Joe Gillis: “That was last year. This year I'm trying to earn a living.”
Man, you gotta love the wit and bite of Billy Wilder. It's hard to pick a best film from the great Austrian-born American filmmaker who made an indelible mark on Hollywood in the '40s, '50s and '60s, making major contributions to American cinema with "Some Like It Hot," "Stalag 13," “The Apartment,” the rediscovered acidic gem "Ace In The Hole," “Double Indemnity” and “The Lost Weekend,” to name just a few (you can dive into our full-blown retrospective to get our take on all his work). But if you had to choose one picture to represent the greatness of Wilder you might be forced to acknowledge the sheer brilliance of perhaps his best known film, "Sunset Boulevard,” his last collaboration with his screenwriting partner Charles Brackett.
It’s dark, acidic and bitter, but not without its mordant humor; a scathing indictment about Hollywood, how mean, heartless and corrupt it could be and how some could sink to unspeakable depths in the name of getting ahead. It’s essentially about opportunism and its consequences and if you don’t already know for some reason, “Sunset Boulevard” is a classic melodrama about a hack screenwriter who writes a screenplay for a former silent-film star who has faded into Hollywood obscurity. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but just winning three (“All About Eve” would take Best Picture), “Sunset Boulevard” has been lauded the world over, as well as by the U.S. Library of Congress, the National Film Registry, and the American Film Institute, just to name a few. Still, not everyone’s an egghead over this wicked 1950 classic, so in case you’re just a fan, and don’t know the inside story (and yes, some of this will be old hat to longtime fans), here’s a few things we learned while watching the new Blu-Ray/DVD that’s out this month via Paramount.
“Sunset Boulevard” as you can see below, begins at the end of the film, essentially. William Holden’s character Joe Gillis is narrating his demise, while his dead body floats in a pool and the police are arriving on the scene to investigate. It’s a classic film opening and predates the “end as beginning” cliche opening which can make audiences groan now. But it wasn’t exactly what was envisioned. Originally, Wilder had a similar, but different idea: the film began in a morgue with Gillis on a slab, eyes open talking to other dead people. The exchange in the morgue is between Holden’s character who’s dead, a fat man who has passed on, and a young boy who’s dead who died from drowning. They share their “how they died” stories and the scene is meant to be mordant and morbid, but audiences found it hilarious and Wilder was extremely upset by their reaction.
The audience “roared” with laughter the late film critic Andrew Sarris said and much of it was because of the morgue “toe tags” which were real, but thought they were hysterical -- absolutely not the intended reaction. Ed Sikov, author of “On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder,” one of the foremost scholars on Wilder and a major presence on the DVD extras recalls how Wilder told him the original test screenings was one of the low-points of his career. Suffice to say, he changed the scene immediately after and it’s the one you know and love today.
2. However, this new opening sequence wasn’t easy to shoot.
“That opening would be enough to stamp ‘Sunset Boulevard’ as one of the great movies," Sarris says on the DVD extras. “It’s one of the most striking, stirring openings I’ve ever seen in a movie.” Again, William Holden’s character is dead, floating in a pool. Above him are journalists taking pictures of the body and policemen arriving on the crime scene and the scene is shot from below. It’s an indelible image and as Sikov also notes, it’s one of the few times in the movie that Wilder actually calls attention to the camera in the entire film.
Wilder once famously quipped, “Whenever somebody says, ‘What a great shot,’ it's usually not." It was an extremely difficult scene to set up. Wilder told the cameraman he wanted it from a fish’s point of view, and after various experiments that failed, the camera operator built a fish tank box and experimented with mirrors and dolls until he got the desired effect. After several tries they discovered if the water was about 40 degrees and no higher, because that would cause distortion, they could shoot it from above, the camera looking down at a mirror and in the mirror a reflection of William Holden’s corpse in the pool.