Does Billy Wilder's classic black comedy still hold up?

Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2004

I 'm always a bit leery when the word classic is bandied about, especially in reference to movies. Once placed on a pedestal, the film acquires a certain amount of inscrutability about it.

Sometimes the classic label is slapped on so fast that people hardly remember a time when it was just an ordinary film. When it's rediscovered by a new generation, there is often disappointment. What seemed fresh and immediate seems stale and distant.

But this is not the case with Billy Wilder's Hollywood satire "Sunset Boulevard." Although some aspects of it have aged - an overripe musical score for instance - the film holds up admirably.

"Sunset" wrote the rules for all behind-the-scenes Hollywood films to follow. It was the first to provide a cynical view of the motion picture business. It also was one of the first to include stars, directors and journalists playing themselves.

The screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. is still snappy after 54 years. It contains many memorable lines that have become part of the popular culture - "I am big. It's the pictures that got small!" There is the danger that these lines are no longer effective, but when seen in context, the lines still pack a punch.

And the acting holds up, too.

William Holden plays a hack screenwriter who is hounded by creditors. He stumbles upon a reclusive silent movie star (Gloria Swanson), and agrees to work on her comeback picture. However, he soon finds that he has become Swanson's gigolo.

Swanson's performance is difficult. She must play a potentially unlikable, pathetic character. Her Norma Desmond is over the top, but you can still identify with her and her desperate attempt to recapture the past. When Norma finally succumbs to madness, you feel empathy for her as she goes on to act out her last great role in front of newsreel cameras.

And though someone I know thought Holden's performance was somewhat wooden, his dry, sarcastic delivery is pitch perfect.

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