Sunset Boulevard [Blu-Ray]
Director : Billy Wilder
Screenplay : Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1950
Stars : William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Fred Clark (Sheldrake), Lloyd Gough (Morino), Jack Webb (Artie Green), Franklyn Farnum (Undertaker)
On the short list of great Hollywood films about Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is the greatest. Produced in 1949 and released in 1950, just as television was beginning its incursion into American popular culture and only two years after the Paramount decree had ended the vaunted Studio Era and thrown the industry into turmoil, Sunset Boulevard is a stunning examination of the fickle nature of fame, the tear between maintaining one’s honor and being able to pay the rent, and, of course, the changing nature of the movies themselves. When told that she was once “big,” Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent film diva at the center of the film, famously declares without missing a beat, “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.”
Maybe so, but Sunset Boulevard is not small. Bold, glorious melodramatic, darkly comedic, and incisively cutting when it wants to be, this is a masterpiece of large-scale introspection, a then-unprecedented throwing back of the velvet curtain to reveal the exciting, but often sordid and dehumanizing, mechanics that run the Hollywood dream factory. In today’s age, we’re used to Hollywood self-satirizing, but in 1950 it was unheard of for a filmmaker to explore the dark side of his own industry. You can almost feel Hollywood’s turmoil pulsating at the edges of the screen, and Sunset Boulevard plays like a wake-up call, using the split between silent and sound features as a means to examine the crisis stirred up by the end of the Studio Era. Could the movies survive, or would they all turn into Norma Desmonds?
Norma Desmond. For those who have seen the film, that name alone conjures up a sharp image, which is perhaps the best thing one can say about an unforgettable character. As portrayed by Gloria Swanson, herself a legendary silent movie star who hadn’t had a consistent career in two decades, Norma is a great, seething contradiction of a woman, at once glamorously beautiful and monstrously ugly. It is testament to both Swanson’s immaculate, just-this-side-of-over-the-top performance and the pitch-perfect script by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr. that our feelings for Norma change from scene to scene, moment to moment. Dark, complex, conceited, and, at times, painfully pathetic in her willful self-delusions of grandiosity, Norma Desmond is both a moving human character and an archetype, a symbol of all those who continue to wait insolently by the tracks even though their train has left the station. She is a woman whose day has past, but that is not her tragedy. Rather, her tragedy is her inability to accept it.
Into the world of Norma Desmond comes Joe Gillis (William Holden), a young, handsome down-on-his-luck screenwriter who hasn’t had work in months and is flat broke. Desperate, he accepts Norma’s offer to rewrite an atrocious script she has been nursing for years as her starring comeback vehicle (to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, of course). Joe knows her script is a joke (unlike Norma, he is self-aware), but he takes on the project anyway. But, rather than simply working for Norma, he ends up becoming her kept companion, literally forced to live in her crumbling jazz-era mansion on Sunset Boulevard and (although the Production Code forbade any blatant suggestions) be her lover.
For a while, this is fine. Joe plays along, knowing he can relax in financial security at a time when too many artists finer than he were packing it up and leaving. Norma may not have starred in a film for 20 years, but she is still filthy rich and lavishes him with gifts and affection, not all of which is desired, but is accepted nonetheless. He is also looked after by Norma’s stern butler, Max (played by the great director Erich von Stroheim), who has a few secrets behind his seemingly unchanging visage, but never wavers in his devotion to “Madame.” However, because Norma and Joe’s relationship is one of convenience, with Norma getting the satisfaction of coddling a younger man while Joe gets his financial security, it is not meant to last. Once Joe begins working on a screenplay with a pretty young script reader named Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), it is only a matter of time before jealousy rears its ugly head and violence ensues.
Although very much a part of the time in which it was made, Sunset Boulevard has a timeless quality that has ensured its longevity and classic status. Granted, film buffs who can spot the cameos by silent film stars Buster Keaton and H. B. Warner and appreciate the fine performance by consummate director Cecil B. DeMille playing himself will likely find the film a richer, more rewarding experience; but, even those who don’t know much about the Studio Era and behind-the-scenes mechanics of Hollywood can still relate to the themes of lost dreams and misguided hope. Set somewhere between the worlds of familial melodrama and film noir, Sunset Boulevard is a true original, a striking evocation of a particular time and place and the eternal human emotions played out within it.
