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Sunset Blvd.
Drama, Film-Noir
IMDB rating:
Billy Wilder
William Holden as Joseph C. 'Joe' Gillis
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
Erich von Stroheim as Max Von Mayerling
Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer
Fred Clark as Sheldrake
Lloyd Gough as Morino
Jack Webb as Artie Green
Franklyn Farnum as Undertaker - Chimp's Funeral
Larry J. Blake as First Finance Man (as Larry Blake)
Charles Dayton as Second Finance Man
Hedda Hopper as Herself
Buster Keaton as Himself - Bridge Player
Anna Q. Nilsson as Herself - Bridge Player
H.B. Warner as Himself - Bridge Player
Storyline: The story, set in '50s Hollywood, focuses on Norma Desmond, a silent-screen goddess whose pathetic belief in her own indestructibility has turned her into a demented recluse. The crumbling Sunset Boulevard mansion where she lives with only her butler, Max who was once her director and husband has become her self-contained world. Norma dreams of a comeback to pictures and she begins a relationship with Joe Gillis, a small-time writer who becomes her lover, that will soon end with murder and total madness.
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Greatest star of them all?
I just watched SB again -- three times -- this past week, for perhaps the 100th time.

The film is virtually flawless, IMHO. (Except for the distracting shadow of the camera on William Holden's back as he moves to Norma's bed to wish her, "Happy New Year, Norma . . . ," a technical flaw I've never understood: why wasn't the move re-lit and re-shot, since everything else in the film is perfect?) But what continues to haunt me is Swanson's performance. Her silent-screen "theatricality" is always remarked upon. Yet there are several moments of utterly contemporary "naturalism" that show she knew exactly what she was doing as an actress (and Wilder, as director).

Her sweetness in her "bathing beauty" scene, where she recounts her days in the line with Marie Prevost and Mabel Normand, then leaps onto the sofa beside William Holden -- is so beguiling that you completely understand her sex appeal and warmth (for a moment). When she asks for his match (for a moustache for her Chaplin impression) and tells Holden to close his eyes, "Close 'em!" -- the "Close 'em!" is clearly an ad lib that is so real and intimate that it is almost instantly lost in the macabre sequence that follows -- all flashing eyes and volcanic eruption that C.B. DeMille himself hasn't phoned her.

Soon afterward, believing she will be making "Salome" for DeMille, there is the astonishing montage of Norma's marathon beauty treatments in preparation for her "return." Extreme closeups of Swanson's face, without makeup, reveal a still-youthful, lovely woman with flawless skin. Even under the magnifying glass, even with the "worried" expression of Norma Desmond, Swanson is stunningly beautiful for a few moments. Ironically, for the rest of the picture, she had to be made up to look older. Yet here we get a glimpse of the real Swanson at 50-whatever, and she looks merely a few years older than Holden.

Finally, the entire sequence when Holden returns to find Swanson phoning Betty Shaefer to tell her the truth about Joe Gillis, Swanson is in cold-cream and "wings" to smooth her cheeks and eyes -- an actress completely exposed and without vanity.

She plays the entire sequence "naturalistically" and in complete contrast to her theatrical, "I AM big. It's the pictures that got small," style.

Here, in her bed, caught by Holden, realizing she's going to lose him, she begs him, "Look at me!" The desperation and helplessness, the momentary admission of reality as Norma acknowledges her fears and insecurities and pleads with Holden, are heartbreaking. Swanson's playing in the scene is astonishingly courageous for any actress, and deeply true to the character.

Finally, as Joe packs to leave her and Swanson pleads with him to stay -- grabbing his luggage and begging, "What do you want? Money?" -- again her playing is ratcheting up emotionally into madness, yet is still as contemporary as any Stanislavski method.

Everyone tends to remember Swanson's over-the-top stylized performance: yet her total control as an actress, and her naturalistic moments and emotional nakedness, however fleeting, are something to behold.

