The Magic of “Sunset Boulevard” Still Capturing the ‘Eyes of the World’

NormaDesmondThere is little question that Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard still captures the hearts, minds, and souls of audiences today, be they in their homes or Vaudeville style theatres turned movie houses. Since its release in August of 1950, it has been the inspiration to countless films. But what does it mean to you? What makes it special or stand out to you? Perhaps you just see it as an iconic film; or just maybe, you see it as representing something personal to you. From classic noir cinematography to some of the most quoted lines of all time, Norma Desmond’s spirit lives on. So much for Joe Gillis’ line about her “still waving proudly to a parade that has long since passed her by;” she is still as alive today as she ever was. Serving as a mirror to the current state of Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s film shed light on the darker side of celebrity that still haunts to this very day. This timeless movie provoked Hollywood to take a cynical and honest look at itself, and the dangerous price of stardom–especially when the star is fading into obscurity. Poignantly arriving near the end of the Golden Era (or Studio System), this cinematic masterpiece will continue to be the epitome of a Hollywood and anti-Hollywood film for all eternity. Beyond what it meant historically or industry-wise, it holds meaning and significance for many who watch it. One of its strengths to withstand the test of time is the fact is its ability to connect with people visuals and emotionally. That, combined with solid technical aspects, makes for a dynamic cinema experience.

The Story

Part of what still beckons the “eyes of the world” is the movie’s ability to tell the story within a story. In many ways, Gloria Swanson truly is Norma Desmond. Swanson took a role that was essentially making a mockery of everything she once stood for. Like Norma Desmond, Swanson was one of Hollywood’s highest paid performers in the 1930s and staged a failed comeback in the 1940s, following “talkies.” The role was originally offered to Mae West and Mary Pickford, but no one could capture the character of Norma Desmond like Gloria Swanson. Throughout the movie, we witness the psychological breakdown of a woman who is already seriously afflicted with chronic depression and even agoraphobia. I feel as though many actors, and even some industry professionals who are not performers, can truly understand what must have been going through the mind of Norma Desmond. Actually, even for those who are not involved in entertainment or media can still see someone who felt betrayed and left alone to drift away. We’ve all been there. Feeling like we have so much to give the world, our community, or to the arts, and no one to take or acknowledge it. Norma isn’t going through anything that we have not been through. Essentially, Norma’s significant other, or partner, was her celluloid self, the studio, the industry. And when her partner left her, never to return, she developed serious psychological and cognitive disorders. Each person who chooses to watch her downward spiral into insanity, should be able to identify with her on some level regarding something in their life. For Norma, it was being back on screen again. For you, maybe it’s finding a romantic relationship.

Paramount-Gate-287x162Fascinating elements of this story include the bewildering world of what lies between the glory and the fall of a celebrity who feels as though she built Hollywood, more specifically Paramount Studios. Never before had there been a movie that was developed around the idea of what happens to a star after they are rejected by the very business that created them. Serving as the inspiration to the opening scene of American Beauty nearly 50 years prior, Wilder set the standard in the dead body of the protagonist narrating the film. Like the fog over London, Gillis’ spirit hovers over the entire movie, narrating the course of events that lead to his demise. Joe gets to do what any of us would enjoy doing–getting to observe what happens after we die and how everyone reacts. Just like having a soundtrack to your life would be amazing, getting to narrate your story after you die would be equally, if not more so, enamoring.

 

William (Bill) Holden’s character of Joe Gillis is the prime representation of a starving artist. He lives in a tiny apartment, has a few credits to his name and is in danger of having his car repossessed. That describes many artists today, thus allowing other aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers to identify with his frustrations. Like a true film noir, the ending is tragic for the protagonist. Part of the suspense is wondering just when will he meet his end and why. For those who are trying to make it in the industry as a screenwriter, the grief and depression Joe must been feeling is something with which aspiring screenwriters can empathize.

Sunset Boulevard contains something for everyone: elements of mystery, action, romance, and deceit are woven meticulously throughout the film. This allows for the story to transcend decades of movie evolution and maintain such a high regard in the minds of all the “people out there in the dark.” And, even land a spot on the Great White Way in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard Broadway musical. It’s been rumored that Paramount plans to make a movie version of the Broadway show, but that rumor has been floating around Hollywood for years. As much as the the musical is a tribute to the original, the movie will always be more impactful because the stage simply cannot bring you as close to eyes of the actor as the screen can. And, Norma “can say anything with [her] eyes.” But, thanks to Barbra Streisand keeping the songs alive, “With One look” and “As if We Never Said Goodbye” are brilliantly written to capture the feelings and state of mind of Norma.

