Unheralded Scene: SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
In our “Unheralded Scene” section, our consultants nominate a classic film or TV scene, which in their view hasn’t received the admiration it deserves. It might be a scene from a classic movie, which has been crowded out by other, more “showy” scenes and set-pieces. It might be a deleted scene which is outstanding in its own right but wasn’t quite in-sync or critical to the final cut of the film.
***Warning: plot spoilers below***
Unheralded Classic: SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
The film: This unheralded scene comes from Billy Wilder classic SUNSET BOULEVARD, which was nominated for an impressive eleven Academy Awards, though it only won three (among them, quite rightly, one for the screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr). A coruscating satire on Hollywood that caused some of the old guard, among them Louis B. Mayer and Mary Pickford, to declare Wilder a traitor to the business that made him, SUNSET BOULEVARD is also a brilliant noir with a fascinatingly original femme fatale in the character of Norma Desmond, while protagonist Joe Gilles represents every screenwriting hack forced to sell his creative soul by taking a job for money.
The plot: With no jobs on the go and rising debt trouble, Gilles (William Holden) finds himself on the run from loan sharks when, after taking a wrong turn on Sunset Boulevard, he lands up hiding out with ageing silent film star Norma (Gloria Swanson). Hired by her to write a movie that will put her back on the Hollywood map, Gilles slowly but inexorably becomes her live-in scribe and gigolo, as she plots an ill-fated comeback that ultimately ends in delusion and murder.
The scene: Almost every scene in SUNSET BOULEVARD could be considered a classic, such is Wilder’s mastery of the form. His exploitation of silent film history introduces tongue-in-cheek post-modernism into cinema a full forty years before Quentin Tarantino, with appearances from famous silent film director Erich Von Stroheim, Buster Keaton, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper among his numerous nods to the past. In this particular scene, Norma Desmond visits the legendary Cecil B. DeMille on the set of his latest film to try and persuade him to make her comeback feature. Unfortunately he’s read Gilles’ script and isn’t impressed, but he’s far too polite to say so. As she waits for him to attend to her, Desmond finds herself spotted by some of the on-set film-makers she used to work with back in the day and for one brief moment she finds herself once again heralded as the movie star she believes she is.
Why it’s unheralded: So many moments in SUNSET BOULEVARD have entered the cinematic lexicon (“It’s the pictures that got small”) that this little scene can easily slip by unnoticed. But it’s a pivotal beat in the picture, one of the few moments that reminds us that while Norma might seem completely deluded in her egocentrism, it is in fact based in reality; she really was a star once.
Why it’s great: Quite aside from the self-referential pairing of Swanson and DeMille, one of the first times Hollywood had so openly cannibalised itself, the scene from SUNSET BOULEVARD has a beautiful clarity to it. The tiny beat of the feather in Norma’s hat being touched by an automated camera shows how theme needs to be woven into a screenplay at the most detailed level; what might seem like a mere comic grace note is actually a symbolic reminder of the main conflict of the story, between the traditional way of doing things and the modern, between the Old Hollywood and New. The scene is also a great example of what Robert McKee refers to as the turn from a positive value to a negative one, with Norma beginning the scene upbeat and hopeful, but with us discovering at the end that she is under a misapprehension and that DeMille has no intention of making her picture. And to cap it all off, there’s an additional pleasure for David Lynch fans: he stole the name “Gordon Cole” for the character he himself ended up playing in the TWIN PEAKS TV series. That’s how cool the scene is!
Here’s the scene in all its glory:
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