Swanson's is truly one of the most astonishing performances on film. Her range here is jaw-dropping.

Watch her transitions in the Chaplin scene alone, in one continuous take, from heart-rending comedy to blind rage. No cutaways. Amazing.

I happened to see Swanson live at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood, on Vine, in the late sixties, in a stage show written especially for her, called "Reprise." This piece-of-fluff comedy about a famous movie star returning to her home town was hardly Tony-Award winning. But from her first entrance, you were in the presence of a great actress.

Barely five feet tall, she swept in and immediately established a bodily "line" that commanded attention from then on.

Her performance was delightful. Even more so when, after intermission, the second act began with her character giving a Q&A session at the local Rotary Club.

Swanson walked down steps and into the actual audience, greeting "old friends" (that night's audience members), reminiscing about her career -- even sitting in a man's lap and "teasing" him for not remembering when they "dated" -- as real film clips from her silents played on a giant screen onstage.

She was outrageous and girlish (she was approaching 70 at the time) and delightful, poking fun at herself and her "character's" career.

It was a brilliant bit of stagecraft and an impressive revelation of the "real" Gloria Swanson.

Audiences were captivated and irresistibly charmed by this still-stunning-looking yet down-to-earth "young fellow" -- over fifty years after she first took the world by storm.

Swanson was the antithesis of Norma Desmond. She was entrancing, magical, adorable, and everybody wanted to take her home.

Honestly, perhaps the only other two live theatrical performances I've ever seen (and I've seen hundreds) that could compare to Swanson's sheer talent and charisma were Maggie Smith in "Lettuce and Loveage" and Vanessa Redgrave in "Orpheus Descending." Believe it.

Not every actor understands the difference between film and stage performance, nor can every actor deliver that difference vocally and physically (this was WAY before the days of amplified body mikes). Swanson did.

I was in first grade when "Sunset Boulevard" was released. I was in my 20s when I saw Swanson onstage in "Reprise" in Hollywood.

You could still see the magic that had made her the global phenomenon she had been in silents. You could still see the technique that astounded audiences with "Sunset Boulevard" three decades later.

You could understand where Billy Wilder got his line: "She was the greatest star of them all." Every time I watch SB, I think: "She probably damned well was."
Better Late Than Never
Although this movie was made 8 years before I was, I saw it for the first time yesterday and I was blown away! I have spent my life missing what has just become one of my favorite movies of all time.

The acting was superb, the storyline riveting and the characters were people you could care about. Max was my personal favorite. There was a quiet, tragic dignity to him. I expected something to be revealed about him but was not prepared for the truth.

I've always liked William Holden but my experience with Gloria Swanson was limited to her brief role in "Airport 75". I will now look for more movies by her. What an expressive face.

It was fun to try to recognize some of the old time actors that were portraying themselves.

An all around excellent movie. One I truly regret having waited this long to see. But it is definitely a case of better late than never.
Review for Sunset Boulevard
A movie filled with heart-ache, love, tragedy, and ambition, Sunset Boulevard is one of the most interesting to have ever been on screen. It's plot is one of the rare ones that takes the viewer behind the scenes and into the Hollywood realm, albeit probably not painting the most accurate of pictures, but still adding to our, as viewers, limited knowledge of the Hollywood world. This movie is about desires and wants. There is the desire of the penniless writer to make it big and then there is the desire of the actress to know that she is still beautiful and wanted.

Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, is a glamorous film star whose career abruptly ends with the introduction of talking pictures. And sadly enough, she is caught in her memories of a time when she was viewed as beautiful and glamorous not realizing that the world around her is still moving on. In Norma's lifetime, being a film star was all about the cinematic gaze and how it showed her. There was no sound to tell if an actress was good or not. The camera can make or break a person. She knew what made her popular and that was being under the constant scrutiny of the camera, of having it always on her. Sadly, when that phase of her life ended, she didn't know what to do with herself. Most women are objectified on film by the camera, the director, the audience, etc. and most would try and distance themselves from that but oddly enough Norma wants to be surveyed. She wants to be scrutinized or praised or whatever else, as long as she is getting the attention she craves. I suppose Norma feels that this attention is what she needs to be happy. Attention and approval from others is what kept her going and without it she became a pitiful woman. And the littlest bit of approval she gets makes her feel that much more important but when its revealed the fan letters she receives are from her butler, once her husband, you can't help but feel sorry for her. Overall I think that you will love this movie. The cinematography is incredible and creates an amazing setting and atmoshpere. The movie shows the worst sides of what some view as the most glamorous lifestyle and way to live.
Greatness Boulevard.
Generally considered as Wilder's peak,it lives up to its reputation.Fifty years later,it remains the best movie about movie world,not only hollywoodian .One hundred times plagiarized,never surpassed. First of all,there 's the Swanson/Von Stroheim couple.He directed her in the famous "Queen Kelly"(another must of the silent movies).Von Stroheim was too ahead of his time,his movies scared the censors ,so he was not allowed to pursue a career that would have been stunning in the talkies.Here he became (supreme downfall),Swanson's butler ,while we see one of his former colleagues,Cecil B. De Mille,playing his own role,still directing.Von Stroheim's character is called "Max von Mayerling" ,probably one of Wilder's private jokes: Stroheim once said he was the son of a lady in waiting of Austrian Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) whose son Rudolph committed suicide in Mayerling!And Wilder was Austrian too. Swanson is impressive too.The comeback myth is the dream of every actor whose star is slowly but inexorably fading.that she continues viewing her old -and real!- triumphs like "Queen Kelly,that she's writing an extravaganza shows that her comeback desire has reached the point of no return and that her only place in this world is the asylum.What Swanson did not achieve in the movie,she did it for real:she really could come back(as Lilian Gish),her performance,particularly in the last scene ,has stood the test of time. Wilder as a scriptwriter outdoes himself here;lines like "I'm still big;it's the pictures that got small" could be pronounced today ! 25 years later,he would try to update "sunset blvd" with "Fedora":the latter suffered by comparison,but it's a very worthwhile work that every fan of this great director should see.
Living In The Past
The advent of the talkies created possibly the biggest-ever upheaval in the history of Hollywood and the impact it had on the careers of a large number of the industry's popular stars at that time was enormous. Many whose voices seemed unacceptable because they were incompatible with their image or because of a heavy foreign accent, found themselves out of work as did others who were simply unable to adapt to the demands of the new era. Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" provides a fascinating insight into some of the more ruthless and unpleasant facets of the Hollywood system in a style that's witty, cynical and realistic and also features a number of actors whose careers were profoundly affected by the arrival of the talkies.

Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling Hollywood screenwriter with more debts than he can handle becomes involved in a high-speed chase when he tries to avoid the attentions of a couple of guys who are intent on repossessing his car. When one of his tyres blows out, he swiftly turns into the driveway of a run down mansion and successfully evades his pursuers. After parking his vehicle in the garage, he's surprised that the occupants of the mansion seem to be expecting him. It soon transpires that they'd assumed that he was the mortician who was due to deliver a coffin in which the lady of the house's dead chimpanzee was to be buried. Joe recognises the lady as Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) a former silent movie star.

When Norma discovers that Joe's a writer, she seeks his opinion of a script she'd written for her comeback movie ("Salome") and then hires him to edit her work. In his financial circumstances the offer of this lucrative job is too good to refuse and at her request, he agrees to stay at her mansion to complete the task. Joe recognises that Norma is a delusional has-been who lives in the past and discovers that the fan mail she receives every week is actually written by her devoted butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim). The very wealthy Norma buys Joe expensive new suits and coats and together they watch her old movies a few times each week. Even more bizarrely, on New Year's Eve, she holds a party at which there's an orchestra but no other guests! Joe feels he needs to escape from Norma who's obviously fallen in love with him and so goes to a friend's party instead.

