Simon Dixon discusses celebrity homes to great effect in “Ambiguous Ecologies: Stardom’s Domestic Mise-en-Scène.” He makes interesting comments such as how a star’s home tends to reflect the roles he takes and how certain types of stars get certain types of homes; the most interesting of which is Clint Eastwood’s ranch in Caramel and Robert Redford’s in Utah, since both are actors turned academy award winning directors.
After thoroughly discussing the architecture of the famous, Dixon discuss the importance of the house in one film in particular, Sunset Boulevard. He states that Norma Desmond’s house “lambastes the domestic ecology of Hollywood stardom as alienating and destructive of those it entraps.” Dixon argues that while the film takes place in the late 1940s the Desmond house looks like something out of the twenties; Norma uses her surroundings to relish in her past accomplishments. Through the juxtaposition of Gillis’s bland 40s apartment and Desmond’s lavish old-fashion house, Wilder shows just how different the Hollywood of the silent era was from that of the golden.
Dixon also contends that Sunset Boulevard “can be read as an allegory of the [male] star’s uneasy relation to domestic life.” Gillis is first overwhelmed by the house and only explores it to the extent in which Norma allows him. Even though, Gillis moves into Desmond’s house, he ends up have no control over the residence. He is never able to adapt to domesticity having never lived in such a lavish environment. Furthermore, Dixon notes that by drowning in the pool Joe is “first figuratively and then literally drowned in the expensive spoils of star domesticity.” In other words, Gillis dies in the most opulent portion of the estate, the pool.
In his book length study on the man who many believe to be the best writer-director of all time, Maurice Zolotow does a good job summarizing Billy Wilder’s influence over Hollywood. In chapter 15 of Billy Wilder in Hollywood, he focuses on one of Wilder’s films in particular, Sunset Boulevard. The chapter deals mostly with the production of the film and its horrid reception when it was first screened in Evanston, Illinois.
Zolotow goes into great detail describing the relationship between Wilder and Charlie Brackett, his longtime producer/ co-writer. Sunset Boulevard was the last time the two worked together and as Zolotow claims, it created an interesting set. Wilder was the better writer of the two and many times throughout the production his ideas clashed with Brackett's; at certain times, so much so that they ended up throwing things at each other. Zolotow goes on to mention that after the film the two rarely spoke and often battled over talent.
Zolotow also discuss the casting of the film and how Wilder originally wanted Mae West and Montgomery Clift to star as Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis respectively. In fact, as Zolotow mentions that it wasn’t until George Cukor, a friend of Wilder’s, mentioned Gloria Swanson, that she was though of for the part of Norma. Also, Zolotow claims, opposite of what Wilder says in Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Wilder, that William Holden was forced to be in the picture three days before the shoot started.
Zolotow also notes that Wilder was unhappy with the final cut of Sunset Boulevard because it left out what he thought was the best scene in the script; one in which Joe is narrating over his dead body at the morgue. Overall, the chapter does an amazing job summarizing the production and picking up key points that made the film such a landmark.
Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard is a book length study of the production of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. The book starts with the inception of the idea, traces it through release and ends with the legacy it has left on film history. Through an insider’s perspective and first hand interviews with the cast and crew, Sam Staggs does an amazing job fully describing every problem and detail that arose during the making of the film.
Chapter six in particular, “The Cameras Have Arrived” discusses how Wilder directed on the set. Wilder, most well know for his comedic talent, would often play jokes on the set such as during a kissing scene between Joe Gillis (William Holden) and Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson). He had the two locked in an extremely long kiss and then invited Holden’s wife at the time to come and yell at them for making it seem to “real.”
Furthermore Staggs states that Wilder “rarely directed actors in the usual sense of the word.” He would never read lines for them, instead discussing a character and allowing the actor to play it in their own terms. He expected his actors to understand the motivation of their characters. Olson recalls that Wilder never said anything specific about a scene but rather created a relaxed atmosphere that allowed the actors to discover their characters. Staggs states that he was an interesting director; Wilder always considered himself a writer but also directed so that he could maintain control over his work.
Staggs also claims that Wilder tried to film Sunset Boulevard with as much realism and continuity as possible. He filmed night scenes, even interiors, at night and tried to shoot the film in sequence as much as possible. Staggs’s explanation for Wilder’s use of sequence is not only for the ease of production but also that Wilder hadn’t finished writing the script when the film went into production. In fact, as with most of Wilder’s films, scenes that were to be shot the next day were written the night before. Through interesting anecdotes such as these, Staggs keeps the reader focused throughout the book.
Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe is a book length interview with Billy Wilder in the same style as Francois Truffaut's book on Alfred Hitchcock. The book dissects Wilder’s favorite moments in his films and bounces around switching topics frequently and focusing more on the voice of the man behind the camera. Wilder also provides commentary on other great filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The book is interesting because it is Wilder’s own opinion of his work and what each film meant to him. Although he was in his nineties when the interview was conducted, he is still sharp and remembers almost every detail on each of films.
One delightful anecdote he mentions about Sunset Boulevard is concerning the last shot in which Norma Desmond transcends the staircase and pronounces “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.” In typical Wilder fashion, he claims that he came up with the final shot of the film, the close-up on Norma, on the day of the shoot. Cameron Crowe then asks him how he got the shot to go fuzzy at the end to which Wilder replies “the focus gets thrown out by the focus carrier. I left the camera running. I didn’t know were to cut.” That is what symbolizes the most interesting part of this book. Wilder, even though he was a seasoned veteran by the time he made Sunset Boulevard, still had moments where he did not know what to do or how to end a shot.
The book continues to analyze other Wilder films as Crowe and Wilder both come to the conclusion that The Apartment is their favorite Wilder film. However, Conversations with Wilder is not only about his films but also about Wilder’s opinion of the medium. This candid portrait of one of the great writer-directors of all time is fascinating as his personality jumps off the page and Crowe discovers exactly what is meant by the “Wilder touch.”
Hans-Bernhard Moeller does an outstanding job summarizing and commenting on the influence central European Jews who fled the Nazis had on Hollywood during the studio system. In, “German Hollywood Presence and Parnassus: Central European Exiles and American Filmaking”, Moeller argues that most European Jews ground their film’s in philosophical pessimism. No such immigrant more greatly personifies this then Billy Wilder, the director of Sunset Boulevard. Throughout the film Wilder’s characters are overshadowed with pessimistic ideals (although Norma is optimistic about her status, the character is heavily layered with irony and satire; the filmmakers obviously believe she is delusional).
Moeller also goes on to state that Wilder’s “cinematic imagination produced critical though not sermonizing screen commentaries on contemporary American problems.” Many of Wilder’s films, as Moeller contends provide this commentary on America from the perspective of someone who has assimilated themselves into American culture but knows they are not American. In the case of Sunset Boulevard, Wilder is commenting on the Hollywood system that he directly takes part in. Since, as Moeller argues Wilder can be seen as a Hollywood-outsider, having been raised in Europe, he is able to accurately satirize the American film business.
Moeller then goes on to discuss Wilder’s image in the European community in which he was not noted as an exiled filmmaker until 1980. It seems as through; while Wilder was making films, American’s saw him as a foreigner and European’s chose not to recognize him as one of their own. His ability to make a film like Sunset Boulevard is unique as he was not only an insider but also a foreigner commenting on American film practices.
Movies about the Movies: Hollywood Reflected by Christopher Ames is a book length study on films about filmmaking. The book studies fourteen different films about Hollywood and relates them through common themes. The last chapter in the book “Offing the Writer” compares Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to Robert Altman’s The Player. In both films, the writer is killed in the end and also represents a moment Hollywood history; in Sunset Boulevard the writer is the future while in The Player he is the past.
Ames contends that “the struggle between writer and industry drives the plots of these films.” Focusing more narrowly on Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis is a down on his luck writer who is not very fond of the visual nature of cinema. While Sunset Boulevard as Ames claims is a “conflict oddly staged as a struggle between writer and actor… [Gillis’s] relationship with Desmond is a direct consequence of his failure in the studios.” Throughout the film, Gillis struggles with Desmond while trying to find his own voice for the film they are writing. Only through the script he works on with Betty does Gillis eventually find his own style.
At the end of the film, right before he is murdered, Gillis finally stands up for himself and tells Norma that she is living in a fantasy. After his death in the pool, Gillis narrates from “beyond the grave” which shows his oversight in the world of the film. As Ames states “Joe’s voice provides a world-weary commentary on the illusions of the other characters, but [in the final scene] it functions more like an omniscient narrator.” Ames believes that one of Joe’s main purposes in the film is to reflect on the characters in it and provide Wilder’s most direct commentary on the Hollywood studio system.
