Sunset Boulevard (1950) is Billy Wilder’s macabre expose of art imitating life. It opens with dead leaves at the kerb and a corpse floating in a private swimming pool. It fades out on a psychopathic diva reaching for an audience that has long vanished.
Not without discomfort, opportunist-turned-gigolo Joe Gillis sums up the self-reflexive story: “It’s a very simple set up. Older woman who’s well to do, younger man who’s not doing too well. Can you figure it out yourself?”
Scriptwriters Charles Brackett, DM Marshman Jr and Wilder create film noir at its most mind-bending by adding cruelty to eeriness. The reel cast play versions of their real and near- fading selves. Silent film star Gloria Swanson, who had not been seen since 1941, gutsily plays Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent screen star planning her return (she hates the word “comeback”). William Holden, whose broad shoulders hadn’t carried much since The Golden Boy (1939), plays Joe Gillis, an out of work script writer. Film director Erich von Stroheim plays Max von Mayerling, Norma’s one-time director, husband and now butler. Extras on sets are played by real life extras. Cecil B de Mille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves. Can a meta movie get greater?
It can and it does.
Norma’s dark lair is 10086 Sunset Boulevard. As Gillis takes his first fateful steps towards it, his voice over sums up a yesteryear Xanadu “stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion”. Rather like its owner whom “30 million fans had given the brush”.
Drunk on denial, 50-year-old Norma surrounds herself with paintings and photographs of her prime (Gloria Swanson in stills from her early films). She has a projection screen running her pictures every other night. The audience? Just herself and Max and later, Gillis, because Norma is “mad about the boy” and cannot let him out of her sight. Norma travels in a grand Isotta-Fraschini with leopard skin seats. On her finger, she wears a bizarre contraption for a cigarette, around her throat she wears ropes of jewellery and her bed is designed like a gondola.
Art direction (John Meehan and Hans Drier), costume (Edith Head), set design (Sam Comer and Ray Moyer), and music (Franz Waxman) give Sunset Boulevard all that it takes for cinematographer John F Seitz to assemble a furtive chiaroscuro. Shadows form bars of “that peculiar prison” Gillis ultimately allows himself to be trapped in. Giant mirrors reflect a claustrophobic inner world. Also built into the screenplay is a chilling and recurring motif of watching, whether it is Norma gazing through the blinds at Gillis or the voyeuristic audience peering through eye like sockets of lockless doors.
For all this and the performances which are outstanding (Swanson even does a jaw-dropping impersonation of Chaplin), the real draw of Sunset Boulevard is Wilder’s stinging and witty dialogue. “You say the cutest things,” a desperate Gillis tells collectors from the auto finance company just before he gives them the slip. Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) is a script reader who can see when a screenplay is “written from hunger”. After Gillis finishes a swim in her pool, Norma rubs him down with a towel and asks Max about a phone call he has just attended to. Max says it was “someone asking about a stray dog” – probably what he views Gillis to be. And of course, there is Norma herself who imperiously informs us of her eternal presence: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
In Fedora (1978), Wilder’s “tepid imitation” of his earlier masterpiece, independent producer Barry Detweiler (played by an older William Holden) spells out that success in Hollywood is all about “sugar and spice on the outside and cement and stainless steel on the inside”.
Fedora begins in medias res. A melodrama that is part narrated and part stumbled upon by Detweiler himself leads us to Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef), a Machiavellian battleaxe who holds the secret of the glamourous Fedora (Marthe Keller). Now locked up in a villa in Corfu and guarded by German Shepherds both human and canine, Fedora has had all 51 mirrors taken down from the villa walls and drawers have been filled with new, white gloves.
Based on a novella by Thomas Tryon, Fedora relies on the same techniques as Sunset Boulevard – flashbacks, voice-overs and actors (Henry Fonda and Michael York) playing themselves. This time, the yearnings are not for silent cinema of the ’20s but for the films of the ’40s, which earned the world famous Fedora valuable fan mail from Winston Churchill and Jean Paul Sartre, among other luminaries.
The indubitable Janet Maslin describes Fedora as “old-fashioned with a vengeance, a proud, passionate remembrance of the way movies used to be, and a bitter smile at what they have become”.
True as this is, production designer Alexandre Trauner, composer Miklos Rozsa and cinematographer Gary Fisher do not give Fedora the sense of foreboding or the sinister ambiance of its monumental predecessor. Exteriors are often overexposed and contrasts are washed out. There is one unforgettable blue Santa Monica sunrise, however, before we lose sight of eye candy Stephen Collins (the young Detweiler). Vando, (Jose Ferrer), the accidental vandal of the charade, gets some smart lines and Marthe Keller plays her role with panache.
“You find my body boring?” Fedora asks young Detweiler, point blank after she has done a nude scene on set.
“No,” Detweiler blushes. “I think you have a very nice body.”
“I do not.”
“I have a terrific body.”
Fedora has its moments for sure, but 67 years later it is Wilder’s devilishly clever Sunset Boulevard, a film on failures that makes for resounding success. That is what explains Glenn Close as Norma Desmond making a spectacular return after 22 years in the Rice-Lloyd Webber opera of Sunset Boulevard whose lyrics rely heavily on the words of the original screenplay.
“No one ever leaves a star!”
Right you are, Ms Desmond. And we are ready for your next close-up.