Artie Green (Jack Webb) agrees for Joe to stay over at his place and Joe soon gets into conversation with Artie's girlfriend, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen). Joe already knew Betty who worked as a script reader for Paramount and the two of them subsequently start to work together on one of Joe's unfinished scripts. When Norma discovers what's going on, she becomes incensed and determined to bring their association to an end.

The most striking feature of "Sunset Boulevard" is its sharp dialogue and numerous quotable lines which vary from the purely witty to the deeply sardonic. The fact that these lines are delivered by a screenwriter and a particularly flamboyant retired actress makes their exchanges seem perfectly credible as both characters would naturally have developed a way with words during their careers.

The film's opening scene in which Joe is seen dead and face down in Norma's swimming pool is brilliantly shot and the off-beat device of having a dead man narrating the story is typical of the cynicism and dark humour that runs through everything that follows. At this point, when objectively talking about himself, Joe in typical style remarks "the poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool".

The casting of Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim who both had careers in silent movies, invests the events depicted with a great deal of realism as do the cameos in which Cecil B DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton and others are featured. Shots of Paramount studios and Schwab's Drugstore and the inclusion of an excerpt from "Queen Kelly" (1929) in which Swanson starred and von Stroheim directed also blur the lines between fiction and reality and add greater authenticity to the whole production.

"Sunset Boulevard" focuses on some of the more unglamourous aspects of Hollywood and must've made uncomfortable viewing for some people in the industry at that time. Its blend of biting humour and tragedy is very effective and the performances of its exceptional cast are consistently good from start to finish.
Superb and disturbing
You know when occasionally you watch a film, and you think it sounds okay, but then it totally exceeds your expectations and you're just blown away by it? Well, Sunset Boulevard (aka Sunset Blvd.) was just such a film for me.

William Holden – who also narrates the film – plays Joe Gillis, a small-time screen writer, down on both money and luck; as we find out right at the beginning of the film, Gillis won't be alive by the end of it. He meets former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who cannot and will not accept the truth that her star has long since faded into obscurity and she has been all but forgotten by both the film industry, and movie-goers. Determined to have another hit film, she hires Joe to help her edit her self-penned script, but she soon becomes obsessed with him, and Joe finds himself less a guest, more a prisoner, at her dilapidated home, with only Norma and her mysterious butler Max for company.

As you may have guessed, I loved this film. The storyline is a caustic and witty dig at a fickle Hollywood. The fact that viewers are informed by Joe's voice-over right at the start of the film, that he will not survive to the end, fills the ensuing scenes with a bitter sense of doom, and the contrast between Joe the narrator, who knows his fate, and Joe the character who we see on camera, who is unaware of what will befall him, is very effective (A similar idea was used years later in American Beauty, also with excellent results, although Sunset Boulevard was, for me, a much better film.)

Gloria Swanson was excellent as Norma Desmond, and at times was difficult to watch. I disliked her character, but couldn't help feeling great sympathy for her. Deserted by her fans and her colleagues, she is losing her grip on reality. At times, she was manic and unpredictable; at other times, she showed tenderness and extreme vulnerability (the scene where she entertains Joe by dressing up as Charlie Chaplin is both sweet and disturbing, as her happy mood turns to anger). Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for her performance; the same year Bette Davis was nominated for her role in All About Eve – both lost out to Judy Holliday for her role in Born Yesterday, which also starred William Holden. He was also nominated for Sunset Boulevard.

William Holden shows his real talent for acting here. A not altogether likable character at the beginning of the film, he nevertheless gets the audience on side, as he and they come to realise the untenable situation in which he has found himself. He imbues his character with passion, tenderness, ruthlessness, and resignation – oh, and he's darkly funny too.

Eric von Stroheim is perfectly cast as Norma's taciturn and mysterious butler – this role could easily have been a caricature in different hands, but he plays the part brilliantly.

