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Close Up on Sunset Boulevard

Close Up on Sunset Boulevard

4.0 2
by Sam Staggs

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a classic film noir and also a damning dissection of the Hollywood dream factory, evokes the glamour and ruin of the stars who subsist on that dream. It's also one long in-joke about the movie industry and those who made it great-and who were, in turn, destroyed by it. One of the most critically admired films of the twentieth


Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a classic film noir and also a damning dissection of the Hollywood dream factory, evokes the glamour and ruin of the stars who subsist on that dream. It's also one long in-joke about the movie industry and those who made it great-and who were, in turn, destroyed by it. One of the most critically admired films of the twentieth century, Sunset Boulevard is also famous as silent star Gloria Swanson's comeback picture.

Close-Up On Sunset Boulevard tells the story of this extravagant work, from the writing, casting and filming to the disastrous previews that made Paramount consider shelving it. It's about the writing team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett-sardonically called "the happiest couple in Hollywood"-and their raucous professional relationship. It's about the art direction and the sets, the costumes, the props, the lights and the cameras, and the personalities who used those tools to create a cinematic work of art.

Staggs goes behind the scenes to reveal: William Holden, endlessly attacked by his bitter wife and already drinking too much; Nancy Olson, the cheerful ingenue who had never heard of the great Gloria Swanson; the dark genius Erich von Stroheim; the once famous but long-forgotten "Waxworks"; and of course Swanson herself, who-just like Norma Desmond-had once been "the greatest star of them all."

But the story of Sunset Boulevard doesn't end with the movie's success and acclaim at its release in l950. There's much more, and Staggs layers this stylish book with fascinating detail, following the actors and Wilder into their post-Sunset careers and revealing Gloria Swanson's never-ending struggle to free herself from the clutches of Norma Desmond.

Close-Up On Sunset Boulevard also chronicles the making of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical production of Sunset Boulevard and the explosive diva controversies that dogged it. The book ends with a shocking example of Hollywood life imitating Hollywood art. By the last page of this rich narrative, readers will conclude: We are those "wonderful people out there in the dark."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Staggs serves up another round of popcorn in this highly enjoyable follow-up to All About "All About Eve," plumbing the depths of the noir homage to the silent era, Sunset Boulevard. The book traces the film's history from the studio pairing of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as screenwriters to the Academy Award disappointments to the film's rebirth as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in the 1990s. Staggs's research is impressive: in addition to traditional print sources, he tapped unexpected sources, such as the film's previously uninterviewed supporting actress Nancy Olson, and explored nifty locales, like Norma Desmond's would-be neighborhood. The intrepid reporting results in little-known film facts: how co-art director John Meehan conceived and set up the face-down water shot of the dead Joe Gillis (William Holden) and why then-megastar Montgomery Clift did not want to play opposite older female character Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Also entertaining are Staggs's descriptions of the many behind-the-scenes cat fights. Some of Staggs's film analysis such as his take on the "crowd-pleasing kitsch" sound movies of Cecil B. DeMille is standard, but his opinions on the Wilder-Brackett and Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond pairings are sharp and original. There are also plenty of edifying sidebars on topics such as the history of Norma Desmond's exotic car (the Isotta-Fraschini), changes made to the script and "Smiling Franklyn Farnum," the silent western star who plays Norma Desmond's pet undertaker. Staggs has succeeded in presenting another remarkable film study. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Jim Donovan. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
From the author of All About All About Eve comes another intense look at a film classic. Written in a campy, opinionated style, this is everything you ever wanted to know about Sunset Boulevard and some things you might not. It includes a history of the Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett screenwriting partnership, actual Hollywood locations where the film was shot, intimate details about the stars, and even a history of Gloria Swanson's Isotta Fraschini, the ultimate star car. Nothing about this film seems to have escaped the author. He even can't resist pitting the actresses who played Norma Desmond in the musical version against each other to determine who was the ultimate "Singing Norma." This is no doubt a fun read, and Staggs knows his material; it is just difficult to believe that many patrons out there have the same passion for this film that he does. For comprehensive film collections. Rosellen Brewer, Monterey Cty. Free Libs., Salinas, CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Staggs follows up All About All About Eve (2000) with a similar, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production history of Eve's frequent companion on revival-house double bills: Sunset Boulevard. The sink would probably have been in there too if we'd ever caught a glimpse of a kitchen in Billy Wilder's famously mordant portrait of Old Hollywood meeting and murdering New. Staggs retains his annoying habit of including vast swaths of dubiously relevant material, from three paragraphs on why opera has no true divas anymore (inspired by a list of the Broadway divas who played Norma Desmond in the musical version) to three pages on My Fair Lady (Sunset Boulevard ingénue Nancy Olson was married to lyricist Alan Jay Lerner). Presumably enough movie trivia nuts enjoyed this approach the first time around for Staggs to get a new contract and publish a second title with no attempt made to rein in his excesses. The author's catty tone is amusing, and he gets in all the famous stories about this poisoned love letter to the movies, from Wilder's instruction to the art director, "Just make it an everyday funeral for the average Hollywood monkey," to enraged mogul Louis B. Mayer telling the director after the screening, "You should be kicked out of this country, tarred and feathered." The author displays proper respect for Gloria Swanson's ferocious incarnation of silent screen queen Norma Desmond and William Holden's subtle one of cynical but not heartless screenwriter Joe Gillis; he conveys the virtues of Wilder's script with longtime collaborator Charles Brackett; he give a sense of the shock the movie gave 1950 audiences, separated from silent films and their stars by only as many years as today'spublic is from The Godfather. But it's all so excessive and obsessive—which is probably the point. Die-hard camp followers will clap furiously; everyone else will be squirming in their seats. (16 pp. b&w photos)

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.64(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.46(d)

Meet the Author

Sam Staggs is the author of the acclaimed All About All About Eve and a novel, MMII: The Return of Marilyn Monroe. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

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