Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection
Directed by Billy Wilder
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Running Time: 110 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 24.99
Release Date: November 11, 2008
Review Date: October 31, 2008
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, an acidic skewering of Hollywood’s “use-them-up-and-spit-them-out” mentality, was a revelation to film audiences in 1950, and its bitter, no-holds-barred look at Tinsel Town is no less impressive now. Newly released by Paramount in this 2-disc Centennial Collection set, Sunset Boulevard is still wickedly droll and hauntingly sad. It features a handful of classic performances and direction so astute and focused that the film’s message is just as relevant to the world of show business today as it was then. Names come and go, but the story is the same. Once you’re out of favor either by your own devices or merely by the passage of time, you’re flat out of luck, the person nobody wants to know.
Down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) accidentally turns into the driveway of faded silent screen legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in a frantic effort to outrun bill collectors. Intrigued by the handsome stranger who has screen writing credentials she can use to help adapt her hack script for the Salome story she wants to use for her return to the screen, Norma first has Joe move in as a writer but later turns him into her gigolo, an escort for whom she pays for everything and eventually falls in love with. But Joe has plans of his own: collaborating on a script with cute script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). Once Norma finds out what’s going on, she takes her own kind of melodramatic action to clear away the competition.
The script for Sunset Boulevard was a joint venture between director Billy Wilder, his co-writer and producer Charles Brackett, and D. M. Marshman, Jr. Its focus on a washed up silent movie star trying for a comeback twenty years after her stardom has faded gains added realism by the casting of silent star Gloria Swanson (though the filmmakers were all quick to state that the story was not based on Swanson at all; she wasn‘t even first choice for the role: Mae West was). One can’t help thinking that about Swanson, however, with the specter of Paramount Studios, Cecil B. DeMille, and Erich von Stroheim all playing pivotal roles in the drama’s unfolding and in her real life as a silent screen goddess of the 1920s. No moment is wasted in pointing the finger at cruel, fickle Hollywood for deserting its created royalty, and yet Norma isn’t held blameless: her unbridled ego and disdain for anything currently in favor certainly make her less sympathetic than she might otherwise have been if she had been painted as a complete, pathetic loser. Here, she’s rich, commanding, dynamic. If she’s deluded about her chances of making a successful return, it’s her monstrous, devouring personality and inability to see reality that’s as much the reason as the movie industry who had less use for elderly (read 50-year old) actresses then than it does now.
The film was a huge stepping stone to the superstardom William Holden would achieve in the 1950s. His performance as the sardonic screenwriter who’s as blunt with himself as he is in his dealings with others is perhaps his greatest achievement. The script allows him some black comedy and a touch of romance while the creepy vibe with Swanson seems all too real, his repulsion combined with a fascination with the woman and her surroundings. Gloria Swanson’s performance is pitched to the rafters, and for some it’s overdone ham, but there’s validity to that melodramatic approach. By the time we meet Norma, she’s already on the brink of madness living in her manufactured world where she’s still adored and sought after, so it makes sense that her behavior would be overly grand: gestures, emotions, and reactions. Besides, some of her “turns,” as a Max Sennett bathing beauty or as Chaplin, for example, have a pathetic grace and panache to them. And no one ever slithered down a staircase as harrowingly or as memorably as Swanson does at the film‘s conclusion.
In supporting roles, Erich von Stroheim is appropriately stolid and unwavering as Norma’s longtime servant (in more ways than one) Max. Nancy Olson makes the most of her part as the eager to please reader who wants to graduate to legitimate screenwriter. Jack Webb has a couple of fun scenes as an assistant director and friend to Joe while Fred Clark as an unhelpful Paramount producer offers his usual solid turn.
Though it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture (and won three for its script, music, and art direction), it’s pretty unthinkable that Hollywood would ever have given such a finger-pointing sneer at certain cynical attitudes its highest honor. Looking at it today, however, we recognize its truths and celebrate it as one of the great, unblinking Hollywood films about itself. The many lines of quotable dialog, some memorable moments (the monkey burial, the wheezing organ in Norma’s living room, the boom microphone bumping into Norma when she visits Paramount, the bridge game with the “waxworks” celebrities from the silent days, Norma‘s climactic “close-up”), and the alluring sets, costumes, and music all contribute to one of the greatest and most fondly remembered movies in film history.