The Screenplay

GillisWritingRegarding the screenplay itself, it is not a matter of what’s going to happen as much as it is how’s it going to happen. This pioneering non-linear structure served as yet inspiration for another film that would not be produced for nearly 60 years. Along with All About Eve and Citizen KaneSunset Boulevard played an instrumental role in the development of the 1994 blockbuster Pulp Fiction. A lesser known 2001 movie borrows many plot points from Sunset Boulevard including the movie title being a street name, entitled Muholland Drive starring Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, and Laura Harring. Sort of a neo-noir, this is a more modern twist on the foundation Wilder laid with his masterpiece. On that note, now-a-days, non-linear films aren’t necessarily anything special, but at the time, Sunset Boulevard broke ground that would be the standard in abandoning traditional story structure. To me, the screenplay was written in such a way that many people can find his or her own story in the screenplay. Perhaps, someone feels like they are Norma–all but forgotten. Perhaps, there is a starving artist out there who can understand the predicament Joe Gillis was in–just trying to get ahead. To a lesser extent, there may be Betty Schaefer’s watching the movie who feel they have a lot of talent, but very little is recognized and want to find a creative outlet.

Unlike previous films, this movie was also ahead of its time in terms of including dark sarcasm and humor as chief elements in the film. Other aspects that capture the ears of the world, to Miss Desmond’s disapproval, are the famous lines from the movie. Ironically, Desmond despised dialog; however, her movie possesses the coveted numbers 7 and 24 spots on AFI’s Top Movie Quotes list. At number 24, “…I am big! It’s the pictures that got small;” and at number 7, ranking above “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and “what we have here, is a failure to communicate” is the often misquoted “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” There are many other more obscure, yet brilliant lines of dialog and exchanges between characters, landing the screenplay in the WGA’s Best Screenplays of All Time list at number 7! It’s important to now only appreciate the movie as a movie, but to appreciate the story itself. Let us never forget that “someone sits down to write a picture” and fool ourselves into thinking that most of the time the “actors make it up as they go along.” Part of what makes this a timeless classic, and even a sort of Bible if you will, is the brilliant writing.

The Cinematography

One of the elements that stands out in the movie is the meticulous placement of lighting. Film Noirs are one of the best examples of how effective lighting can be in playing an intricate part of the storytelling process. Lighting can show us whether or not someone may have two personalities, whether someone is dark and sinister. Since films did not have access to color, in the same way we do today, lighting in a grayscale movie was very important. Since colors could not be distinguished, lighting played that role. In many ways, the lighting in a film noir is like the Norma of the movie itself. Color has caused lighting to be used in a different way. For more practical reasons that aren’t always artistic in nature. Furthermore, another element that makes a film noir a film noir is the cinematography. After all, the term noir is French for dark. So, essentially film noir simply means dark film. It holds up to the definition due to the physically dark scenes; and furthermore, the state of being psychologically dark. The 9-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer John F. Seitz is responsible for creating the haunting visuals and shadows that dominate most of the movie.

 

GIllisPoolOne of the shots that is the most puzzling is how Wilder was able to shoot Joe Gillis’ floating body in the pool. Now-a-days, that is simple enough–even YouTubers do it–but in 1950, how does one accomplish such a special effect? The use of mirrors in the film went beyond macabre and haunting set pieces; a mirror was also used to shoot this scene. Seitz placed a mirror at the bottom of the pool and shot facing down towards the mirror while Holden floated in the water with the police officers around the deck. This gave the illusion the camera was in the water facing up.Thanks to the iconic cinematography, the mansion “stricken with a creeping paralysis” appeared lonely and massive. There is no better example of this than when Gillis descends the grand staircase to a party where he and Desmond are the only guests on an expansive tile dance floor recommended by Rudolph Valentino.

"Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."

“Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Some of the most memorable cinematography comes at the end of the movie. Wilder and Seitz chose to shoot parts of the finale in slow motion to create an uneasy feeling in the minds of the audience. As Norma begins to descend the grand staircase one final time, she is shot in slow motion, as if it were Norma’s dream coming to life–her big come-back. Pardon, she never left; the pictures left her. In her mind, she is playing princess Salome entering the palace; when in all reality, it’s not movie cameras, but news cameras documenting her psychological decline into insanity. With her famous line “I’m ready for my closeup,” she encroaches upon the camera operator determined to get the closeup she wants, even though it is fixed at a medium shot. The audience, she is so desperate to connect with again, is tragically out of her reach.

