Biographer Charlotte Chandler relies mostly on direct quotations from Billy Wilder to let the story of his life come across. Her book's chapter on Sabrina contains Wilder's reflections and memories of writing and directing the film. These thoughts come from the perspective of decades after the film's original release, and give insight into what could have been a very different movie, but turned out to be Sabrina.
The film was adapted from a play, Samuel Taylor's Sabrina Fair. Wilder began work on the adaptation, along with Taylor, before the play even opened on Broadway. Wilder had no qualms about making changes when adapting this play for the big screen, and he wanted to tweak the dialogue to fit the stars he was hoping would appear in the film (Audrey Hepburn and at the time, Cary Grant). Once the play opened successfully though, Wilder and Taylor began to disagree about the degree of change necessary, leading to Taylor quitting and being replaced by another writer, Ernest Lehman.
It was Lehman who convinced Wilder to steer clear of a sex scene between Sabrina and Linus Larrabee, because it would have hurt Hepburn's image. Lehman and Wilder both agreed that Hepburn was a special actress. Because of her grace, she was perfectly suited for the film's Cinderella allegory. Hepburn had a similar respect for Wilder. This is in contrast to the director's often adversarial relationship with Humphrey Bogart, who played Linus Larrabee.
Chandler notes that Wilder chose to play up Hepburn's "Cinderella quality," and this is evident in her first appearance in the film, when a full moon sits over her shoulder. This fairy tale theme is also echoed in the film's opening narration. Though Hepburn narrates, she is not in character as Sabrina, and this sets the scene for the idyllic story. The class shift and Sabrina's infatuation with older men are also fairy tale-type elements.
Chandler's snapshot of Wilder provides a way for moviewatchers to see the human side of film--though a commodity for making money, directors, writers, and actors could leave personal marks by infusing films with their own ideas.
Some of the reason for the May-December theme had to do with casting, and were not originally intended. In Sabrina, the role of Linus Larrabee was originally meant for Cary Grant, so when it went to Humphrey Bogart, a man much older than Audrey Hepburn, the role took on new layers of meaning. Linus came to be seen additionally as a father figure to Hepburn's young Sabrina. Casting Gary Cooper opposite Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon yielded similar results, as did choosing the iconic Marilyn Monroe to portray what had been a more average role on the Broadway stage in The Seven Year Itch. But Dick also tries to connect this motif to a theme or motivation in Wilder's life. He notes that Wilder's age when he was working on these movies might have affected his outlook. In middle age, the theme of rejuvenation may have been of particular interest to him, and the fatherly relationships may have reflected his own love for his daughter at the time.
In Sabrina, Dick sees one father-daughter bond being replaced with another, the first biological, the second metaphorical. Dick argues that in her relationship with Linus, Sabrina re-channels the love she used to reserve for her father towards her beau. Linus provides financial security and protection for Sabrina, just as a father would. This situation is only believable because the film operates as a fairy tale, Dick says.
Grouping these films together is interesting, but from the descriptions of Love in the Afternoon and The Seven Year Itch, it doesn't seem that the films have as much in common with each other thematically (aside from romance) as Dick might have us believe. And some of what they do have in common, as Dick admits, has do with coincidences of casting. This grouping seems to serve best simply as a way for Dick to organize Wilder's many films.
The "girl-next-door" was most notable for what she wasn't: Marilyn Monroe. Seductress Monroe represented one end of the spectrum of 1950s female roles, and she was decidedly at the opposite end of the girl next door. In a time of national crisis (first World War II, and later the Cold War), the girl next door offered a wholesome and patriotic image. Harvey argues that the Marilyn-type was on the decline, starting in the 1940s, in favor of the girl next door. The 1950s ideal was "nicer, simpler, younger...more girlish than womanly." Harvey argues that already famous stars of the period, like Lucille Ball, adapted themselves to fit into this model.
Hepburn, who was just becoming famous, didn't have to adapt, but she certainly did fit the part. In Sabrina, she was innocent to the point of being child-like, also reflected by her demure wardrobe and polite way. Her thin body is the opposite of Marilyn Monroe's ample curves, embodying the "girlish" part of the girl, not woman, next door. Harvey argues that this image is emblematic of most female stars, aside from Marilyn Monroe, in the 1950s, an opinion also echoed by Potter (see "I Love You, But..."). Harvey doesn't really get into the implications of this stereotype, or why Monroe was allowed to remain outside of it, but he offers many examples that give a picture of a casting and acting trend of the 1950s.
