Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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Food: An Old Hollywood inspired dish, to me, was in the form of a delectable hors d’oeuvres that might have been served at a party paired with an Old Fashioned or a Black Tie Martini. I decided to make fresh unique bruschetta, which I will call “Golden Age Antipasto.” I got a fresh baguette, and cut into medium-thin slices, and set them out on aluminum foil, baking for about 30 minutes. You want the slices crunchy on the crust, but not overdone. On a few of them, I spread avocado, then placed a slice of salmon lox and a few capers, with a drizzle of olive oil. On the rest, I spread marscapone cheese, fig jam spread, and prosciutto slices. Both were incredibly tasty – I recommend blending sweet with savory. There are so many ways to make creative bruschetta and it is a fun way to explore cooking.
Film: “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) is the 17th and final screenplay collaboration between Charles Bracket and Billy Wilder, (directed by Wilder) and works simultaneously as a scathing critique and a dignified tribute of the Hollywood film industry. Wilder has a beefy filmography of instant classics that have long-lived the test of time, including “Double Indemnity” (1944), “Sabrina” (1954), “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), “Some Like It Hot” (1959), and “The Apartment” (1960) just to name a few.

The plot surrounds a young and ambitious screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden), who takes a literal wrong turn one evening and finds himself with the former queen of silent films, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a captivating, but wildly delusional narcissist who lives in a world of nostalgia. She’s a towering and crazed presence who convinces him to work for her (a not so difficult feat for the desperate writer).

“Sunset Boulevard” is a bleak comedic noir that relies heavily on the impact of each performance, especially Swanson. She commands every scene she is in, accentuating Norma’s melodrama and over-expressionism from years on-screen before “talkies.” Mastering the humor in the character’s theatrical displays, while never tipping into parody, even when she tips over the edge of sanity, Swanson delivers.

However, despite the recognition the role of Norma offered her, Swanson’s work did not carry the film on it’s own. The subtlety of her surrounding cast members is crucial to making her character feel more empathetic than ridiculous. Joe Gillis is just on the verge of success, but the verge is not enough, and in the world of Hollywood, people will do just about anything to get their shot. He is behind on his rent, broke, about to lose his car, and has no interest in going back to the newspaper world in Dayton, Ohio. He lacks backbone and embraces self-deprecation just enough so that it feels understandable he would consider the arrangement Norma offers him. Max von Mayerling (Eric von Stroheim) is a previously great director who fell for Norma, and continues to love her enough to demean himself to the role of her butler. He feeds her delusions and even forges her fan mail. His earnest belief in her greatness allows the audience to accept the possibility that there is greatness in her as well.

As the film continues, we continue to explore the dark extent of Norma’s obsession with her past. Hollywood’s self-obsession and cruelty are on full display. At the time, it was surprising that the bold script was even approved by studios. Billy Wilder had served a fairly long career in the industry at the time of this release, which only helped to validate the experiences seen in this story. However, by the 21st century, it feels universally known that fame and fortune can have a problematic effect on the human psyche. But in 1950, it is possible that this was only understood by insiders. Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” can almost be seen as a warning.

Midway through the film, another character in the story played by Nancy Olsen gives us one of the most underrated performances of the film. She is Betty Shaefer, a secondary love interest of Joe Gillis’. In all the way’s that Norma is vapid, Betty is wise. Where Norma clings to bygone years, Betty accepts a new dream when her first was unfulfilled. “I come from a picture family. Naturally, they expected me to become a great star, so I had ten years of dramatic lessons, diction, dancing. Then the studio made a test. Well, they didn’t like my nose – it slanted this way a little, so I went to a doctor and had it fixed. They made more tests and they were crazy about my nose – only they didn’t like my acting…It taught me a little sense. I got a job in the mail room, worked up to the stenographic, now I’m a reader!” There is a great juxtaposition here between a woman who evolves and one who fixates on the past. There is a sense of empowerment in Betty’s character, as she makes Hollywood work for her, and not the other way around. Betty represents the potential of the movie business, where Norma is the misery.

Betty and Joe work together on a script, which eventually drives Norma spiraling, She wears the unmistakable masked agony of a woman on the edge of demise. With eyes aglaze and a beaming grin, Norma Desmond walks through her own fool’s paradise and there was never a more petrifying descent down a flight of stairs. “This is my life. It always will be. Nothing else… just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark… All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

 

 

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