|Sunset Boulevard Blu-Ray|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish, Portuguese|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||November 6, 2012|
|Paramount restored Sunset Boulevard frame by frame for its initial DVD release a decade ago, and I don’t know if the film’s debut on Blu-Ray features that same restoration or a new one, but either way it looks simply fantastic. While the DVD was duly impressive for its time, the 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on this BD-50 disc enhances the image quite a bit, giving us a picture that is strikingly clear (there are few, if any, signs of age, wear, or tear), well-detailed, and very filmlike. Deep, rich blacks, sparking whites, and fine gradations of gray bring out even the most intricate details in the gothic nooks and crannies of Norma Desmond’s mansion and the various Los Angeles locations. The lossless Dolby TrueHD monaural soundtrack sounds as if it has been restored, as well. It is almost completely free of any ambient hiss, and the dialogue and sound effects are clean and clear. Franz Waxman’s musical score sounds rich and full, although it tends to be a bit sharp at the high end.|
|Sunset Boulevard’s debut on Blu-Ray is accompanied by an extensive list of supplements, almost all of which originally appeared on either the 2002 “Special Collector’s Edition” DVD or the 2008 “Centennial Collection” DVD. Ed Sikov, author of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, offers a clear, well-planned, and informative screen-specific audio commentary. Some might find the commentary a little too pre-packaged—spontaneity is not a word that would describe it well—but it gives you a great deal of information and is pleasurable to listen to. Unlike some academics who do commentaries, Sikov is not terribly dry and remains consistently engaging. |
Along with the commentary, there are also more than a dozen featurettes included. The first four focus primarily on the film’s production and its legacy. Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back” (26 min.) includes interviews with Sikov, film scholar Andrew Sarris, actress Nancy Olson, Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, and Glenn Close (who played Norma Desmond on Broadway). For those familiar with the lore around Sunset Boulevard’s production and reception, there won’t be anything particularly new of interest here, but it’s always fun to hear the stories—such as the encounter between Wilder and MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer, who absolutely hated the film—told by the people who know them best. “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning” (23 min) traces the film’s origins through interviews with film historians and actress Nancy Olson. In “The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard” (14 min.), author and former LAPD detective Joseph Wambaugh discusses the film’s adherence to and deviations from the visual and narrative style of film noir, while “Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic” (14 min.) looks at the film’s legacy.
More interviews about the shoot itself can be found on “Stories of Sunset Boulevard” (11 min), while “Recording Sunset Boulevard” (6 min) focuses on the attempts to re-record and commercially release Franz Waxman’s score. Those interested in the use of Los Angeles as a backdrop will enjoy “The City of Sunset Boulevard” (6 min), which features trivia about the film’s Hollywood locations, and “Hollywood Location Map,” a set of mini-featurettes about the locations, including Joe’s apartment, Scwab’s Drug Store, the Getty Mansion, Norma Desmond’s car, and three locations at Paramount Studios: the Dreier Building, Stage 18, and the Bronson Gate. These little featurettes are quite short (they all run less than a minute, some as short as 20 seconds), but it is interesting to know the history of these famous Los Angeles locales (although it is a bit sad to learn, for instance, that a gas station currently occupies the land where the Getty mansion once stood).
A number of the film’s collaborators are the subject of focused featurettes: “Two Sides of Ms. Swanson” (11 min) features interviews with Gloria Swanson’s granddaughter among others, while “Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden” (11 min.) features interviews with actress Nancy Olson and Holden’s companion Stephanie Powers. Costume designer Edith Head, who worked in the Hollywood studio system for some 60 years, winning eight Oscars and working on numerous memorable films, is profiled in “Edith Head: The Paramount Years” (13 min.), which features interviews with biographer David Chierichetti, costume designer Tzetzi Ganv, fashion designer Bob Mackie, and actress Rosemary Clooney (who worked with Head on White Christmas). “Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard” (14 min.) is partly a biography of the German-born composer and partly a look at how movie scores are written and recorded. It features interviews with Waxman’s son, film historian John Waxman, composer Elmer Bernstein, and conductor John Mauceri.
The disc also includes some supplements drawn from the archives. Anyone who knows anything about Sunset Boulevard knows that it had a different opening that tested disastrously and was subsequently cut and a new one shot. “Morgue Prologue Script Pages” includes the verbatim script pages from both the original draft of the 1948 screenplay and a 1949 revision. Although not all of the footage from this scene exists anymore, the footage that was saved is included here. Unfortunately, no sound elements were preserved, so it is all silent, but the footage itself is in quite good shape. And new to the Blu-Ray is a never-before-scene deleted scene from the New Year’s Eve party sequence. “Behind the Gates: The Lot” is a brief 5-minute history of Paramount Pictures, and “Paramount in the 50s” is essentially a 10-minute highlight reel of the studio’s output during that decade.
The disc is rounded out with the original theatrical trailer (now presented in high-def) and three photo galleries: Production (46 black-and-white photos taken during the film’s production); The Movie (24 black-and-white movie stills); and Publicity (16 black-and-white publicity shots of the cast).
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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