In this book, Potter discusses romantic comedies in relation to the era in which they were produced. She has chapters on each decade from the thirties through the nineties. She begins by discussing the overarching cultural ethos of each decade, taking into account important historical events that could have had an influence on what movies were successful or even produced to begin with. She discusses in detail films from each decade, providing a good background to fit any film into its historical framework. Potter does not discuss Sabrina in the 1950s chapter, but the film does fit in easily with the historical background she provides.
Potter sees the cold war as the most important feature affecting 1950s films. The post-World War II rapture had faded, leaving an all-encompassing but largely invisible fear. For this reason, Potter argues, people focused on making themselves happy in areas of their lives that, unlike foreign affairs, they did have control over: home and family life. This sense of escapism clearly manifests itself in Sabrina's fantasy quality.
People became concerned with living in the suburbs and owning the latest commodities, while civil rights issues, like women's role in the workforce or race and class issues, seemed to evaporate from the national conscience. We see this in the emphasis on the suburban Larrabee family's opulent wealth in Sabrina, and the absence of ambition for Sabrina to do anything but fall in love with one of the powerful Larrabee brothers, rather than using her new education and sophistication to further her individual lifestyle. Women in the 1950s were expected to remain domestic, or at least quit their jobs upon marriage. Any woman who did not adhere to this was said to have a "masculinity complex." These ideas were also shaped by Dr. Spock's baby boom child-rearing advice.
In movies, Potter saw women's roles converging to fit into one of the two studio-promulgated stereotypes of the era: virgin or whore. Hepburn's Sabrina would be classified as a textbook virgin, and was thus only allowed to "exude a vague air of flirtatious sexual promise." Men had more power than women, but also had to fit into molds of upstanding masculinity, like John Wayne, the honest and fatherly cowboy, or laid-back sexual suaveness, like Rock Hudson. Humphrey Bogart's Linus can clearly be read as in line with what Wayne represented.
Using Potter's historical information, we can understand and read films in their proper context.
Wartenberg argues that the filmmaker and audience often see past the initial estimation of unlikeliness because they understand that the two love each other or share a bond, despite apparent obstacles and violations of what is socially acceptable. In this way, the pairing of an unlikely couple, for Wartenberg, can function as a vehicle for social critique. In their plotlines, the films find a way to negotiate whatever social barrier might be separating them, and during these 90 or so minutes, the audience develops a sympathy for both the individual couple and their situation. Even a small detail can elicit this effect. At the end of Some Like It Hot, for instance, when Lemmon's character reveals he is actually a man, Brown's character shrugs it off and says, "Nobody's perfect." Though this is a meant to get laughs from the audience, Wartenberg also argues that it will cause them to think about why they're laughing, thus subverting societal norms.
Wartenberg acknowledges that these films don't present themselves as "vehicles for serious social analysis," but he rejects the common conviction that films are superficial and reinforce dominant social beliefs. He concedes that sometimes in fighting certain stereotypes, films falter by including other stereotypes.
Sabrina is not mentioned in Wartenberg's analysis, but fits in neatly as a romance spanning the upper and lower class. The lower class Sabrina surprises high society when she gets involved with the upper class Larrabee brothers, and this plotline works the subvert and undo the stronghold of class barriers in 1950s society. Though seemingly rigid structures might keep a couple apart, Hollywood implicitly approved of and endorsed this unlikely pairing.
Hollywood was no stranger to employing immigrant talent by this time, and Billy Wilder himself had fled Nazi Europe. Hepburn left Holland for similar reasons. Though many of Wilder's film deal with internationalism, their meanings can be laced with ambiguity, perhaps because of Wilder's own conflicted personal history (his family had died in concentration camps.) These ambiguities echo weightier political and cultural questions.
Smith notes that foreign starlets like Hepburn were celebrated in this time period, but the most famous males were mostly American. Indeed, Bogart was known for his ruggedly American role in Casablanca. This gendering goes back to the reconfiguring of the May-December romance into a symbol for the triumph of American culture in Europe.
Smith traces the history of competition between Hollywood and the French cinema, arguing that the Larrabees' business in Sabrina reflexively mirrors America's "cowboy-style" business tactics. Sabrina's time in Paris teaches her feminine skills that make her attractive for American consumption, and because Sabrina must be out of the way for David Larrabee to marry into the sugarcane business, Linus's courtship with her is originally just another business move for the greater good. When asked why the merger is necessary, Smith quotes Linus, painting America as a postwar savior: "So a new industry goes up in an underdeveloped area and once barefooted kifs have shoes, washed faces, and their teeth fixed." American commodities, as in the Kitchen Debate, came to signify American superiority.
