- Billy Wilder
- Reviewed by
- Gon Curiel a.k.a. Groucho
- Review date
- Tuesday, July 04, 2006
This is Wilder at his brightest; he explores and invades every last corner of Hollywood of old and Hollywood of today (“today” being 1950 of course) and doesn’t make it easy for any department, except perhaps, screenwriting. Not surprisingly, writers are portrayed as good and honest, almost humble in their effort to maintain the quality in their work while staying behind the cameras and being ignored by virtually everyone. They’re not like those greedy producers, much less those fame-hungry actors. Wilder, a writer in essence, wouldn’t portray writers as anything but the one and only instance of coherence in the Hollywood system. He’s probably right, too.
The story concerns a B-movie writer, no less, whose name is unknown to almost everybody but himself: Joe Gillis (William Holden). Mr. Gillis is running away from his debts, sought after by those he owes money to—who want his car as security, when he runs into a big old mansion that seems abandoned, and hides there. The place is not as empty as it seems though, but rather full, quite full of the star of old who has lived there for decades and has frozen time for herself in an eternal remembrance of her golden days: Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), that famous silent-film star who’s all but forgotten now.
Living alone with her loyal butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), Miss Swanson takes Joe under her wing if he’ll help her finish a script she’s been writing for years, Salome, a project to be directed by none other than Cecil B. DeMille, starring Norma in her glorious… I don’t want to say comeback… In the glorious fulfillment of a promise she made to her audience not to ever abandon them.
If there’s anyone in the world who has his feet on the ground, it’s a young, hungry writer. There’s a lot of cynicism and not the least bit of daydream in Joe Gillis. He knows Norma Desmond can’t be resuscitated, not the way she wants to be anyway, and he knows he can’t help it, but he needs the money desperately and he has nothing to lose, so he goes for it. What he never expected was the way Norma would turn him into a prisoner of sorts, living in that alternate universe that is her house, and absorbing him to the point of madness. He never loses his mind however… But by playing her game, he turns her arctic desolation into an unreality from which the only way out is some sort of tragedy.
Never does the film stretch believability. Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. keep a constant contact with reality without making Norma’s universe seem farfetched or utterly ridiculous; even the unpleasantness of her house plays a crucial role in making it all seem curiously irresistible. No one would like to be in Gillis’ shoes, but while we’re there with him, it’s all so fascinating we don’t actually want it to end. The story takes several paths and becomes increasingly intriguing. As Joe relates to a young female writer (Nancy Olson) and sees in her an outlet f his bizarre situation, secrets emerge concerning Norma’s past and present. Little by little, Max opens up to Joe and admits to some shocking truths, including one concerning himself which is the most shattering moment in the whole movie.
Wilder really didn’t conform with having a good story and shooting it well. He wanted to make it real. So he went as far as actually filming inside and around the Paramount Pictures lot, and featuring astonishing cameos including Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper, and no less than Cecil B. DeMille himself, in a most poignant cameo. But most impressive of all, Swanson and von Stroheim play roles that echo their own realities, albeit metaphorically. They’re both completely memorable. Next to them, Holden and Olson, both top-notch, have little to do; they’re not the stars of this show.
Also born to leave a mark are John F. Seitz’s cinematography and Franz Waxman’s music score. The latter is as enigmatic and unforgettable as that forgotten star of the silent era as she makes her glorious reappearance in front of the cameras, walking down the stairs of a palace, at the bottom of which many people await for a Princess.
“All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.”
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