Conclusion

Sunset Boulevard means a lot of things to a lot of people. And, each person may have their own respective reasons as to why this film holds a special place in the minds and heart of those who love cinematic art. This movie truly embodies the latin inscription around Leo the Lion in MGM’s logo “Ars Gratia Artis.” Art for Art’s Sake. To me, it is one of the purest examples of artistic cinema. It also served as a mirror, to the dismay of the big producers of its day, highlighting the state of the industry at that time. People still remain mesmerized at this timeless feature because of all it has to offer. This is partly due to the fact that it as relevant today as it was in 1950. It’s entirely possible that there are Norma Desmonds today in their decaying estates watching their movies on TCM or AMC under the delusion that they remain stars that command the attention of the world. Regardless if you are a filmmaker or a connoisseur of movies, Sunset Boulevard captures the eyes and ears of all who peer into the world of Wilder’s Hollywood. And, it will continue to be a source of inspiration and entertainment for decades to come.

References

  • Sunset Boulevard, 1950, directed by Billy Wilder, Paramount Pictures production
  • Oscar Award timeline, http://oscar.go.com/oscar-history/year/2013
  • AFI top movie quotes of all time, http://www.afi.com/100years/quotes.aspx
  • IMDb entry, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043014/?ref_=nv_sr_1
  • WGA 101 greatest screenplays, http://www.wga.org/subpage_newsevents.aspx?id=1807
  • Sunset Boulevard, 1950, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunset_Boulevard_(film)
  • Muholland Drive, 2001, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulholland_Drive_(film)

The Hollywood Studio System: Employment Then and Now

One of the last remnants of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre stands as a tribute to the movies that started it all.

One of the last remnants of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre stands as a tribute to the movies that started it all.

In light of the recent film Hail, Caesar!, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the old studio system and whether resurrecting some of the practices might actually prove to be a positive affect upon employment in media and entertainment.

The entertainment industry is evolving more quickly than it ever has, and film production companies and distributors are of no exception. Just like the advent of television had a major influence on the sharp decline of movie patrons in the 1950s and 60s, the advent of on-demand and streaming “television” and movie content today is having a major impact on entertainment sources today. But this article does not aim to analyze distribution, production, nor revenue; its aim is to analyze the state of employment opportunities in the film and narrative television industries. What better way to begin to explore this controversial topic than with the studios that started it all.

HISTORY

The famous entry gate to Paramount Pictures as seen in the 1950 film, all about the studio system, “Sunset Blvd.”

The famous entry gate to Paramount Pictures as seen in the 1950 film, all about the studio system, “Sunset Blvd.”

The rise and fall of the former “studio system” lasted for a period from the 1920s to the late 1960s, with the 1940s to the 1960s being the period of the downfall. During this time, there were five major film studios known as the Big Five, essentially controlling the film industry from production to distribution. The Big Five consisted of Paramount, MGM, RKO, Loew’s, Fox Pictures, and Warner Brothers. Though not as prominent, three smaller studios known as the Little Three, consisting of United Artists, Universal, and Columbia Pictures, were the chief competition. Regarded as the end of Hollywood’s Golden Era, the landmark Supreme Court decision in United States v. Paramount in 1948 marked the delcine of the Studio System. In short, over about a 15-20 year timespan, studios began opening their lots to independent filmmakers–independent of the Big Five (not independent by today’s definition), terminating permanent staff members, and refraining from entering into longerm contracts with performers and movie houses. Although the Walt Disney Company was not part of the Big Five nor the Little Three, it is the only studio today still operating as a studio from the old Studio System.

PRESENT DAY

The Bronson Gate at Paramount Pictures as seen today

The Bronson Gate at Paramount Pictures as seen today

With the major studios today only producing about 20 films a year, the majority of films releasing in first-run movie theatres are produced by independent producers. As stated earlier, this is not independent as we think today; independent by this definition means movies produced outside of the major studios, but often distributed by them (or a subsidiary). Think: Star Wars or Jurassic Park. Since the fall of the Studio System, big banks are more reluctant to invest in or finance films, so producers are responsible for securing their own funding. Less funding means fewer job opportunities for film and television graduates. Most film and television professionals in the entertainment business today are independent contractors–being attached to films and television shows for however long the production time or run-length is. Although a long-running television show provides more employment stability than films do, both are high risk professions. Of course, along with the high risk comes potentially great rewards.

According to Hollywood folk lore, making a wish at the famed Bronson Gate is said to bring good luck. This is me (30lbs ago!) on the Paramount Studio tour in March 2015.

According to Hollywood folk lore, making a wish at the famed Bronson Gate is said to bring good luck. This is me (30lbs ago!) on the Paramount Studio tour in March 2015.

