Sunday 17 December 2017

Film: Hollywood laid bare on boulevard of broken dreams

Hollywood in technicolor: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Hollywood in technicolor: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Paul Whitington

It might seem sinfully early to be discussing the Oscars, but one film is already being talked about as a hot favourite for next year's awards. Damien Chazelle's La La Land hasn't even been released in the US yet but has gone down a bomb at the Venice and Toronto film festivals and been showered with five-star reviews. This despite the fact that it's that most old-fashioned of genres, a musical, set in Hollywood and celebrating the rich and brassy culture of the Californian film industry.

Emma Stone is Mia Dolan, a struggling young actress who's stuck in a traffic jam when she runs into an obnoxious jazz musician played by Ryan Gosling. Sparks fly, and their romance plays out against the shiny and colourful backdrop of Los Angeles. Ryan and Gosling get to share some stirring song and dance routines, but their characters' relationship is jeopardised by unexpected success.

Though only 31, Chazelle already has Oscar form: his last film, Whiplash, was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three. In addition, the Academy tends to love movies about Hollywood: The Artist swept the board in 2011, Argo performed strongly the following year. Which is why La La Land seems like a shoe-in for awards-season glory: it's due out here at the end of the year.

I haven't seen it yet, but however good La La Land turns out to be, I'm pretty confident it won't be the best film ever made about Hollywood, because that would have to be Sunset Boulevard. Made 66 years ago, Billy Wilder's drama wasn't by any means the first film to attack the skewed values and cheerful venality of Hollywood, but it did it so intelligently, comprehensively and stylishly that it's unlikely ever to be matched.

It was made by a man who, having grown up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had an outsider's perspective on Hollywood that helped him capture both its glamour and its insanity. And although Wilder made a lot of good films - from Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole to Some Like it Hot and The Apartment - Sunset Boulevard may just be the best of them. It turns up on Film Four now and then, is widely available on DVD, and if you've never seen it, you're in for a treat.

Billy Wilder had been fascinated by the culture and inner workings of Hollywood since the 1920s, when he'd become a regular at a Berlin cinema that specialised in American films. When he came to Los Angeles in the early 1930s and began working as a screenwriter, the film industry was still recovering from the arrival of talking pictures, a seismic shock that had ended the careers of some of Hollywood's biggest silent stars.

Most of them still lived there, in huge mansions dotted along Sunset Boulevard, but had been forgotten by the fickle town they'd helped create. Wilder wondered how they spent their time, and began dreaming up the story of a great silent actress who refuses to accept she's no longer a star.

Slowly, the grotesque character of Norma Desmond took form in Wilder's mind. She was probably an amalgam of many actual silent stars, inspired perhaps by the unhappily reclusive later lives of Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge, and the mental instabilities of Mae Murray, and Clara Bow. She would be a study in the corrosive effects of fame, and the devastation of losing it, but finding the right actress to play her would be key to the project's success.

It would have to be someone who suggested the glamour and mystique of the bygone silent age, but a good enough actress to pull off a demanding and emotionally charged role. Wilder initially suggested Mae West, but thought better of it: he contacted the great silent femme fatale Pola Negri but, ironically given his own central European drawl, was put off by her heavy Polish accent.

The great Norma Shearer was approached, but had recently retired from acting, and in any case found the idea of playing the deluded and pathetic character insulting. After Greta Garbo and Mary Pickford had also been crossed off Wilder's list, he sought advice from his friend George Cukor, who suggested Gloria Swanson.

There were obvious parallels between Swanson's story and Norma Desmond's. One of the great stars of the silent era, Gloria Swanson was famous for her beauty, finesse and high society lifestyle: at the height of her fame in the mid-1920s, she was said to have received as many as 10,000 fan letters a week, and for a time had lived on Sunset Boulevard in an impressive Italianate palace.

Her film career was killed by the arrival of sound but, unlike Norma Desmond, Swanson coolly accepted this change of fortunes, sold her Sunset Boulevard house and moved to New York, where she worked in radio, theatre and later television, and became a successful businesswoman.

