Graeme Robertson with four great films about Hollywood (that aren’t Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)…
Quentin Tarantino is back in our cinemas with his latest cinematic opus Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, his love letter to the Hollywood of the 1960s in all its glitzy, reference heavy and presumably (this is Tarantino after all) foul-mouthed and self-indulgent glory.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to mark the return of one of cinema’s most acclaimed cinematic troublemakers my own rather self-indulgent look at what happens when Hollywood in its infinite wisdom decides to turn its cameras back onto itself.
So, join me won’t you as we take a spotlight 4 Great Films About Hollywood (That Aren’t Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)…
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
To kick off our trip into at what happens when Hollywood turns its cameras on itself we’re taking a look at a true classic. From master writer/director Billy Wilder comes Sunset Boulevard a darkly comic film noir about what happens to those “dim old stars you might remember from the silent pictures”.
Sunset Boulevard follows Joe Gillis is down on his luck writer as he seeks refuge from repo men and money men in an old abandoned mansion. The owner of the mansion is Norma Desmond, an eccentric star from the silent era who recruits Gillis to help her write the script for what she believes will be her big comeback.
Being made in the early 1950s, an era dominated by big studios and their equally big moguls, it’s surprising that a film like Sunset Boulevard was able to get made, let alone with the backing of a major studio like Paramount. Although, it has been strongly suggest that Wilder and his cohorts pulled more than a few mischievous tricks to keep their studio bosses in the dark as to what the film was really about.
It’s surprising because Sunset Boulevard is a rather dark and cynical look at just how brutal a monster Hollywood can be. A monster that loves to make eager young stars into the next big thing, but also one willing to discard them in an instant when they outgrow their usefulness. Especially if they are women.
It is also telling in the way the film shows how Hollywood’s treatment of people turns its stars into monsters themselves, twisted by the fame granted to them and further twisted when it is taken from them. The character of Norma Desmond is one of those monsters, a once gigantic star who now rattles around her dusty old mansion like a deranged lunatic from an old Gothic novel.
The film’s script by Wilder, D.M. Marshman and Charles Brackett is a curious blending of various genres, whether it be a dark satire, a romance and, most prominently, a film noir mystery in which our narrator begins his story floating dead in a pool. Poor dope, he always wanted a pool.
The dialogue is some of the finest ever written for the screen, littered with one-liners oozing with dry and dark wit but also with elements of tragic solemnity and pathos. It’s also insanely quotable and is packed with lines that I still have echoing around in my head.
One of my favourites is this honest and funny admission from a very unemployed Joe when it is said that he “…..had some talent”, he replies “That was last year. This year I’m just trying to earn a living.”
And if you’re looking for iconic lines, then you’ll have more than a few to pick from. Easily the best for my money is the now iconic exchange between this unemployed writer and the faded star. “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big” Joe says, “I am big.” Norma replies “It’s the pictures that got small”.
While the script is fantastic, it would be useless if not given to the best actors possible. Thankfully, we have a cast who is suited to perform Wilder’s twisted vision of Hollywood, with the film also being among only a handful to secure Oscar nominations in all four acting categories.
William Holden delivers a phenomenal turn as Joe Gillis, a down on his luck writer who begins the film floating dead in a pool. Holden is perfectly cast in the role, capable of delivering the script’s numerous barbs with the necessary levels of class and sardonic wit and makes his every exchange come across as a blend between self-deprecating humour and rather honest admission of his own failings.
Nancy Olson also delivers a terrific performance as Betty Schafer an aspiring writer whose harsh criticism of Joe’s work starts a passionate collaboration. Olson manages to match the same level of charm as Holden, with the fantastic (and very intense) chemistry between the two making for some of the film’s most passionate and beautiful character moments, such as when the pair talk while a late-night stroll on an empty studio, with the pair barely able to contain their growing attraction to each other.
The film, however, is dominated by the faces of Hollywood’s past and no face looms larger than of Gloria Swanson’s larger than life turn as Norma Desmond. A real-life silent star herself, Swanson resurrects many of the physical mannerisms that dominated the pre-sound era, punctuating her dialogue with highly expressive over the top facial expressions and gesticulations. Her voice oozing kind of quality you’d expect from a vampire in an old horror film like she’s attempting to seduce us all but instead only unnerve us even further.
Given that this film is something of a mirror on Hollywood’s past, it only makes sense that it would be littered with faces of that past, with acclaimed silent era director Erich Von Stroheim being among one of the more prominent supporting players, as Norma’s house servant (and ex-husband) who is revealed to be the washed-up director who first discovered her.
We also have rather morbid cameos from former silent stars like H.B Warner, Anna Q. Nielsen and comedy legend Buster Keaton as themselves, playing bridge like ghosts from an old haunted painting. I personally found a cameo appearance from iconic director Cecil B. Demille as himself in which he is reunited with his one-time star Swanson,, the most interesting with the scene feeling like a rather odd and uncomfortable melding of life and art.
Exquisitely written and directed by one of the greatest directors in cinema history and masterfully performed by a superb cast from across Hollywood’s long and twisted history, Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece from start to finish and one of the best and certainly darkest looks that Hollywood has ever taken at itself. I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review so suffice to say this one comes highly recommended.
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