Joe Gillis, in order to please Norma, descends further into fantasy and away from reality. He moves in with Norma even though he had no choice in the matter. When he sees that Paramount wants nothing to do with Salome he hides it from Norma in order to retain her fantasy world. As Canham argues, Norma is someone still living the past who actually thinks that people is waiting for her comeback to the screen. Her fantasy is further instigated through her butler/ ex-husband Max who in turn has been writing all of the fan mail she has been getting in the last 20 years.
Canham believes that Norma’s fantasy world is the center of Sunset Boulevard and also one of the key reasons why the film is considered a classic. Through Norma, Canham states that Wilder creates the perfect image of a move star past her prime. He also believes that the film is the greatest commentary ever produced by Hollywood on the effect the transition to sound had on silent stars and how delusions can be created in those that were once celebrities.
In “The Power of Blackness: Film Noir and Its Critics”, Charles Scruggs argues that Billy Wilder’s famous comment on film noir “I think the dark outlook is an American one” is true. Many film historians think that Wilder’s cynical and dark film noir’s, most notably Sunset Boulevard, are rooted in his angst against Central Europe in Word War I. However, Scruggs builds an interesting case against this claim. He begins the article by defining whether or not film noir is a genre and not just a visual style. He states qualities of film noir such as revolving around a crime (something extremely present in Sunset Boulevard as the film is framed by the murder of Joe Gillis) and dark plot lines. He does a good job summarize how films become defined as film-noir and then continues on to further discuss the effects of American history on the style.
In Sunset Boulevard, widely considered one of the great film noirs, the main character, Joe Gillis, is a writer down on his luck having attached a few B-pictures to this name. His has a glum outlook on life which Scruggs claims can be traced back to American gothic tradition. Such authors as Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scruggs argues, have laid the groundwork for the film noir style of dark themes with horrid plot twists.
He contends that film noir was built out of the “rips and tears of social fabric” or rather the portions of the human psyche that began as good and end up bad. Both Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis personify this idea. Before meeting each other both were in essence good humans but as their complicated love affair worsened so did their characters. The climax of the film, Norma shooting Joe, shows the transformation of both characters into dark characters typical of a film noir.
Since Sunset Boulevard deals with a star’s transition from silent to sound films it creates an interesting collaboration of writing and visuals. As Trowbridge argues, throughout the film, Gillis tries to clean up the screenplay he is working on with Norma, adding in more dialogue and fearing that images will take away from the power of what he has written. As the narrator, Joe tries to put words to the visual images he so despises and as Trowbridge believes his narration shows his “incompatibility with the film medium.” He is a character who prefers to write instead of create visuals thus never succeeding in the Hollywood environment.
On the other hand, at the complete opposite end of the spectrum as Trowbridge argues, is Norma Desmond. She was an actress during the days that Hollywood used little to no words and prefers to live in a visual world. As Trowbridge contends the film “dramatizes Norma Desmond’s desire to replace reality with visual signs.” In other words, she tries to create a world in which she is visually the center of (noted by the amount of pictures she has of herself around the house). Trowbridge goes on to mention many other instances in which the two main characters clash through their opposing beliefs on words and images. Furthermore, she makes an interesting case that it is the union of words and images in the film that leads to Norma’s madness.
Kenneth MacGowan in “When the Talkies Came to Hollywood” claims that “Hollywood resisted sound for a number of good reasons besides general inertia”. He found that the adding of sound to film created a large number of problems most notably the need for screenwriters who could create dialogue. He also mentions that since the camera itself made noise, films had to be shot in a more simplistic way; Hollywood had not yet figured out silent gears. MacGowan states that many actors and actress of the silent era were unable to make the transition as they never had their voice trained and also tended to overact when sound allowed them to be more subtle; he notes that Hollywood turned to Broadway actors in the early days of talkies. He also mentions the trouble directors had in being able to coach an actor through dialogue. In Sunset Boulevard, two of the actors were famous during the silent era and ended up having trouble making the transition to sound; Gloria Swanson was a star before talkies and Erich Von Strohiem was a director.
Perhaps the most brilliant casting job ever done for a film was the casting of Gloria Swanson as the silent film star Norma Desmond and Erich Von Strohiem as her butler/ex-husband/ex-director Max von Mayerling. Both actors are essentially playing themselves and that is what makes them so good. Once Hollywood transitioned to sound Gloria Swanson faded from the spotlight until Sunset Boulevard, when she finally made an impact as a sound actress. Also, Erich Von Strohiem went from a great director to a type-cast actor. Since each actor's real life mimics that of their characters they are able to connect with the parts and add to the satirical value of the film.