Americana Movie Month: "Sunset Blvd." Review

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Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, an ageing silent film queen, and William Holden as the struggling writer who is held in thrall by her madness, created two of the screen's most memorable characters in this 1950 drama film-noir. Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is the winner of three Academy Awards and four Golden Globes.
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Americana Movie Month: "Sunset Blvd." Review

-- Rating: Passed
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: August 10, 1950
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Genre: Drama/Film Noir

Billy Wilder spent years struggling to make it in Hollywood before becoming one of the best directors of all time. His work on films like "Sabrina" and "Some Like it Hot" came about because of the success that he found with "Sunset Blvd." By the beginning of the 1950s, most film fans no longer remembered the glory days of the silent film era, and in this film, Wilder hoped to remind them of what happened to some bygone stars of the screen.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, "Queen Kelly") is a former star of the silver screen. The actress was so famous during the silent film era that she began to think she was one of the greatest actresses of all time. She remains tucked inside her formerly gorgeous home on Sunset Boulevard, dreaming about her glory days and barely noticing that she no longer receives phone calls. The only person she relates to is Max (Erich von Stroheim, "The Wedding March"), and despite the great love they once shared when he served as her director, Max now finds himself stuck working as her butler.

When Norma decides that the time is right for a comeback, she enlists the help of Joe Gillis (William Holden, "The Bridge on the River Kwai"). Gillis has problems of his own, namely a lack of success in his writing career. After receiving yet another rejection from a studio, he stumbles across her crumbling home by accident. Norma asks him to write a new script that will showcase her talents again, and the two become lovers. After Gillis finds himself drawn to another woman, Norma descends further into her insanity.

Watching "Sunset Blvd." today, it's easy to see why this film gained so many Academy Award nominations in 1950. The Academy honored Wilder, Swanson, Holden, von Stroheim, and Nancy Olsen, the woman who played Gillis' love interest, with nominations. The film won awards for Best Music, Best Art Direction, and Best Writing, but it walked away without any wins for its director or actors, which is hard to believe.

Swanson was already a star when the film landed in theaters, but "Sunset Blvd." led to a resurgence in her career. It is almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role of Norma, a woman who is equal parts crazy and innocent. She truly believes that she is a star, and she thinks that she is only one role away from making her mark on Hollywood. Swanson infuses the role with a sweetness that shows her character is just a little girl at heart.

Norma doesn't question that a younger man like Gillis would love her, because she thinks that everyone loves her; however, she cannot open her eyes to the fact that her true love, Max, is still holding onto the idea of being with her again. When she gives her famous line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," some viewers might find it hard to believe Swanson was the third choice for the role. Wilder actually talked to Mae West and Mary Pickford before settling on her.

"Sunset Blvd." opens with a scene that no viewer will forget. Wilder manipulates the camera to show a body lying in a swimming pool and several vehicles arriving at the mansion to which the pool belongs. The voice-over narration only adds to the intensity of the scene, pulling viewers into the film as the narrator claims this is a true story and that he wants to explain what really happened before the rumors start swirling. The film then launches into the action, showing Gillis as he arrives at the mansion and begins his relationship with Norma.

Holden was the perfect choice for Gillis, though like Swanson, he wasn't the first name attached to the film. Montgomery Clift was the first choice for the role, and after that fell through, Wilder talked to Fred MacMurray before finally casting Holden. Gillis is a man caught between two worlds. Though he truly thinks he can create a script that showcases Norma's talents, he really just wants to be successful and find love with someone his own age. He manages to have convincing chemistry with both Olsen and Swanson, and his performance helps keep viewers interested in the film.

"Sunset Blvd." wouldn't be the same film without the work of von Stroheim. He and Swanson shared a tumultuous relationship offscreen that helped with their onscreen characters. While they were working on the 1929 film "Queen Kelly," Swanson fired von Stroheim from the film. Though the two later made up, they had a strong dislike for each other for several years, and their past history helps move the story forward.

Released more than sixty years ago, "Sunset Blvd." is one of the few films with true staying power. From stellar acting and an intriguing story to fantastic directing and interesting set decorations, every viewer will find something to appreciate about this film.

Rating: 4 out of 5