Billy Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’, ‘Roman Holiday’, and ‘Sabrina’

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Roman Holiday, and Sabrina are packaged into one DVD offering. Which among them is the best film?

Sunset Boulevard is, possibly, the best film ever made (as long as we agree that this is a totally ridiculous and subjective and plainly goofy thing to say about anything, but that, in this case, we’re talking about a piece of film-as-art that is utterly and in every way successful, influential, and important). This film transcends itself. We all know at least three lines from this film, even if we’ve never seen it. Like Casablanca, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or To Kill a Mockingbird, this weird little masterpiece has snuck into our collective (Western) pop consciousness. Even if you find Sunset Boulevard to be dated, stilted, overwrought, or even silly (all of which are probably natural 21st-century responses), you can’t say that it doesn’t carry the aura of significance.

The plot is simple but deceptively so. An out-of-work writer (a perfectly cast William Holden), cynical and bored, stumbles upon a decrepit old mansion inhabited by an equally decrepit has-been movie star from the silent era (Gloria Swanson). They enter into a partnership whereby he’ll rework a disastrous script she’s been developing as part of her “return” in exchange for money and a place to stay. Eventually, she falls in love with him, and he lets her believe he loves her back. Meanwhile, he actually falls for a young woman with whom he’s secretly working on a script of his own, and she returns his affections even though she’s engaged to marry his good friend. Ultimately, when Holden tries to leave Swanson, out come the fireworks. Fairly maudlin stuff, really.

However, Sunset Boulevard is less about this thin little plot than it is about the richness of the thematic material with which it engages. This is, famously, a movie about movies. Norma Desmond, the aging has-been at the center of the story, is played fearlessly by Swanson, who was an actual aging has-been. The film plainly relies on the audience’s agreement that silent film stars are over, passé, even as it forces them to confront their own fickle relationship with such “stars”. It is a film about the entertainer as a prostitute who works only for, and at, our pleasure. Indeed, Desmond’s narcissism is the replacement for money in the amorous exchange – she is absurdly wealthy in cash but has a desperate need for respect and adulation. She will give herself to us in return for our envy and reverence. Subtle echoes of this theme pervade the script – a decidedly dark and ugly vision of the relationship between actors and the public, to be sure.

However, it is to the studio system that Sunset Boulevard delivers its heaviest blows. The plot revolves around Desmond’s obsession with working once more for Cecil B. DeMille (who appears in a key scene as himself). Everywhere else, the film is populated with either fresh-faced newcomers or forgotten oldtimers. In this business, you are either on your way up or on your way down. In a bit of wonderful (and pathetic) casting, Desmond’s butler and friends are played by other luminaries of the silent era who had been forgotten on the shelf with the advent of sound.

Thus, Billy Wilder’s rich meta-design invites viewers to make delightful and rewarding connections in minor details planted throughout the film. It is hard not to be moved, even if just a little, when Desmond goes to visit DeMille on set, and she is hit in the head by a boom microphone, the very symbol of her irrelevance. Perhaps the creepiest instance of meta-filmmaking here comes when we see Desmond enjoying a silent movie at her home cinema. The film she is watching was actually made back in the ’20s by the very man who plays her butler and starred none other than Gloria Swanson.

Sunset Boulevard had a script and style that (as one commentator reminds us on a Bonus Disc documentary) was so groundbreaking that it was literally supra-genre. In other words, when Sunset Boulevard appeared in 1950, it invented a new style of filmmaking: elements of noir mingled with satirical comedy, absurdist expressionism, with broad romantic themes. Recall that when Holden first arrives at the mansion, he is mistaken for an undertaker who has come to carry away Desmond’s late lamented ape. Little did he know that absurd as it sounds, he was bound to take the ape’s place. Has there ever been a more implausible, yet such an effective, set-up?

Roman Holiday is a wonderful lark and a perfect way to spend an afternoon. It is today precisely as it was then – just about the greatest date movie ever concocted. The stars are gorgeous (Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), the setting is romantic in the extreme (it is, of course, Rome), and the dialogue is as crisp as it is sexy. As with Sunset Boulevard, some of this stuff has been burned into the collective consciousness. It is surely tough to find someone who doesn’t know about the scene at the Boca della Verita or recognize lines like: “at midnight, I’ll turn into a pumpkin and drive away in my glass slipper.”