Why would the return of some semblance of the old Studio System be a good turn of events in today’s economy? Simply stated: more jobs and opportunities for budding professionals and college graduates. Why is that? Any first-year film student can tell you that studios keep a low threshold of permanent staff members in administration and production. The majority of talent and crew on each film is independently contracted. And with gaining entry into a union becoming increasingly difficult, it leaves many potentially talented professionals out of work or in low-pay positions on low and moderate budget films. If the Studio System were to return, they would have the collateral that big banks are looking for to invest in films. After all, film, television, and to some extent theatre, are the United States’ largest exports even though they are only recently counted as part of the U.S.’ GDP (gross domestic product) in terms of evaluating the health of the economy. If there were more permanent positions in production with studios and production companies, the unemployment rate would drop significantly in entertainment because budding professionals and college graduates could land positions in which they could grow and excel.

An aerial shot of the Desilu Stages in Hollywood in the 1960s

An aerial shot of the Desilu Stages in Hollywood in the 1960s

But what about exploitation and monopoly? Are those not reasons why the Supreme Court stepped in? Yes. However, there are many reasons why personnel in entertainment today, as permanent staff members, would not undergo the same treatment. The reason: unions. SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, TEAMSTERS, and EQUITY do an excellent job at protecting creative peoples’ rights and opening doors of opportunity. But, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain access into these organizations. And with the unions being the gatekeepers to opportunity in the industry, where is a budding professional or college graduate supposed to go? If studios produced more in-house movies and television shows, then that would require them to hire permanent staff members. Those seeking a career in the industry would find their place. Some may argue that production companies offer internships to recent graduates; but with lawsuits increasing in the last few years, internships are increasingly being seen in a negative light. One hypothesis is that unpaid internships are taking the place of entry level jobs. With the number of entry-level jobs decreasing since the recession began, the unemployment rate in entertainment is rising.

One way to combat the increased unemployment in entertainment business is to bring back the large studios that have the financial assets to offer and hire permanent positions. This would enable the studios to hire a number of cinematographers, writers, directors, etc. And, those individuals would work on the films produced by the respective studios. If studios were to increase the number of films produced each year, as they once did, then there would be more opportunities for professionals. Regarding the monopoly studios had on movie houses, the present laws on the books would not allow for a studio to have complete control over a particular theatre chain.

There is plenty of room for studios and production companies large and small. Unlike the days of the Studio System, in which outside companies could not shoot films or television shows on another company’s lot, the smaller studios should be allowed to still rent the stage and lot space as they do today. Of course, if Studios were producing more movies on their lots, that may cause the smaller companies to have to look elsewhere for locations. But, that could be a good thing; because if they purchased land for a backlot or sound stages, that would create more jobs for craftsman. In order to combat the rising unemployment rate in the entertainment business, professionals need to get together to develop ideas as to how to hire more personnel. Bringing back the Studio System is just one idea as to how to create more full-time jobs in film and television production.

One of the entrances to MGM Studios (now owned by Sony Pictures) in Hollywood

One of the entrances to MGM Studios (now owned by Sony Pictures) in Hollywood

With studios forced to produce more movies in order to make payroll, that could potentially mean more writers can sell their scripts and perhaps more original ideas will make their way to the silver screen. This action could create human resource databases at the various studios and production companies that would advertise vacant positions. Just like applying for a job at Disney World, you could see what positions are available. Bringing back a new Studio System would allow for studios to advertise full and part-time regular positions. For instance, you could see which studios are hiring cinematographers, directors, composers, etc. Professionals in the creative and technical arts would also benefit from employer provided health insurance and retirement. Although as independent contractors, film and television professionals make more money than working as a regular employee, regular employees benefit from regular paychecks and benefits, and to an extent job security.

Technology is making the production of movies and television shows more efficient than ever, so a major studio could hire permanent staff members to work as producers, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, etc. Employment opportunity and stability are key elements to the health of an industry–even creative ones. Even though the old Studio System ran unchecked for many years, causing the eventual breakup, carefully constructed and regulated today, the return of a new Studio System could mean more jobs and opportunity for college graduates pursuing entertainment business careers. And just maybe, more movies!

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • US adds entertainment and innovation to GDP, Time Magazine, http://entertainment.time.com/2013/08/01/hey-america-entertainment-just-made-you-hundreds-of-dollars-richer/
  • History of the Studio System, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/394161/history-of-the-motion-picture/52153/The-Hollywood-studio-system
  • Paramount Pictures v United States, 334 U.S. 131 (1948)
  • Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, New York Southern District court, http://www.nysd.uscourts.gov/cases/show.php?db=special&id=300
  • US Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/entertainment-and-sports/home.htm
  • Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. 2013 WL 2495140 (S.D.N.Y.) – See more at: http://blog.legalsolutions.thomsonreuters.com/legal-research/westlaw-topical-highlights-labor-and-employment-july-10-2013/#sthash.J9tcpnM1.dpuf
  • Hollywood Studio System Collection, http://mediahistoryproject.org/hollywood/
  • Bigelow v. RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 327 U.S. 251 (1946)