Blu-ray Review: Billy Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ Still Looks Great in Close-Up
CHICAGO – With her chin pointed high, eyes bulging, teeth gleaming and hands contorting as if performing a Transylvanian spell, screen actress Norma Desmond insists that she’s ready for her close-up. She descends her staircase and becomes fully engulfed in the gray haze of her delusions in one of the greatest and most unforgettable final scenes in cinema history.
This moment, like so many in Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece, “Sunset Boulevard,” achieves a miraculous balancing act. It is darkly funny, deeply sad and richly unsettling. The same could be said of Gloria Swanson’s Oscar-nominated performance as Desmond, the aging icon of the silent era who dwells in a mansion fit for Miss Havisham and is doted upon by a solemn enabler named Max (Erich von Stroheim), who has dedicated his life to protecting his beloved diva from the world that has forgotten her. Not only did von Stroheim direct landmark silent films (such as 1924’s “Greed”), but he even directed Swanson in a picture (1929’s “Queen Kelly”), which is what Desmond ends up screening for herself in the privacy of her home.
Blu-ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
To say that “Sunset Boulevard” is haunted by the ghosts of cinema’s past would be a massive understatement. It is one of the great films about filmmaking as well as a poison-pen love letter to Wilder’s own image-obsessed industry. Though this film has the look and feel of a noir classic (such as “Double Indemnity”), it is also filled to the brim with spectacularly funny dialogue (with just as many quotable lines as “Some Like it Hot”), as well as some piercing social commentary intertwined with genuinely affecting drama (in its own morbid way, the film is every bit as touching as “The Apartment”). No matter what genre Wilder was working within, he refused to conform to rules set by past filmmakers. He could mix sardonic wit with disarming sincerity better than anyone and had no problem ruffling feathers with his unapologetic boundary-pushing. Moguls such as Louis B. Mayer were horrified that Wilder would make such a bleak picture about the town that made him a legend, yet such shallow criticisms overlook the fact that “Sunset Boulevard” is a rapturous celebration of movie history, not to mention an astonishing comeback for one of its earliest stars. It marked Swanson’s return to film after a nine-year absence, though the actress was far from retired, with her numerous stage and radio appearances. By allowing her 50-year-old features to be photographed without the synthetic polish of gauze, Swanson tackled the vain role without an ounce of vanity. Her greatest rival at the Oscars was Bette Davis, whose equally masterful film, “All About Eve,” was also a showbiz satire about aging actresses, and it’s fittingly ironic that both screen titans lost to a young, blonde thing (namely Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday”).
Sunset Boulevard was released on Blu-ray on November 6th, 2012.
Photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment
Of course, Swanson is only one reason why Wilder’s film has stood the test of time. It’s also enhanced by a career-salvaging performance from William Holden as the desperate screenwriter who finds himself trapped in Desmond’s mansion like a fly caught in a web. His dryly bemused and embittered voice-over set the gold standard for narration in every picture that followed (Kevin Spacey’s narration in “American Beauty” is clearly modeled after it). Nancy Olson exudes Debbie Reynolds-like pluck as a smitten script reader, and her flirtation scene with Holden where their lips nearly touch is sexier than most sex scenes. It’s chilling to see giants like Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner haunt Desmond’s mansion like weary ghosts (Holden refers to them as the “waxworks”), while Cecil B. DeMille is superb at conveying the aching pity of a man who can’t bring himself to shatter the illusions of a hopeless dreamer. Yet Swanson’s performance is truly the film’s centerpiece, and is perhaps most affecting in the extraordinary scene where Desmond’s latest round of emotional manipulation has brought Holden to her bedside. Her soft sobs dissolve as her arms wrap around him like Nosferatu claws, as she proceeds to drain away the remainder of his life. The screenplay co-authored by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. is so ingeniously written that it puts most modern scripts to shame. Holden memorably observes that Desmond’s house looks like it was “stricken with a creeping paralysis - out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.” In contrast, “Sunset Boulevard” itself shows no signs of wear and tear. It is the very definition of ageless cinema.
“Sunset Boulevard” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, French, Spanish and Portuguese audio tracks, and includes over two-and-a-half hours of extras, many of which are recycled from the film’s 2008 centennial edition. The most notable addition is a newly recovered deleted scene where a rowdy bar crowd sings the all-too-pointed lyrics of the “Paramount Don’t Need Me Blues.” In the audio commentary track, scholar Ed Sikov recounts the film’s disastrous test screening in Evanston, Illinois, where audiences were repelled by an opening scene set at a morgue populated by talking corpses. Though the scene remains unavailable, various individual shots from the scene are assembled on the disc along with two complete script drafts (the music has also been preserved by record producer Robert Townson). The multitude of featurettes are highlighted by Elmer Bernstein’s memories of composer Franz Waxman, Olson’s stories about her close friendship with Holden and Swanson’s thoughts on how the film gave her peers renewed hope about their own careers. Mary Pickford, an early choice for the Norma Desmond role, apparently left the premiere with her face swollen by tears. Desmond may have been a gloomy reflection of where ailing careers had met their end, but Swanson’s brave and blistering performance still stands as one of of cinema’s most exhilarating, unexpected triumphs.