Archive for April 17th, 2008

Madame duBarry(1741-1793)
Illegitimate daughter of a cook she became the favorite mistress of Louis XV, who declared that she was the only woman who made him forget he was 70-something.
As a young girl she was put in a high class brothel where she was bewildered by exaggerated affections and mannerisms of her colleagues. She felt out of place and lost which her mother tried to comfort thus, ”Don’t worry, men tire of always eating capons and delicate fruit; a good cabbage now and then delights them.”

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In one letter home Lord Cornwallis answering a suggestion that he employ a friend wrote curtly,”Here my lord, we are in the habit of looking for the man for the place and not for the place for the man.”
One of the biggest headaches of Lord Melbourne,(1779-1848) the Whig prime minister was the various requests made by great and small for more honours and titles. At one time losing his temper at a notably half-witted Scottish peer who clamoured for more honours he remarked,”Give him the Thistle! Why he’d eat it!”

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A Hollywood story

Billy Wilder, a great Hollywood director, decided to make a film about the thing he knew best – Hollywood. In Sunset Boulevard he made a film that echoes Hollywood obsession with its own past. Extreme vanity, madness, obsession and murder are all given space here in this tale of a faded silent film star in her twilight years and the younger man whose cynicism is swept aside by her overpowering fantasies.

Cops, with sirens blaring, rush to a mansion on Sunset Boulevard. In the swimming pool floats the corpse of a man, face down. A cynical male voice-over:

You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved – one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you’ve come to the right party. You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion – with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit. The poor dope! He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool…

He is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a hard-up screenwriter with debts to pay (“Waiting, waiting for the gravy train.”). We’re in flash back. Joe has peddling the script that could save him from his creditors, without success. He spots the guys who are out to repossess his car and he evades them at speed. When he gets a flat, he pulls into the driveway of a run-down mansion in Beverly Hills. In a commanding voice, a woman calls him into the dilapidated old house. The butler ushers him upstairs into the presence of a lady of a certain age (Gloria Swanson), wearing a leopard skin headscarf.

Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

Norma lectures Joe on the sorry state of the movie biz and then Joe inveigles himself into a job. He is to script her comeback vehicle, an update version of Salome. Joe needs the money and accepts, even though he realizes nothing will come of the movie. The only catch is that he must stay with her while he writes. So he becomes a prisoner of this sad old has-been and her stern butler/chauffeur, Max (Erich von Stroheim), a once great director reduced to domestic service.

She is still in a warp and on the giddy heights of a lost career – plain crazy when it came to that one subject: her celluloid self.
Wilder built on the self-reference that permeates the film by incorporating clips of Swanson’s performance in the unfinished Queen Kelly, directed by von Stroheim, as the work of Norma Desmond. Unlike Desmond, Swanson did not become a twisted neurotic, although she gives a convincing portrayal of mental instability. Her performance as Desmond stunned critics and public alike.

Billy Wilder fell out with Charles Brackett, his producer and collaborator on the Oscar-winning screenplay. They never worked together again. Brackett had wanted a light comedy but Wilder took the film to a darker place. He got Sunset Boulevard to work as black comedy, film noir, melodrama and satire. He made many great movies, perhaps, most famously, Some Like it Hot, but Sunset Boulevard is the pinnacle of his output.

Director:Billy Wilder

Joe Gillis: William Holden
Norma Desmond: Gloria Swanson
Max Von Mayerling: Erich von Stroheim
Betty Schaefer: Nancy Olson
Artie Green: Jack Webb
Himself: Cecil B. DeMille
Herself: Hedda Hopper
Himself: Buster Keaton
Himself: H.B. Warner
Herself: Anna Q. Nilsson

110 minutes
Academy Awards

Won (3)

* Best Art Direction
* Best Score (Drama or Comedy)
* Best Story and Screenplay – Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.

National Film Registry, Library of Congress Selected as one of 25 landmark films, leading examples of American cinematic art.

Although Norma Desmond never gets her come-back, Sunset Boulevard was a spectacular return for Gloria Swanson, who gives an outstanding performance.

You see, this is my life. It always will be! There’s nothing else – just us – and the cameras – and those wonderful people out there in the dark.
All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.

In the 1920s, Swanson really had been an immensely popular star of the silent screen and reportedly the mistress of Joseph Kennedy. Similarly, Erich von Stroheim, who really had been a great director, is cast as a once great director. As ever his acting is riveting.

Giants of the movie industry appear in cameo roles: Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner are in Norma’s bridge group. Director Cecil B. deMille, columnist Hedda Hopper and others all appear as themselves.

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