The main cast is rounded out by Nancy Olsen as Betty Schaefer, a young writer who wants Joe's help on a script; she is perfectly cast as a feisty but tender young woman who is dragged into Joe's nightmare world.

In short, my opinion for what it's worth, is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this film. It's gripping – I felt unable to turn my eyes away from the screen; it's sad, it's tragic, and it's bleakly funny. It was a real victory for director Billy Wilder, and it's the best film I've seen in a long time. Very highly recommended.
"I'm ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille"
Rumor has it that Gloria Swanson was absolutely devastated that she didn't win the Oscar for Sunset Boulevard. 1950 was an unusually tough year for competitors, with the statuette eventually going to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday.

Admittedly, Gloria is fantastic in this film - she's able to send up herself, while also scandalizing the business she was product of - but the acting chops must really go to William Holden, who provides the willful self-loathing thread that ties much of this noirish and twisted tale together.

Director by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard represents classic movie making at its peak. Set in Los Angeles, it's a dark, twisted, cynical tale of love, deceit, and opportunism. The film is all about Hollywood behind the scenes and how screenwriters, directors, and actors will sell themselves out for fame and fortune at a moments notice.

Spiritual and emotional emptiness, and the price of fame, greed, narcissism, and ambition is at the heart of this devilishly stylistic film, with the somber mood beginning almost immediately when a dead man is found floating facedown in a swimming pool.

The man is hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (a very sexy William Holden). All we know is that Joe was at the run-down mansion of deluded former silent-film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Through Joe's voice over narrative it soon becomes clear that he was somehow involved with the wealthy Norma.

Down on his luck, three months behind on his rent, and with his car about to be repossessed, Joe accidentally stumbles upon Norma's faded mansion while trying to escape the police. Norma initially mistakes Joe for a coffin-maker for her deceased pet monkey, but once she figures out that he's a screenwriter, she gets him to read one of the scripts she's been working on.

Norma is an insane and faded silent-film star, who is hoping against hope to make a comeback. She's bitterly resentful of the price the "talkies" have taken on her career, so now she soaks in her own misguided and imagined greatness, in profile with the flickering projector lighting her outline in the dark.

Joe is initially hesitant to help the glamorous woman, and then asks $500 a week for his writing services. But slowly we come to realize the contract is actually the other way around. In preparing for her return comeback, Norma quickly turns Joe into a pawn - or more to the point, a slave.

Joe becomes a virtual prisoner in her rundown mansion; the moment he leaves, she slits her wrists, forcing him to come back. With minimal resistance, Joe allows himself to settle into the life of a kept man, as Norma desperately showers him with gifts and fine clothing. The house butler, Max von Meyerling (Erich von Stroheim), grimly looks on, tending to Norma's demanding whims and tolerating Joe's disruptive presence.

Joe wobbles back and forth between heedless acceptance of his strange companionship with Norma and his half-hearted pursuit of a career. He sneaks away to collaborate on a project with Betty (Nancy Olson), a Paramount script reader who is engaged to Joe's best friend. Betty is gradually falling in love with Joe, but when Norma finds out, that he's been sneaking out to meet wit her, all hell breaks loose.

The self-loathing motif is rampant throughout Sunset Boulevard. Max completely does away with his self-respect, Joe hates himself for his unwillingness to commit to a career or love, and seems to sell himself out for money and clothes almost immediately, and Betty despises herself for falling in love with Joe while she's engaged to another.

Norma, despite her haughtiness, is the most blatant case of self-disgust. When she isn't raving about her greatness, she comes across as a frightened and tortured soul – a sad and lonely woman, who is not only remarkably self-delusional, but is also trying to grasp one last chance at happiness. She thinks so little of her current 50-year-old self that she no longer acknowledges the present.

