a/perture Cinema, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. Demille, Dragnet, Erich von Stroheim, Gloria Swanson, IMDb, Isotta Franshini, Jack Webb, Netflix, Rotten Tomatoes, Sunset Boulevard, The Less Desirables, William Holden
a/perture Cinema, the Official Movie Sponsor of The Less Desirables, presents The Less Desirables Movie of the Week: Sunset Boulevard from 1950. It stars William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim. It was directed by Billy Wilder.
Per IMDb: “A hack screenwriter writes a screenplay for a former silent-film star who has faded into Hollywood obscurity.”
Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a has-been silent film actress who is unbelievably rich and lives like a hermit in her run-down mansion with her butler/servant, Max. William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a very unsuccessful and crappy screenwriter. He’s extra down on his luck and repo men are constantly harassing him to take his car. He is on the run from them when he gets a flat and is able to hide the car in the garage of a desolate, perceived-abandoned mansion. As he’s attempting to leave, a voice calls from a slatted window. The voice is that of Norma Desmond, who mistakes Joe for someone else. He’s ushered in by Max and recognizes her. She finds that he’s a screenwriter and wants him to read a script that she’s putting together for her comeback, a film about Salome, the female seductress from the Bible. He thinks it’s an abysmal script but kisses her behind enough that she offers him a job as a script advisor. As such, she basically forces him to stay at the house, first in a dilapidated room above the garage, which also houses Norma’s antique car, her 1929 Isotta Franschini, and then eventually into the main house.
Norma showers Joe with gifts, mostly inexplicably odd things that he really doesn’t need. She also throws a New Years party in which she hires a string quartet (or trio, something) and the only guest is Joe. She gets him to hang out with her more, they eventually became “romantically” involved. All the while she’s starting to lose her mind a bit more, becoming obsessed with getting this script finished so they can turn it into Cecil B. DeMille, whom Norma worked with extensively and to whom she feels a connection. They get it done, she sends it over to DeMille, at the Paramount studio lot, via Max driving the Isotta Franshini. Norma starts receiving calls from Paramount Studios’ executive Gordon Cole but Norma is frustrated and offended that it’s not Cecil calling personally because, of course, he loved the script. After a few tries, she decides they’re going down to the studio together and she would personally confront Cecil about it.
While all this was going on, Joe got close to the girlfriend of a friend of his, Artie Ford, played by Jack Webb of Dragnet fame. Her name is Betty Schaefer played by Nancy Olson. They start collaborating on a script and even becoming involved. So, whilst at Paramount, Joe and Max find out that what Gordon Cole wanted was to use the car, the Isotta Franshini, and it had nothing to do with the script. DeMille realizes how fragile she is and decides not to tell her about that and gives her vague lines to string her along about the film she wants to make. Upon waiting for DeMille to call back she undergoes extreme “beautification” rituals and prep, slowly falling deeper into mental illness. Joe continues to go out and spend time with Betty and work on the script.
For whatever reason, Joe brings home the script which has his and Betty’s name on it and Norma finds it. She flips out and calls Betty to tell her what kind of man Joe is. Joe overhears and is furious. He grabs the phone, invites her over and when she gets there, he acts as though he’s happy being a “kept man.” He sends her away and once she’s gone, he packs, preparing to leave. Norma threatens to kill herself and Joe is non-plussed. He leaves and the ending is tragic. Her final scene is present. She gets herself prepared and utters the famously misquoted line: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” And… Scene.
This is a great film. It’s on the AFI Top 100 of All Time (#16). The cinematography is amazing, the acting is, too. The storyline is somewhat comical without losing the darkness of the “film noir.” One thing that is remarkable about this is that it’s told in the fashion of a flashback, the whole time. All from Joe’s perspective. Cecil B. DeMille, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper themselves in the film, Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson all play themselves in cameo roles. It’s a truly iconic picture. Rotten Tomatoes rates it 98% Fresh with an Audience Score of 95%. I watched it on Netflix and rate it 4.5 stars.
Have you seen this film? What would you rate it? If you haven’t, you really, really, really need to see it. Drop me a line and tell me what you’d like to hear (or read) me review.
Until tomorrow, same blog channel…
“Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” – Joe Gillis (William Holden)