Title: Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the DarkHollywood Dream
Author: Sam Staggs
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin (February 4, 2003)
Amazon Link: http://tinyurl.com/qduhzff
Rating: 1 1/2 star
Classic storytelling about one of Hollywood’s darkest masterpieces, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard goes behind the scenes to reveal everything about the making of this movie and the larger-than-life personalities of its creators and stars. Close-up on Sunset Boulevard features unforgettable anecdotes about every player: from silent queen Gloria Swanson in her poignant comeback to the cheerful ingenue Nancy Olson (who had never heard of the great and glamorous Gloria), from henpecked, handsome—and hungover—William Holden to the raucous writing team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Close-up on Sunset Boulevard is a fascinating, unputdownable movie history.
You are familiar with Sunset Boulevard even if you haven’t seen all of it. The film has become a pop culture touchstone and has been quoted or referenced in all sorts of venues. From inspiring Metallica’s 1997 single “The Memory Remains,” having David Lynch name his character on Twin Peaks after one of the film’s incidental characters, being quoted in animation projects such as Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto and Tiny Toon Adventures, or inspiring the mix or reality and fantasy seen in films like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare or the sillier Seed of Chucky, artists of all stripes owe a great debt to Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir drama. If you have ever said that “it was the pictures that got small,” or told an imaginary Mr. DeMille you were “ready for your close-up,” than you do too.
If you haven’t seen it, it won’t be stealing too much of the film’s thunder to tell you that it opens on a swimming pool, one with a dead man floating face-down in it. Our narrator, (the man in question) remarks ironically via voice-over that he always wanted a swimming pool and proceeds to tell us about his days as a struggling screenwriter and how a chance encounter with a former silent movie queen led to his demise.
The film was ground-breaking in the way that it cast actors in roles that mirrored their own lives, Gloria Swanson gave a career best performance as the faded star of the silent screen and Erich von Stroheim (once one of the best and most innovative and respected directors of the silent era) plays her butler, each had tasted fame and were tossed aside by the cruel whims of fate. Add to this that Cecil B. Demille, Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper and others appear as themselves and you have a film with many links to a very dark reality, mixed with a few layers of fantasy. A combination like this had never been seen before and has never been done in quite the same way since. It’s a film about fractured dreams and how crime and sensation came bring an altogether different type of fame.
Even over half a century later the film retains a crispness that most from its era have lost. This is due in part to its creepy mood and the fact that it is (believe it or not) a dreadfully funny piece of work. It’s a film that should be seen by everyone, if for no other reason than as a pop reference point. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Stagg’s book as I am about the film that inspired it. While he proves himself very knowledgeable on the subject and the prose is readable, the book is a mess. It is structured in an odd fashion, the first part concerning the background of the film and the people who made it. The author seemed content to wander off-course whenever he pleased sometimes mocking the filmmaker’s other efforts, sometimes telling a gossipy tale of questionable value. A potentially traumatizing story featuring Dragnet’s Jack Webb (which had nothing to do with the film) is told lightly as though it were an amusing anecdote. He had the tendency to dwell on facts that seemed pointless to the task at hand and are included (presumably) only because of his interest in them.
The book is of some value to those who love the film, or are just encountering it and wish to know more. It is packed with many facts and stories, but his analysis has little depth and his observations rarely stray far past the obvious. There are some great bits, an in-joke the costume designer Edith Head included as a sort of middle finger to DeMille gave me more appreciation for her brass, and a crude comment Wilder uttered within the hearing of Nancy Reagan made me laugh out loud. The second half of the book is dedicated to the influence the film has had on popular culture and is of mixed results.
His attempts to be exhaustive are at times exhausting to read, take for instance the nearly two pages dedicated to recounting news and magazine headlines that feature some variation of Swanson’s “ready for my close-up” line. He happily didn’t shy away from some of the film’s stranger spawn, such as a number of drag shows or two gay porn parodies done in the early nineties. Oddly, as complete as it seemed he did miss a few references (such as the aforementioned Metallica song) or skirted others. He mentioned a shot of a road sign in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive but missed a more obvious shot of Paramount Studios (complete with a replica of the famous car that von Strohiem’s character chauffeured). Staggs also spent a surprising amount of pages chronicling the film’s bumpy journey to the Broadway stage.
Staggs is an even bigger film snob than I am (those of you who know me understand that takes some doing) and unfortunately seems unable to pass any chance to editorialize when straight reporting would often have served him better. After reading the book one could easily come away with the feeling that the only film that he liked other than this one was All About Eve (which he wrote a similar book about). He devotes the better part of a chapter to explaining what he found wrong in every film that Billy Wilder made after this one to the point where it feels like he had some personal axe to grind. If the book were restructured and trimmed of a significant amount of clutter, it could be a great read, but instead is only recommendable to completists. Wilder, who was 95 at the time of the book’s publication, died shortly after. I hope he never read the book and you shouldn’t either.
Would I recommend it?