Tuesday, October 12, 2021, 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm
ON SITE: $25 for members, $35 for non-members
REMOTE CLASSROOM: $15 for members, $20 for non-members
Instructor: Paul Wright, Ph.D., Department of English, Cabrini University
The quintessential writer-director in the classic Hollywood idiom, Billy Wilder was a master of so many genres that it is easy to forget just how much genre formulas annoyed him. Wilder did not so much embrace genre as interrogate and redefine it at every turn. When one recalls his many masterpieces over a mere sixteen years from 1944 to 1960, they include films running the genre gamut from Double Indemnity to The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. Two things these otherwise very different films invariably have in common are Wilder’s biting wit and penchant for transgressive subjects for which Hollywood never quite seemed ready—until Billy got to them in his inimitable way.
The film many consider Wilder’s crowning achievement, Sunset Blvd. (1950), is no exception. It endures as an intoxicating blend of genre tropes that lesser films struggle to do well individually, let alone in this hard-hitting cocktail. It features a career-defining performance by William Holden as Joe Gillis, a screenwriter on his way down who decides to ingratiate himself to an already fallen starlet of the silent era, the iconic Norma Desmond, portrayed so memorably by Gloria Swanson. In this vein, Sunset Blvd. is one of the finest films noir ever made, reversing the usual dynamics of noir seduction, with Holden as a self-assured homme fatale using his sexuality to manipulate a vulnerable, vain woman consigned to a madness in part self-imposed—only to find himself dependent on and hostage to her in ways he never anticipated.
At the same time, Sunset Blvd. is also a mesmerizing yet poignant satire, a meta-commentary on the self-importance of a Hollywood that blissfully commodifies, then ruthlessly disposes of, its own past. One legendary tale of Hollywood’s response to the film has Louis B. Mayer publicly chastising Wilder for biting the industry hand that fed him; still, one is hard-pressed to find any movie more in love with filmmaking and the colorful people committed to it. Sunset Blvd. simultaneously embodied the classic Hollywood style that Wilder inherited while at the same time changing that style forever, pointing a way forward to serious themes and innovative storytelling that would inspire generations of future filmmakers. Norma famously reminds Joe that in the silent era, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” The film sincerely respects those faces and that silent era tradition, while also clearly being in love with the modern dialogue so carefully crafted by Wilder in collaboration with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. To punctuate Wilder’s homage to the silent era and his indictment of Hollywood’s tendency to amnesia, he brilliantly cast silent-era director Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s butler and former director, Max, a character much like Stroheim himself—both a genius and a casualty of that bygone era. Of all the tongue-in-cheek, “insider” films about the realities of Hollywood ever made, none is more inviting to everyone who appreciates the spell cast by truly great cinema than Sunset Blvd.
Are you interested in “just” seeing this movie? That’s easy! See additional screening dates and showtimes here.
Cinema Classics Seminars offer an entertaining and engaging way to learn more about some of the true classics of world cinema. All students receive an introductory lecture before the film and a guided discussion after the film. In addition, those who attend the seminar on site at BMFI receive a ticket to see it on the big screen, as well as popcorn and a drink.
Please note: There are two ways to attend in this seminar:
Please email BMFI education coordinator Jill Malcolm with any questions.