A restored ‘Sunset Blvd.’ now ready for its closeup
BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org November 21, 2012 6:14PM
Split/sceen still from "Sunset Boulevard" shows the restoration of the film for the Blu-ray version released Nov. 6.
Updated: December 24, 2012 6:13AM
There are many story lines in director Billy Wilder’s iconic “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), not the least of which was Hollywood’s way “disposing” of its stars once their ages and looks were no longer stellar. But that is just one layer to this multifaceted gem, newly restored and recently released in a Blu-ray version from Paramount Home Entertainment.
The film stars Gloria Swanson in a role that eerily mirrored her own career trajectory, and William Holden in a performance that reignited his career. Swanson portrays former silent screen star Norma Desmond, who has descended into madness with the onset of talking pictures and middle age. Her fading beauty and delusions of a comeback make her a prisoner in her Sunset Boulevard mansion, which has become her shrine. Not even her onetime champion, legendary director Cecil B. DeMille (in a marvelous cameo) can offer her a role on the Paramount lot, despite Desmond’s belief that he will helm the script she has penned.
Enter struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden), who unwittingly stumbles into Desmond’s mansion of the macabre, where her former glory is on display everywhere in framed photos, portraits, movie posters and silent film screenings. In a twist of fate, he becomes her writing partner — and well-kept young lover.
Along for the ride are Desmond’s faithful servant Max (in an Oscar-nominated turn by the stone-faced and silent film director Erich von Stroheim) and script reader Betty Schaefer (played by ingenue Nancy Olson), who falls hard and fast for Gillis.
After a six-month process to restore the film’s original look and sound, all of this now unfolds in pristine black and white.
“The original negative for the film doesn’t exist anymore,” said Andrea Kalas, vice president/archives for Paramount. “That happened to a lot of well-known films from that era because the original negatives were overprinted so many times for duplicates over the years. So the main reference for this Blu-ray version was the vintage print — a print made at the original theatrical release time — in the original 35mm format.
“After the scans of that print, we did some dirt cleanup and scratch restoration as frames needed them, and we replaced frames that were lost using two other print sources that were even further away from the duplicate negative we started with. But that’s what we had to work with to restore the film to what Billy Wilder created.”
Often called “the film with no genre, “Sunset Boulevard” seamlessly navigates everything from high drama and suspense theater to film noir and even dark comedy.
“That speaks to the remarkable nature of this film,” Kalas said. “It’s a film about Hollywood made by Hollywood, and with all these different members of that community, from Hedda Hopper to Cecil B. DeMille to a slew of silent film stars. It captures Hollywood from the great studio eras of the 1930s and ’40s as it moved into this big new era of talking films. Some Hollywood folks weren’t pleased when it came out because they saw it as Wilder criticizing his own industry. Even though it’s not a comedy per se, there is this great, affectionate sense of humor [in the film] for Hollywood and all it represented. I love the scene where DeMille and Swanson [reunite] and [he has this] gentle adoration and pity of her. He’s not a jerk at all. In the same way, Wilder had that same feeling toward Hollywood of his day.”
Milwaukee native Olson, who was 19 when Wilder signed her for the film, says it was a case of typecasting that led her to the Paramount backlot.
“I was in college at the time, acting during the summer months,” Olson said. “Billy Wilder cast me, I really believe, because he saw me as a smart, ambitious and strong, the very qualities he saw in Betty.”
Olson, who’s currently writing her memoir, shared most of her scenes with Holden, whom she remembers with fondness and some sadness.
“Bill had these two incredible pictures, ‘Golden Boy’ and ‘Our Town,’ and then he went off to war, and he came back, and his career had dissipated,” Olson said. “He was already drinking too much and he was already 30, and he was in this marriage to actress Brenda Marshall, who was older than he was. He was not in great shape. He wasn’t even the first choice for the role of Joe Gillis; that was Montgomery Clift. But he was always very dear and polite with me. Bill knew this role was the chance to re-establish himself, and boy, did it.”
As for Swanson, Olson said the actress gave her no advice about acting, but there was plenty of opportunity to learn from the star.
“Gloria would stay on set very late and rehearse for the next day,” Olson said. “I’d stay and just hang around in the background and watch and learn. She was brilliant.”
The best of the bonus features are the deleted scene of a musical number, “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues,” which takes place during the New Year’s Eve party that Joe visits briefly in his attempt to escape Desmond’s grip. Also fascinating are the all-too-brief “Behind the Gate: The Lot” featurette on the history of Paramount studios and the interactive Hollywood location map that allows viewers to click icons along Sunset Boulevard, triggering brief videos on the various addresses.
To paraphrase one of Desmond’s legendary lines, films may have gotten smaller, but they still can look great and hold their own, even 62 years later.