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered faithfully in this new DVD release. Contrast is solid resulting in a rich grayscale with deep blacks which only crush on occasion. Sharpness is excellent though there are one or two moments where there is a slight flicker present. Compared to the 2002 release of the film, this new transfer appears to be taken from the same master (though the press release touts that the Centennial Collection DVDs are all restored and newly mastered transfers), but the fact that the film itself gets its own disc results in a higher bitrate and a much steadier and rock solid image than the earlier release. The film has been divided into 19 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is decoded by Dolby Prologic into the center channel. The recording is fine for its era but does evidence moments of low volume hiss occasionally. This appears to be the same audio track as on the previous release.
The audio commentary by Wilder biographer Ed Sikov has been ported over from the 2002 DVD release. Though he has many anecdotes to share in the early going, he runs out of them long before the picture wraps up reducing the last quarter of the film to infrequent comments about what we’re watching on screen.
There is a trailer on disc one for It’s a Wonderful Life in its most recent DVD release.
The majority of the bonus features appear on disc two. All are in 4:3. Many are new but some have been found on previous releases of Sunset Boulevard on DVD.
“Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning” is the lengthiest of the bonus documentaries: 22 ¾ minutes that feature A.C. Lyles, Stephanie Powers, Nicholas Meyer, and Ed Sikov discussing the preproduction on the film including the writing, the casting, and location shooting for the picture. This and the other newly minted documentaries for this set were produced by Laurent Bouzereau.
“The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard” gives author Joseph Wambaugh 14 ¼ minutes to talk about the aspects of his favorite film which contain noir elements and which parts deviate from the noir standard.
“Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic” features interviews with critic Andrew Sarris, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, and Glenn Close on the reception the film received after its release, its status as a modern classic, and the musical version of the film which starred Glenn Close on Broadway. This runs 14 ¼ minutes.
“Two Sides of Ms. Swanson” features interviews with Swanson’s granddaughter and with actress Linda Hamilton (who co-starred with her in Airport 1975) who describe both the person and professional sides of the star. This featurette runs 10 ½ minutes.
“Stories of Sunset Boulevard” has author Ed Sikov describing the different opening that the film originally previewed with (to disastrous results) and descriptions of Wilder’s working methods. This feature runs 11 ¼ minutes.
“Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden” is an 11-minute tribute to the man and the actor featuring comments by A.C. Lyles, Stephanie Powers, and Nancy Olson.
“Recording Sunset Boulevard” is a 5 ¾-minute interview with record producer Robert Townson who with the absence of a true soundtrack album for the movie spent years assembling the elements so he could record Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning score for the film.
“The City of Sunset Boulevard” is a 5 ½-minute discussion of the legendary Hollywood landmarks shown in the film and how they look today (if still in existence at all).
The original morgue prologue is offered in script form in its original and revised forms which the viewer can step through a page at the time. Where available, the footage (lacking the sound elements) for many scenes in the prologue can be selected to be viewed.
“The Score of Sunset Boulevard” is an interview with Franz Waxman’s son offering a mini-biography of the Oscar-winning composer and describing his work ethic on this particular project. This feature runs 14 ½ minutes.
“Behind the Gates: The Lot” is a 5-minute history lesson by producer A.C. Lyles and historian Rudy Belmar on how the Paramount Studios came to be formed from its earliest days as a New York studio.
Hollywood Location Map offers up 7 locations of real-life places in the film using film clips from the movie and a voiceover narrator describing the location and its current state of existence.
“Edith Head: The Paramount Years” is an often used biographical featurette on Edith Head’s place among Hollywood’s premiere designers. It runs 13 ½ minutes.
“Paramount in the ‘50s” is another frequently seen 9 ½-minute featurette detailing the many successes Paramount had during the decade. Interestingly, all of the mentioned films (Sunset Boulevard, A Place in the Sun, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Shane, White Christmas, The Ten Commandments, To Catch a Thief, Funny Face, and the Martin and Lewis pictures) are available on DVD.
The original theatrical trailer runs 3 ¼ minutes.
Three separate photo galleries offer photographs taken during production, offer stills from the picture, and show some publicity shots with various groupings of the major actors.
An 8-page booklet containing stills from the movie and its filming plus liner notes on the picture is enclosed.
One of the great Hollywood films about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard in this new edition couldn’t come more highly recommended. If one has any of the previous releases, the video improvement isn’t revelatory enough to warrant a double dip. Only if the extra bonuses in this set appeal would there be a need to upgrade.