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Sunset Boulevard: The Centennial Collection DVD Review

Sunset Boulevard: The Centennial Collection

December 3, 2008

Director: Billy Wilder,
Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb,

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DVD Review

After directing cinematic masterpieces Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945), Billy Wilder took on Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard (1950) as seen through the eyes of a washed-up silent movie star obsessed with returning to the big screen. The film is famously narrated by a dead man – a conceit that was resurrected in 2000 with American Beauty.

The dead man is struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) and we meet him floating face down in the swimming pool of legendary silent movie star Norma Desmond (Swanson). He takes us back six months before and tells the story of how he got there. Gillis is trying to break into Hollywood but hasn’t been too successful and needs to scrape together $290 to prevent his car from being repossessed. He has a contact at Paramount Pictures and pitches a story about a baseball player but his screenplay is criticized as being “flat and trite.”

After being rejected by the studio, Gillis tries to borrow money from his agent but is rebuffed by him as well. While trying to evade two finance company goons, he gets a flat tire and quickly pulls into the nearest driveway off of Sunset Boulevard. He pulls into a mostly empty garage attached to a run-down looking, seemingly deserted mansion – only it’s not. Gillis meets its sole resident: Norma Desmond.

She mistakes Gillis for an undertaker and he eventually figures out who she is and her has-been status. In response, Desmond utters the now classic line, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” The veteran actress is bitter because she fell out of favour when movies were no longer silent. When she finds out that Gillis is a screenwriter, she pitches her plan for a comeback: an adaptation of Salome with her in the title role and Cecil B. DeMille directing. Gillis reads the script Desmond’s written and agrees to give it a polish, staying in the mansion in order to prevent the finance company from finding him and taking his car.

Hollywood has always been attracted to films about itself with memorable efforts like The Day of the Locust (1975), The Player (1992), and, more recently, Tropic Thunder (2008). It’s a cutthroat business driven by money even though a select few aspire to make art as well as turn in a profit. Billy Wilder’s films all feature a wickedly cynical view of humanity and Sunset Boulevard is no different. Norma Desmond is portrayed as a vain, self-absorbed diva consumed by her own ego and she has no problems using Gillis, a writer desperate to make it in show business and not above milking the actress for whatever money he can get out of her. Sunset Boulevard portrays Hollywood as a money-making machine that chews up and spits out people like Desmond and Gillis once they can no longer generate a profit.

Special Features:

The first disc features an audio commentary by Ed Sikov, author of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. The original director’s cut began in the morgue with Gillis’ corpse talking to another one but test audiences laughed at it and Wilder re-shot it. The filmmaker identified with Gillis because before he became successful, he hustled and struggled to get his projects made. This is a very informative track filled with tons of factoids.

Disc two starts off with “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning,” which takes a look at how Wilder came to direct the film. This featurette covers aspects like casting with colleagues and critics telling anecdotes.

“The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard by Joseph Wambaugh” features this best-selling author of crime and mystery novels talking about why this is one of his favourite films of all-time. He also discusses the film noir aspects of Sunset Boulevard.

Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic” takes a look at how the film was received when it first came out and then became regarded as a classic over the years with the likes of film critic Andrew Sarris praising it.

“Two Sides of Ms. Swanson” is a brief profile of Gloria Swanson with relatives and colleagues offering their impressions of the famous actress.

“Stories of Sunset Boulevard” features a collection of miscellaneous anecdotes and factoids pertaining to the film, including the disastrous test screening.

“Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden” briefly examines the career of the actor with associates and people who knew him offering their impressions.

“Recording Sunset Boulevard” takes a look at the film’s score by Franz Waxman and it was so highly regarded that it won an Academy Award.

“The City of Sunset Boulevard” examines the various locations mentioned in the film and their significance.

“Morgue Prologue Script Pages” features two versions of the infamous morgue scene with excerpts from two drafts of the screenplay and actual footage (without sound) from this sequence.

“Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard” takes another look at the score but with more of a focus on Waxman and his career.

“Behind the Gates: The Lot” features a brief look at the creation of Paramount Studios.

“Hollywood Location Map” features an interactive map of five key locations from the film. Clicking on them provides various factoids about each one.

“Edith Head: The Paramount Years” is a profile of this legendary costume designer who worked on many of the studio’s most memorable films.

“Paramount in the 50’s” takes us through the studio year-by-year with clips from many of its films from this decade.

Also included is the theatrical trailer.

Finally, there are galleries of production photographs, movie stills, and publicity shots.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 94%

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