Once Sabrina remakes herself, she becomes an object for men to possess and exchange, sometimes without her knowing it. Smith points to Sabrina's enigmatic and changing class status as a symbol of the promise Americanization would hold for postwar Europe. Though initially reading a political agenda into this fairy tale story might seem like a bit of a stretch, Smith makes a convincing argument that might apply to many films of the age, when Hollywood was selling not just movies, but the American way of life.
Crowther's article is the original review of Sabrina that appeared in the New York Times following its premiere in the city in September of 1954. The review is very helpful in understanding Sabrina's role as a film at that point in history: as is evidenced by this review compared to more contemporary pieces discussing the film, the difference in perception of the film is substantial. Crowther cites the film as "the most delightful comedy-romance in years," and imparts the kindest words upon Humphrey Bogart and William Holden; he claims it is their film as much as it is Hepburn's. This is a sharp contrast to modern discussions of the film, which nearly all focus on Hepburn and her style in particular.
At the time of the review, Hepburn was not yet the immensely famous star that she is remembered, and it is apparent that her "image" that would stand for years to come had not fully been developed. There is no mention of her couture ensembles or style beyond her "frail and slender" frame". Yet though the reviewer had very favorable words for the film, including director Billy Wilder's adaptation of a "recognized thin" play by Samuel Taylor, as evidenced by more recent criticism, the relatively light-hearted film would not have survived as powerfully without Hepburn's growing popularity as style icon.
Collins points to the "jazzy suit" Hepburn's Sabrina wears at the train station when William Holden's David Larrabee first notices her, the floral white ball gown that essentially serves as Sabrina's coming out outfit, and the black cocktail dress that "spawned a thousand knockoffs." These couture looks featured different necklines and cuts than were typical at the time, and were tailored to emphasize Hepburn's slight frame. When Hepburn doubted her acting abilities, Givenchy's clothes provided her with the solace that she at least looked the part.
Collins writes that the clothes also went on to inform plot details of the film. Inspired by Hepburn's sophistication in the Givenchy suit, screenplay writer Ernest Lehman changed the script to make David Larrabee unaware of Sabrina's identity when he picks her up at the train station. Later, in the ball scene, Sabrina's simple but elegant dress distinguished her character. Lehman said of the film's wardrobe, "[The clothes] were extremely helpful to the character, the mood, the movie. They made the transformation believable."
Hepburn's star--and salary--shot up after the release and success of Sabrina. In addition to their impact on the film's success, Collins believes Givenchy's designs for Sabrina shaped Hepburn's public persona. The actress added to this effect by wearing clothes from the movie while promoting it in Europe. Hepburn-eqsue designs also continue to influence current fashion. Collins' article is an interesting, though not scholarly, take on the influence fashion can have in the success of a film, or in Audrey Hepburn's case, an entire personal image.
Smith, Dina M. "Global Cinderella: Sabrina (1954), Hollywood, and Post-War Internationalism." Cinema Journal 41.4 (2002): 27.
Smith’s complex article focuses on the relationship between the United States and Europe post-World War II, in the framework of politics, foreign policy, economics, and the cinema. Films of that era, like Sabrina, she argues, twist the classic Cinderella story to fit the gendered metaphors intrinsic in foreign policy of the time, namely that Europe, as the “culturally savvy orphan” is in need of a “strong rich man,” like America, to save it. The Europe of these films was like a “postcard fantasy” to sheltered Americans: Paris was marketed as a one-dimensional entity that was the visualization of the notion of culture. Smith traces this relationship between American and French film industries back to the era of Lumiere and Pathe Freres. France, and Paris in particular, was something to be consumed, for its food, literature, fashion, and everything else: this idea is central to the plot of Sabrina, and is reflected in much of Hepburn’s career as a “European” star, as argued by Handyside.
Smith also comments on the casting of Bogart, who she claims had an identity of “rugged cowboy American individualism,” as an antithesis to Hepburn’s European sensibilities. In this film, Bogart’s character is the epitome of American economic style, yet by the end, he is inextricably attached to Europe, as both an idea and physically. The author finds many ties between American and European cultural codes referenced in the film, such as how Sabrina needs her Parisian makeover in order to socialize with the higher class of Americans. The film, as mentioned in many other placed, was the first full-scale use of European fashions in an American film; these only emphasize Hepburn’s thin, “hungry” European body, which becomes the clothing that she wears. Smith notes that this film made significant inroads to “incorporate and denationalize” French cultures and its products, something that has continued in American film through the present.
Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: 'Sabrina' Bows at Criterion; Billy Wilder Produces and Directs Comedy." New York Times Film Reviews. 23 Sept. 1954. 1 April 2006. <http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/22483>
The original New York Times film review of Sabrina couldn't provide the in-depth analysis later works offered through hindsight, but it does give an important peek into how the film was initially received. At the time of the film's release up until today, a review in the New York Times represents the opinion of the country's most respected and influential critics.
