Hollywood After Dark on ‘Sunset Boulevard’

The esteemed Criterion Collection usually does a better job than the major studios of presenting classic movies in all their glory, with copious bonus features, but this Blu-ray release of Sunset Boulevard is easily on par with them. I like to call Criterion’s releases “film classes in boxes”, and this edition qualifies, too. While the extras might not be as scholarly as Criterion’s, this version of Sunset Boulevard is certainly worthy of being an upper-level course.

But first, Billy Wilder’s film, which remains, of course, a classic. If you’re a film lover who hasn’t seen this one yet, I doubt you’ll be unsatisified if you take the plunge and buy this disc, rather than give it a spin as a rental first. It’s the spiritual predecessor to many films that comment on the Hollywood machine, such as Robert Altman’s classic, The Player.

In fact, a double feature of Sunset Boulevard and The Player would be fun. I saw Altman’s film again not too long ago, so the similarities were striking when I rewatched Sunset Boulevard, particularly the way both films depict the struggles of screenwriters who are desperately seeking their big break. Regardless of the era, the game has obviously always been the same: lonely screenwriters bang out scripts in their apartments while dealing with the whims of rich executives who can make or break their careers in minutes.

In the case of Sunset Boulevard, screenwriter Joe Gillis finds his career on the ropes, thanks in part to a withering critique of his latest script by brash young Betty Schaefer. He pulls in every favor he can think of, but he strikes out. On his way back home, he’s spotted by a couple of repo men who want his car. In his desperation to elude them, Gillis suffers a flat tire and pulls the wounded vehicle into the first driveway he can find. He ends up at the decrepit mansion of faded silent film star Norma Desmond, who quickly pulls him into her scheme to make a Hollywood comeback with her own script, which she needs Gillis to simply polish up.

With no other options at his disposal, Gillis takes Desmond up on her offer and disappears down the rabbit hole. Soon he finds himself consumed by not only her delusions of grandeur — which are fed by her butler Max — but also her attraction to him as her savior. Gillis tries to pull away by striking up a writing partnership with Schaefer, but as the relationship deepens, Desmond’s discovery of the situation only puts further strain on Gillis. Desmond’s delusions culminate in a visit to the Paramount Studios lot, where she believes Cecil B. DeMille wants to discuss directing her script.

Despite Desmond’s insane behavior — and what she eventually does to Gillis — it’s hard not to feel sorry for her. She’s as much a victim of the Hollywood machine as Gillis is: both have been chewed up and spit out, and neither seems to understand when it’s time to call it quits and move on to the next phases of their lives. Both are doomed to suffer in eternal torment. Only Schafer emerges largely unscathed, but it’s not hard to imagine her eventually ending up in the same situation, perpetuating the same cycle that continues to this day.

The bonus features thoroughly dissect this film and its place in cinematic history, starting with an excellent commentary by Ed Sikov, who wrote a Billy Wilder biography. Sikov works off a prepared script which, honestly, is how most commentary participants should approach the job. His thoughts are insightful, and he covers both the how and why of the film’s creation as well as its deeper themes. It comes across like a film school class, which works for me.

Sikov also appears in the documentary materials, including Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning, Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back, Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic, and Stories of Sunset Boulevard. He’s joined by Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, actress Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), actress Stefanie Powers (who was in a relationship with William Holden, who played Gillis), director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek fans know him as the guy who saved that series of films), and others as they discuss the film from inception to its place in history. Sikov repeats some of the material from the commentary, and some of the interviewees’ comments are inexplicably repeated from one featurette to the next, but overall they compose an excellent look at the film.

In addition, those participants appear in The City of Sunset Boulevard, which explores the shooting locations in the film; it ties in with an interactive map that has short video bits about those places. The film’s score receives a pair of featurettes while costume designer Edith Head (the inspiration for the character E in The Incredible), Holden, and Gloria Swanson, who played Norma Desmond, receive their own profiles. Another pair of featurettes covers Paramount’s history and the films it released during the 1950s. There are also some photo galleries and the theatrical trailer.

If you own the last two DVD releases of this film, then you already have all the bonus features on this disc, except its lone Blu-ray-only item, a deleted scene, “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues”. The scene provides an alternate version of Gillis’ entrance at his friend’s New Year’s Eve party; the lyrics are critical of the studio, so perhaps that’s way it wasn’t used. Of course, as the other bonus features point out, many Paramount executives and other Hollywood types weren’t thrilled with the film in general, so I don’t know if part of a song would have made much of a difference. At any rate, it’s a nice little tidbit, but if you have the previous DVD editions, you’ll have to decide if that scene plus upgraded picture and sound are worth the price.

However, if you’ve never owned this film before, or if you have one of those prior DVDs but not the other, then this Blu-ray is well worth the price.

RATING 9 / 10