“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!”
Sunset Boulevard (1950), the blackest of Hollywood’s self-portraits, is an old dark house of a ghost story inhabited by the living shadows of its discarded stars.
Gloria Swanson is magnificent as Norma Desmond, the former silent movie queen living in her memories while plotting a fantasy of a comeback, and she understands both the monstrous and pathetic dimensions of her demented diva. William Holden is the failed screenwriter with a mercenary streak who plays the gigolo to hide from creditors. The film is narrated from the great beyond—it opens on the corpse of Holden floating in a swimming pool—and it frames the films with a kind of gallows humor as Norma spins a fantasy of a comeback like a web that smothers Holden.
Director/co-writer Billy Wilder makes his scabrous and acidic expose of Hollywood’s living graveyards both ghoulish and tragic, thanks in part to the quiet devotion of Erich von Stroheim’s performance as her butler and, once upon a time, her director. It was a biting in-joke for tinseltown historians at the time, as von Stroheim’s directorial career was destroyed by Queen Kelly, which starred… Gloria Swanson. Wilder even fit some of that footage into the “home movie” scene.
Also features appearances by Hedda Hopper, silent movie superstars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, and filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, all playing themselves.
It won three Academy Awards, including a statuette for the original screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr., and was added to the National Film Registry in 1989.
In black and white
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Sunset Boulevard [DVD]
Sunset Boulevard [Blu-ray]
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The Blu-ray is mastered from the best surviving elements and features a deleted scene (“The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues,” a party sing-along scene with Jack Webb) along with the supplements from the DVD special edition: commentary by Billy Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, the documentary featurettes (all in standard definition) “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning,” “Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back,” “Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic,” “Stories of Sunset Boulevard” (with author Sikov, actress Nancy Olson, producer A.C. Lyles, film critic Andrew Sarris, and others), “The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard” (with author and former LAPD Sergeant Joseph Wambaugh), short pieces on Gloria Swanson and William Holden, two pieces on Franz Waxman’s score, and other short featurettes, all in standard definition. There’s also an interactive Hollywood location map, galleries of stills and artwork in HD, and the script pages to the cut “Morgue” prologue, illustrated with silent snippets of previously lost footage (none with the stars, unfortunately, but there is a glorious view of the corpses rising up from their slabs).