Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950): USA

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed at the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, CA.

  In the final collaborative effort between Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, comes a true work of art in Sunset Blvd.  A film as grandiose as the Desmond Estate, Wilder began his career in Hollywood as a writer.  He uses this dark satire to continually poke fun at Hollywood, its stars, and especially the writers.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is an out of work screenwriter “with a couple of B pictures to his credit.”  On the lam from having his car repossessed, he stumbles upon a grand mansion on Sunset Boulevard that appears unkempt and abandoned.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is the owner of the estate and a forgotten film star of the silver screen.  She lives alone, save for her devoted butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), who beckons to her every whim.

Norma is working on a script that contains hundreds of pages of scenes, placing her character in each scene – she is staging her own return to the big screen.

Gillis is offered the job of cleaning up, and trimming down Norma’s script, in exchange for room and board.  Since this includes caviar, champagne, and use of her elegant Isotta Fraschini, Gillis agrees, telling himself that “sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad, bad writing can be.”  As the two collaborate, the house is fixed up, the pool is filled, and the yard cleaned up – and also, Gillis is given expensive jewelry, a tailored wardrobe (including a vicuna topcoat), and conveniently moved from the guesthouse into the mansion, just next door to Norma.

Spoiled and bored with his surroundings, Joe yearns to socialize with a much younger crowd.  He seeks the companionship of his best friend’s girl, sweet natured Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen), which sends Norma into a tailspin.

Wit and cynicism are the driving force in the film, and Wilder keeps the momentum going throughout, from beginning to end.  Nominated for a copious amount of awards, Sunset Blvd. won the Oscar for Best Writing. 

 Although Gloria Swanson was competing against Bette Davis in All About Eve, the Best Actress Oscar shockingly went to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.  What’s up with this?  Swanson as Desmond, imitating Chaplin is absolutely brilliant, making  Holliday’s performance as Billie Dawn appear flat.

It was wonderful to watch one of my all time favorites up on the big screen, but such an iconic film like Sunset Blvd. really should have been screened at the classier Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Nancy Olsen introduced the film, and was lovely, articulate, and full of fascinating anecdotes.  The few minutes she was given to speak was simply not enough.  Many of us in the audience would have enjoyed hearing a tad more about Swanson, Holden, Wilder, and even Von Stroheim.

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