Sabrina opened up to an overwhelmingly enthusiastic review. Critic Bosley Crowther heralded the film as "the most delightful comedy-romance in years." This signifies that Sabrina had differentiated itself from movies of the preceding years, and as opposed to the popular screwball comedies of the age, the movie's fairy tale nature offered a welcome contrast. Crowther said a film of the sort had not been seen since "prewar days," and perhaps Sabrina provided some nostalgia for audiences, in addition to the escapism of its plot. It is also noteworthy that Crowther calls the film a "comedy-romance," because it shows that the now-ubiquitous genre of the romantic comedy had not yet been solidified.
The Times praises the story's trajectory from stage to screen, which is especially interesting when compared to Gerald C. Wood's later critique (see "Gender, Caretaking and the Three Sabrinas.") This could lead one to draw the conclusion that perhaps film at this time was less willing than theatre in embrace more modern gender roles. The Times also lauds Wilder for viewing the love story with "candid skepticism," but later scholarship also calls this into question, claiming the romance was too easy.
Each main actor's performance is acclaimed, and the praise gives further fuel to Hepburn's oncoming superstardom. Wilder is praised above all for his natural sense of what makes a good film, and this sense comes across years later in his interview with biographer Charlotte Chandler.
The review ends by calling Sabrina the best romance since It Happened One Night. Though many films earn great reviews only to fade away into obscurity, it seems Sabrina lived out the prophesy that the Times laid out for it. Not only was the movie successful in its own time, but it lives on happily ever after today, considered a classic by many.
All three versions have the same essential Cinderella story skeleton. The "Cinderella" terminology that is often used in describing them is not quite apt, however, because the character of Sabrina is self-reliant and never depends on a man to save her. How strong she is does vary from version to version, though.
Wood argues that in the original play, Sabrina is autonomous, politically active, and well-educated. She returns from Paris not because she is in love with David Larrabee, but to escape a marriage proposal that she doesn't want to be tied down to. She doesn't need to be rescued, and her relationship with Linus becomes one of mutual companionship. Gender and class issues are sidestepped when Sabrina declares herself as self-supporting and her chauffer father comes into a windfall of money.
In the play's original adaptation for the screen, Wilder and his associates conceived Sabrina as a teenager in puppy love. Though her time in Paris leaves her sophisticated, this Sabrina is not educated or assertive, like her predecessor, and becomes an object to be passed between the Larrabee brothers. She chooses Linus, in the end, because she wanted to care for him. Wood argues that this allows the movie to become "a dark study of gender," because "Sabrina feels strongest when she is helpful to others, when she denies her own needs and desires." Wood refers to the theories of developmental psychologist Nancy Chodorow, which state that while boys develop intimacy problems, girls learn to doubt their identities. This can lead to passivity and vulnerability to manipulation in women like Sabrina.
Wood reasons that the 1995 film version, while not without problems, is instilled with better representations of gender politics. The Sabrina character is in the fashion industry, less domestic than cooking, and while in Paris she "finds herself." This autonomous description is at odds with her actions, though, as she still displays a tendency towards caretaking.
All three versions are at fault because class and gender problems disappear without explanation during the happy ending. The film versions, though, let Sabrina be manipulated by men and lose her own identity. Wood's analysis of the role of gender in the play and films gives readers a way to understand these ingrained cultural messages, rather than just consuming the film as entertainment.
This source looks at Billy Wilder’s social life and career. The fourteenth chapter is the most relevant regarding the movie Some Like it Hot. In this chapter there are many details and quotes concerning Billy Wilder’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe and the many trials of making a movie with a star. Wilder was very patient with Marilyn whose temper was tolerated because her talent was immense. Wood’s book also slips in historical and external aspects affecting the making of Some Like it Hot. For example during the time when the movie was being shot Marilyn’s husband Arthur Miller was under investigation for communist allegiances, and later in the production she became pregnant (a baby which was miscarried one of the last days of shooting). This small bit of information might explain Marilyn’s exceptionally unruly temperament during this productions making.
Some Like it Hot was so much more than just another Wilder film, the entire survival and later success of the Mirisch Company a fairly new instillation in Hollywood at the time, was dependant on this movies success. This book does an excellent job of interweaving Hollywood politics, Wilders life, and movie making process to paint a full picture of the framework for one of the greatest comedies of all time.
In assessing this source it was determined to be reliable in its factual representation of the surrounding Wilders life. Written fairly early the author had access to many first hand sources for information about Wilders life.
