Classic Movie Reviews

Sunset Boulevard Review

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( Mar 1899 -- Apr 1983 )

Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago but, because her father was a soldier, the family moved frequently and she spent a large part of her childhood in Puerto Rico and Key West. She attended Hawthorne Scholastic Academy in Chicago and in 1914 an aunt took her on a visit to a small film company, Essanay Studios. Almost as a joke, she asked if she could be in the movie and the director invited her to become an extra. In a few months she dropped out of school and began working full-time at the studio. In 1916 her parents separated and she moved with her mother to California. She found work in Mack Sennet's Keystone comedies and in 1919 was signed by Paramount Studios, where she worked often with the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Within two years she had become the queen of silent movies and a fashionista whose elaborate costumes (some of her pictures were called Costume Dramas) were copied around the world. Many people, especially women, went to her movies as much to see her wardrobe as her performance. She made extensive use of beads, gems and ostrich and peacock feathers. Unlike many silent film stars, she made a successful transition to talkies, but changing tastes and the Great Depression contributed to a decline in her popularity in the 1930s. As film roles became less frequent, she turned to live theater and then, in the 1950s, to television. She was nominated for the very first Academy Award (not yet called an "Oscar") for Best Actress. She later received a Golden Globe Award for film work and was nominated for another for her television work. She even produced a few of her own movies, including the very controversial Sadie Thompson. Today, Goria Swanson is best remembered for her iconic portrayal of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

"We didn't need voices. We had faces." 

    As the second half of the 20th Century began, Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles was partly a living museum, lined with mansions where the first generation of Hollywood royalty had once lived in decadent splendor. Some were still occupied by former stars of the silver screen, still rich but no longer famous. This film opens at such a home, owned by silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). In a tour de force performance, Swanson, an actress no longer young enough to play romantic lead, plays just such an actress, as life imitates art. A very unusual dramatic device has the film narrated by a dead man (William Holden), whom we first meet floating face-down in the swimming pool. How he came to be there is a dark but intriguing story. Strong performances are turned in by Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson and others, but this film belongs to Swanson. It received Oscars for Screenplay, Score and Art Direction & Set Decoration. It was later made into a Broadway musical.


1950, Directed by Billy Wilder

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