The savage creature that is aging screen legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard sees the cinema as a once-miraculous fountain of youth, diluted and muddied by technology and what she sees as false ambition. The character’s fury is aimed at the advent of talkies and the new talent that it requires, but said talent merely serves as the perfect patsy to distract from the actress’s own limitations and her stalling indulgence in the comforts of fame and praise. Some 60 years after Bill Wilder’s film was originally released, Desmond’s brittle vitriol against the advancement of technology is ironically familiar of the annual haranguing of so many critics who see it as their duty to call a time of death on the cinema.
Wilder’s film, of course, wasn’t exactly a cause celebre with critics when it hit theaters, and the story goes that Louis B. Mayer, following a screening, reacted furiously to the film’s insinuation that Hollywood assembled as many nightmares as dreams. Indeed, Sunset Boulevard posits that the business and process of making films can often turn writers and directors into soulless scavengers of narrative detritus, performers into howling husks of wasted talent. Wilder’s proxy is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a floundering screenwriter who, after a long line of unsuccessful attempts at being a Hollywood storywriter, becomes writing companion and eventual lover to Desmond. Narrating his story from beyond the grave, Gillis embodies the Hollywood-engendered cynicism and desperation that curdles talent and makes offers like Desmond’s—to live rent-free in her mansion and be kept by her wealth—so easy to succumb to, even at the expense of a true love he finds with studio reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson).
Wilder adds tremendous personal depth to this tar-black comic conceit through his casting. Holden, at the time, was treading water as a minor character actor, and while Swanson had been keeping busy, her fame as a screen actress had dithered considerably; Wilder only considered her for the role on advice from George Cukor. Erich von Stroheim’s performance as Desmond’s devoted house servant, Max, however, is perhaps the most strongly felt feat of self-reflexivity in Wilder’s cabaret of the damned. Bitter at Hollywood and depressed after producers and studio heads butchered his magnum opus, Greed, the legendary filmmaker here forcefully summons an interior life corroded and stifled by censorship and the subsequent lack of personal expression in his chosen medium.
Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, and H.B. Warner also find themselves minor attractions in Wilder’s macabre circus, as Desmond’s card-playing pals, and Cecil B. DeMille appears as himself in a stunning sequence that cuts to the heart of Wilder’s film. Spurred by a vague phone call, Desmond arrives on the Paramount lot for what she assumes will be a discussion with him about a new project. In reality, DeMille simply wants to use her vintage car for a shoot, but the visit triggers a deity-like response from the crew of DeMille’s set. The filmmaker is a coward for not speaking the truth, but he remains a vital, employed legend because he loves the work, the atmosphere of cooperative skill, and is open to change, regardless of the benefits. The astonishing corruptive power of Desmond’s vanity suggests that Desmond’s ideal of a cinema based on a select few stars is cheap, shallow, and, yes, dangerous. Gillis’s greed and exhausted artlessness make him an easy target for Desmond and the very worst of Hollywood’s vapidity.
In an exquisite early scene, Max and Desmond run Queen Kelly, von Stroheim’s masterful late silent, which starred Swanson, for Gillis in a private screening room, and the screen comes to glowing life as a young Swanson makes a prayer with candles. The beauty of the subject and the beauty of how the subject is framed are inseparable in Queen Kelly, as in most great films. Beauty may become a more subjective term in the face of Sunset Boulevard, but it’s no less a masterpiece than von Stroheim’s film, and when Wilder catches Olson at just the right angle, and just the right light, the two films share a common beauty. More importantly, it becomes clear that those artists with propensities for great beauty and greater insight see beyond both technical innovations and limitations, and are never in need of a close-up to validate their abilities.
Paramount has a tendency to bring out the proverbial big guns when it comes to Blu-ray transfers of their bigger titles, past and present, and Sunset Boulevard is no exception. The image is crisp and obviously pulled from a cleaned-up print, and the transfer picks up a lot of detail, including clothing, furniture, and faces. The interiors of Norma Desmond's home, built on the Paramount lot and robust in various textures and materials, look spectacular. Black levels are perfect, and there's a healthy grain level throughout. The audio keeps the sensational dialogue clear and out front, and Franz Waxman's brilliant score and various sound effects are handled with equal care.
Paramount has stocked this package with what may seem like an unending line of extras, covering nearly every facet of the making of the film: pre- and post- production, reception, and legacy. The featurettes cover everything from Gloria Swanson to Edith Head to Franz Waxman to the city of Los Angeles, and whatever isn't covered in them, Ed Sikov sufficiently addresses in his strong audio commentary. There's a feature that points out the shooting locations throughout LA and another that goes through the script pages of the alternative opening scene, set in a morgue. There's also a very good deleted scene, a theatrical trailer, and a gallery of photos. Some footage is recycled in separate featurettes, but overall the information given is uniformly fascinating.
Billy Wilder's tour of Hollywood's village of the damned finally gets its close-up on Blu-ray with an excellent A/V transfer and an overflowing extras section.