This particular book about Billy Wilde gives accounts of conversations and experiences which illustrate both his personal and social life. Zolotow looks at exchanges Wilder has with different actors, directors etc. and incorporates dialogue from these dialogues into the bibliographic form in order to give the reader a more engaging account of the events in Wilders life.
A book such as this gives a good background perspective on Wilders life and personality from exchanges he has with people. It is through gaining this greater understanding of the director and his life that one gains insight into the director’s work. Billy Wilder was a dynamic genius who gave his movies a great deal of attention and care which is how he was able to produce several masterpieces. It is the often overlooked and even the seemingly inane details that make scenes in Wilders movies works of art. One example the book offers of Wilders cinematic brilliance is from a scene in the movie Some Like it Hot. In the scene when Daphne (Jerry) tells Josephine (Joe) that he is engaged a rich billionaire, Wilder insisted that Jack Lemmon who plays Daphne have maracas and shaken them after every line. In this scene the maracas were added to give the audience a chance to laugh during the maracas shaking sequence, and then settle down in time to hear the rest of the witty dialogue. A simple detail such as this shows the care and consideration Wilder has for his audience.
The conversationalist tone taken by the speaker gives this book the feel of a story. And while this tone makes the book reader friendly it also gives it a seemingly less credible foundation. The lack of references and a background research section also make the book a questionable source.
Born near in a small town near Vienna, Billy Wilder would come from humble beginnings to later develop into an infamous producer, whose movies that have stood the test of time. Bernard Dick’s book observes Wilders life through a very appropriate lens, his life’s work. Each of Wilders films seems to exhibit a character or signature of sorts that only the best of directors are capable of creating. In this biography of sorts each movie is treated as a venue through which the reader can understand Wilders life, and directing/producing styles that made him capable enough to transform a mediocre screen play into a box office hit.
One impressive signature of many of Wilders movies is his ability to make the characters in the film very human despite fantastical situations and unbelievable occurrences. Chapter 7 of Bernard Dick’s book called, “The Human Comedies: Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Avanti!” address’ Wilders humanizing ability. In Some Like it Hot Wilder was able to make Daphne and Josephine (Joe and Jerry in drag) into relatable feminine figures despite the slapstick parody driven comedy of the plot and the insanity of their drag charade. Several pages of this chapter are centered upon looking at how Wilder uses comedy to enhance not substitute for character depth. Despite their antics Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne are very human with emotional vulnerabilities, and individual personalities. One simple example the book offers reference the scene in the movie when Jerry decided that he wants his drag name to be Daphne, instead of Geraldine (an easy feminine twist to his name). The look on his face when deciding this is one of satisfaction, you see Jerry becoming comfortable in him feminine role and this makes the viewer more comfortable as well. Though this may seem simple little decisions such as this are what give the characters real personality.
As a source this book provides well thought out and researched insights into Billy Wilder’s life and movies. The bibliography is selective which leaves some vagueness regarding the credibility of some of the material. Additionally, some of the insights into the movies and their meanings seem to be opinion based and therefore more biased and less steadfast.
Richard Buskins book is essentially a window into the world of one of the most extraordinary cinematic talents of this century, Marilyn Monroe. This book takes an interesting form in its attempt to paint a picture of the woman, and not just create a biographical compilation of the events in her life. Buskin looks at Marilyn’s life by following her career from one movie to another, and capturing a three dimensional view of her life by quoting; Marilyn herself, and fellow actors, directors, friends, and admirers who she knew.
In this books attempt to draw a line through Marilyn’s life using her career, the 1959 picture Some Like It Hot is a notable stop on the way. Arguably one of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous performances this starlet was the heart of the movie, a sexual sweetheart who always got “the fuzzy end of the lollypop”. After Buskin does a brief synopsis of the movies plot, the book delves into life behind the scenes, and we catch a glimpse of the devil behind the Monroe’s angel face. Screaming, cursing, undependable, and insisting on dozens upon dozens of takes she was difficult to work with to say the least. But in the end the director Billy Wilder admitted that “she was actually worth all the aggravation.” Some Like It Hot is a movie defined by the talent of its cast, and this book gives an essence of the star actress. Marilyn was and still to this day is a star, with a presence and reputation that surpasses her time.
In terms of reliability as a source this book is strongly rooted in primary sources using quotations from Marilyn’s fellow actors and directors to characterize her. The author spent almost a decade to write this book, named a great deal of notable institutions in citing his research, and acknowledged several dozen people who interviewed with him about their personal relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Therefore I would consider this source to be fairly trustworthy.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.