The plot, very simply, revolves around the one-day adventure of a carefully controlled European princess who, after escaping from her hotel room, winds up being guided around the ageless city by an undercover newspaper reporter hoping for the scoop of his life. He needs to get enough money together so that he can fly back to America – she needs to experience life beyond the pomp and circumstance of her royal display at court. He, of course, knows who she is but pretends not to; she presumes him to be nothing more than a friendly, helpful chap.

They share champagne; she gets an ultra-chic haircut, and they dance, flirt, and zip around the city on a Vespa. It is all so extraordinarily winning. Of course, the central theme of escape, longing for freedom from one’s enslavement to circumstance, is universal. Who doesn’t identify, at least on some level, with either Hepburn’s tragically bored princess or Peck’s financially trapped journalist? Both long for deliverance and seem to have found it in each other (due to all sorts of madcap exploits, natch).

William Wyler’s masterpiece is the too-oft forgotten archetype of the romantic comedy form. A modern-day fairy tale packed with enough classic scenes and zingy lines to keep even the most hard-hearted cinephile riveted through to the end, this is the kind of rom-com they should keep in mind when they sit down at the drawing board. Instead, we get dreck like Four Christmases and 30 First Dates. And, of course, there is the ending. In an age defined by paparazzi seemingly eager to install hidden cameras in actors’ bathrooms, the poignancy of the denouement is unavoidable.

The enchanting and extraordinarily funny Sabrina is the second Audrey Hepburn vehicle in a row (not to mention the second William Holden flick in this bunch), and it’s an odd choice if we’re looking for variety in Wilder films. But if we’re looking for flat-out entertainment, brilliant screenwriting, and some of the most adorable Audrey Hepburn moments ever put on screen, we have an olive jar full of it here.

This lovely little fantasy follows the story of two immensely wealthy brothers with wildly divergent lifestyles. One, William Holden, is a delightful rogue, a skirt-chasing ne’er do well, and a hopeless narcissist. The other, Humphrey Bogart, is a sober, determined, and perfectly dependable bachelor who might as well live at the office he inherited. Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina has grown up among them but as the daughter of their chauffeur. She is, to them, utterly forgettable. But they, to her, represent everything to which she aspires.

Of them, of course, it is Holden whom she admires the most. Indeed, she loves him with the kind of youthful ardor that leads her to a very sloppy and weirdly comic suicide attempt. She is whisked off to France to study culinary arts, is there taken under the wing of an eccentric millionaire who schools her in European chic and Parisian style, and she returns home as the unrecognizable beauty she has become, determined to win her Holden with her outstanding haircut and impeccable skin. (Seriously, how do you not adore this woman?)

Sabrina is at its best when it is riffing on the absurdity of class structures that demarcate the characters, relegating them to their places in the hierarchy. This is no simple satire,: by far the most “terrible snob” of all (as he is referred to by Bogie in one of the greatest scenes in this film of great scenes) is Sabrina’s own father, the ultra-English chauffeur. “I like to think of life as a limousine,” he pointedly explains. “Though we are all riding together, we must remember our places.”

Has there ever been a better line in a Hollywood film? Maybe one as good, but none better.

Sabrina is so packed with such top-shelf writing that, while it is surely the winner of these three films, picking the second prize is pretty tough. How about: “A woman happily in love burns the soufflé. A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn on the oven.” Or: “Democracy can be a wickedly unfair thing, Sabrina. Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying somebody rich.” Or: “Twentieth century? Why, I could pick a century out of a hat, blindfolded, and come up with a better one.” Indelible.

All three of these indispensable films are here repackaged in classy gold and black and come with a second disc filled to overflowing with featurettes, lengthy documentaries, and other informative material. For any film fan, this stuff is completely essential. You will find in-depth docs on subjects ranging from the masterful Edith Head and her complete ownership of costuming in this era to a helpful overview of Audrey Hepburn’s career, to a study of the noir-ish elements of Sunset Boulevard, to a retrospective on Paramount in the ’50s. Hours and hours of quality bonus stuff, all told. But, let’s face it, it is the films you want, and these three are among the best ever made.

RATING 10 / 10