Sunset Boulevard is a must see movie for cinema buffs. There are lots of treasures to be had here, including Nancy Olson's strangely under appreciated performance as Betty, whose misguided love for Joe spirals the film to its grisly conclusion. There's also the hilarious appearance of a skinny and madly grinning Jack Webb as a happy-go-lucky assistant director, and viewers will get a kick out of the excessive exuberance that Norma displays when she towels down a hunky and hairy-chested Joe at poolside.

The funniest scene in the movie is when Norma rolls on top of Joe while he is reclining on a couch, and then does an imitation of Charlie Chaplin in order to cheer him up; the scene is an uproarious mixture of the sad, the funny, and the pathetic.

Billy Wilder's accomplished direction is full of wide shots that capture the depressing set and brave close-ups of our anti-heroes. But in the end, Sunset Boulevard stands out, as one of the finest examples of the frenzied circus of obsession, fixation, and greed that is oftentimes symbolizes Hollywood. Mike Leonard September 05.
Glad to have found this gem!
Caught this earlier this month and what a great piece of classic cinema! A down-on-his-luck screenwriter, desperate for cash, is taken in by an aging film star who has a deal he couldn't refuse. Thus, begins this complex tale of love and desperation, courtesy of Billy Wilder and Co. Swanson is eerie and sympathetic in her portrayal of Norma Desmond. Everyone else is great, but it is Swanson who "grabs" the attention. Strongly recommened!
The ghosts of Hollywood's ravaged past...
Hack screenwriter chances upon mansion of a faded Hollywood silent screen star who 'hires' him to ghost-write her return project "Salome", but who really wants him for her lover. Poor Norma Desmond: she's 50 years old and over the hill! Literate, but queasy black comedy has a great script and majestic performances, but creeps its way to the depressingly inevitable. The palpable aroma of vintage cigarettes and the smell of rosy perfume hanging in the air permeates this incredible Billy Wilder film; yet, the deeper it crawls into its dark corner, the more repulsive it all seems. It can easily be called a masterpiece, but is it an entertaining movie? Great to see Hollywood circa 1950, with Schwab's Drug Store still there, but it's sad to think that even in 1950, stars were being discarded, replaced by the new and the younger, and even a star like Norma Desmond couldn't get a picture made. Thank goodness she had those oil wells in Bakersfield ("Pumping...pumping."). There's a lesson to be learned from the film: invest! *** from ****
Absolute Perfection
Sunset Blvd. is a terrifyingly realistic portrayal of a washed up movie silent screen star and her quest to rekindle her popularity... and a poor writer on the run from the police who gets involved with her. The story starts backwards: you see a man floating face down in the water, and so the story begins... how it all started.

Norma Desmond is a character that you hate, love and feel sorry for all at the same time... she is very selfish, self absorbed and needy. But I felt a strong pang of sympathy when Norma talks about her script for Salome... how she has such high hopes about her comeback. She just wants to be loved again. I could not imagine anyone else playing Norma Desmond.. Gloria Swanson plays it to perfection. William Holden is great also - and I didn't realize this until someone mentioned it to me, but playing such a casual, nonchalant character such as he did against such a strong character of Norma is quite challenging. He did it wonderfully and delivered the lines with ease.

After watching it the first time, I watched the bits I wasn't sure of - I was sure if I liked the lines the way they were delivered - and it grew on me. For example, I always imagined the magnificent last line delivered more slowly than Swanson did it... but as I watched it again, I began to like it more and more. Now that I have watched it twice, I cannot really find anything wrong with this movie. It has it all: drama, romance, two fantastic actors, comedy, emotions of sympathy, hate, greed, lust... I would say this one of the top 5 movies of all time, if not the top.

After I saw this for the first time, there was a wonderful feeling as if I had just seen a special bit of movie history... and I was a part of that history. I don't know how to explain it, but it was a great feeling that cannot be described. This can appeal to all ages, from 12 and upward's I'd say! A true Hollywood masterpiece - they don't make 'em like this anymore.
See Also
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