too, how Max announces to Joe, a stranger who has wandered into Norma’s mansion, “Madame is waiting for you upstairs.” And reflect on how Joe keeps running into Betty, as if they’re star-crossed lovers destined to fall in love.
  • Guilt and manipulation. Recall how Joe rushes back to Norma’s side after he learns of her suicide attempt, feeling a sense of culpability and sympathy, and how Norma threatens to kill herself if he leaves her again.
  • The consequences of enabling. Max makes matters infinitely worse because he keeps feeding Norma’s ego with lies and faux attention from imagined fans and filmmakers.
  • There are no shortcuts to success: Hard work, real talent, and lots of luck are required. Ponder how Joe is down on his luck as a Hollywood writer but decides to take up Norma’s offer to live with him and write for her. Ultimately, he pays for this decision with his life.
  • Hollywood needs to reckon with its past and change with the times. This movie was made at a time when the film industry was challenged in several ways and the studio system was faltering. Studios were forced to sell off their owned theaters, deal with the HUAC proceedings and communist witch hunt, and compete with increased competition from television. The message here is that the old money and antiquated forces that built Hollywood (as exemplified by Norma and her mansion) could no longer prop up modern Tinseltown. The industry needed to roll with the changes. This movie also serves as a sad commentary on how quickly talent can become a disposable commodity, forgotten and ignored by the fickle public and big business in its greedy pursuit of profit.

What are this film’s greatest gifts to viewers?

  • The script by Wilder and Brackett alone makes this an all-time classic. "Sunset Boulevard" is chock full of all-time great scenes and quotable lines, from “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” to “Funny how gentle people get with you once you’re dead,” to “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.”
  • The contrast in the two main characters’ personalities (and the acting styles of Swanson versus Holden) makes for a fascinating study. Joe’s demeanor is cool and cynical, his mindset modern, and his mannerisms naturalistic. Norma’s movements, expressions, and speech, by contrast, are stylized, exaggerated, overdramatic and grandiose; she creates a grotesque and creepy impression that plays on the opposite spectrum.
  • The noir and horror elements also serve as a delicious juxtaposition to the comedic and satiric qualities infused in this movie. This genre mashup and disparate stew of styles create an unforgettable film experience among viewers who can appreciate a sharp wit and ironic tone.

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