Swanson might not have reacted as Desmond did, but at least she could understand how devastating that kind of public rejection might have felt. She had not been considering a comeback, but knew that Wilder's script represented the opportunity of a lifetime.

In a 1975 interview, Billy Wilder commented dryly that "there was a lot of Norma in her, you know", and Swanson's outrage at being asked to do a screen test for the role was very much in character. She eventually agreed, and was signed up by her old studio, Paramount.

Montgomery Clift was supposed to play her young lover Joe Gillis, but infuriated Wilder by withdrawing at the last minute. Instead he turned to William Holden, a likeable actor whose promising career had been interrupted by military service in World War II. And in a stroke of genius, legendary silent era director Erich von Stroheim was persuaded to play Norma Desmond's long-suffering and slavishly faithful factotum, Max.

Von Stroheim had actually directed Swanson in her pomp: his presence added to the film's authenticity, as did the "waxworks", a group of friends who joined Norma for a solemn weekly card game, and were played by silent stars HB Warner, Anna Q Nilsson and the great Buster Keaton.

Gillis is a struggling screenwriter in late 1940s' Hollywood who's being pursued by a pair of repo men when he pulls into the driveway of a mansion on Sunset Boulevard to hide. The old place has clearly seen better days: there are rats in the empty swimming pool, dust and cobwebs everywhere. Inside, Joe finds Norma, a faded beauty who curses the industry that left her behind. When Joe recalls how big a star she once was, Norma insists "I am big - it's the pictures that got small!".

She might be forgotten, but Norma has money, and penniless Joe soon becomes her toy boy. She hires him to write a screenplay for her comeback vehicle, but it's a pipe dream that will soon be cruelly exposed.

Wilder's production designs were wonderfully gothic, and in fact Sunset Boulevard is part film noir, part horror movie. The writing is extraordinary: at one point Gillis describes Norma as someone "still proudly waving to a parade which has long since passed her by", and compares her to Miss Havisham, a tragic, wasted woman who'd also been "given the go-by".

Sunset Boulevard is full of contempt for a place that may once have been vibrant and magical but is now cruel, venal, merciless, cynical. Everyone in Hollywood has an obsession with fame that almost amounts to a collective psychosis, and even those who make it have no guarantee that they won't be cast on the scrap heap like Norma. Wilder's film was so scathing that it offended many of the old guard.

After a celebrity preview, MGM boss Louis B Mayer gave him a dressing down in front of the great and good of Hollywood, telling him he had "disgraced the industry that made and fed you" and should be "tarred and feathered" and run out of town.

But Wilder stood his ground and told Mayer where to go. He knew he had not merely attacked Hollywood: he had accurately described it, and lamented what it had become.

The film is famous for its daring opening sequence in which, while a dead Gillis floats face down in a swimming pool, his disembodied voice begins telling us his sad story in flashback. Originally Wilder had opened Sunset Boulevard with a group of corpses sitting around chatting in a morgue, but in test screenings, audiences found this idea too broadly comic, so Wilder simplified it into perhaps the single greatest opening scene of all time.

If you watch one film…

One tends to take Steven Spielberg's talents for granted, but his ability as a cinematic storyteller is unparalleled, and his 2015 drama Bridge of Spies deserved all the awards and praise it received. It's being shown on Sky Movies Premiere all this week and, if you haven't seen it, it ought not be missed. It's set during the Cold War, and based on the true story of an American lawyer who had the courage to defend a Russian spy. James B Donovan (Tom Hanks) specialises in insurance law and is not too pleased when his partners persuade him to take on the case of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian agent who's apprehended in Brooklyn.

He develops some respect for Abel, who he recognises as a fellow patriot, but becomes a hate figure when he mounts a credible defence. Though Abel is convicted, Donovan manages to spare him the death penalty, and when a U-2 pilot is captured by the Soviets after being shot down over Russian airspace, the lawyer becomes involved in a tense prisoner exchange in Berlin. Spielberg lovingly evokes the austere atmosphere of the late 1950s, and Tom Hanks and the great Mark Rylance spark off each other brilliantly in a series of compelling scenes.

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