Movies about moviemakers or making movies usually have unhappy endings. Actually, so do a good many of the movies’ real-life stories. Why a product (or art) that supposedly gives to millions such joy and enlightenment should often lead to such unhappiness for its creators is perhaps some alchemistic punishment too mythic or mystic to conclusively unravel, but maybe it has to do with the dangerously difficult boundaries between reality and illusion, and the mysterious processes of making reality out of illusion and illusion out of reality.
Three of the most painfully intriguing looks at film as hell were released in the first half of the 1950s: Billy Wilder’s acid yet strangely touching chronicle of new and old Hollywood meeting head-on in 1950, SUNSET BLVD. (available on DVD); Vincente Minnelli’s all-star 1952 pageant of the lives and loves that orbit around one typically ruthless and megalomaniacal producer, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (available on DVD); and Robert Aldrich’s ultra-intense 1955 version of the vibrant, angry Clifford Odets drama about a blackmailed movie star, allegedly based on an actual dark chapter from Clark Gable’s career, THE BIG KNIFE (available on DVD). From all three, the large message seems to be that cinema as a profession should always be advertised with a prominently displayed skull-and-crossbones.
Seeing Sunset Blvd. again today, it is striking how much of its effectiveness relies on the iconography of its players, their individual persuasiveness as founded on the baggage they automatically bring with them onto the screen. From the star roles—-Gloria Swanson as aging silent-movie queen, Erich von Stroheim as once legendarily outsized picture-maker—-to the bits: Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner as two of the “wax-works” from the past. High among the drawbacks of the stage musical version of Sunset Blvd. was its inability to cut to silent close-up reactions of Swanson, Stroheim or even William Holden to shore up the sometimes shaky believability of the plot-line. But the movie maintains the ring of truth to it, and a kind of bitter heartbreak, not simply because so many of the actors bring enormous veracity just by being there—-it is also, after all, awfully well written (by Wilder and the urbane and under-valued Charles Brackett, who also produced), and directed with the edgy suspense of a film noir.
That its profoundly bleak view was by no means popular upon the initial release is not surprising. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the picture began to achieve its now legendary stature. I was working at the New Yorker Theatre in Manhattan when in 1961 Dan Talbot booked Sunset Blvd. from Paramount for a flat fee of $25. The film hadn’t played in New York for over ten years, not since its initial release, and at my suggestion we accompanied it with two hilarious 1920s shorts by Buster Keaton, just to indicate the true glory of the silents. We had lines around the block! For the following weeks, Paramount immediately changed the deal and demanded a percentage of the take. The movie played like gangbusters; obviously, it was ahead of its time: the 60s and 70s took to it passionately.
I think it’s my favorite Billy Wilder film, though its utter darkness and edge of misogyny troubles me in a nagging way. Also, Swanson is certainly over the top, though it still works as a stylization left over from silent pictures, even if silent pictures were often a good deal more underplayed than their reputation suggests; indeed, gesture, movement and behavior were more important than words. But the iconic, even mythic, presence and performance of both Erich Von Stroheim and Cecil B. DeMille (as himself) is undeniably powerful in its reverberations. After all, both DeMille and Stroheim had actually directed Swanson—C.B. having in fact made her a star, and Von on his last film at the end of the silent era– an unreleased, not quite completed masterpiece, Queen Kelly, clips of which are shown in the projection-room sequence in Sunset Blvd. Indeed, after a particularly beautiful, shimmering close-up of her, Swanson stands into the glare of the projector’s light, and says vehemently the truest line in the picture: “We didn’t need words—we had faces then!”
Not nearly as unrelieved in its mood, The Bad and the Beautiful has more of a slick magazine-fiction tone, with the device borrowed from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane of multiple viewpoints to keep us guessing. Not surprising, since the movie was produced by John Houseman, Welles’ partner in The Mercury Theatre days, supervisor of some of the writing for Kane, and eventually Welles’ worst enemy and biggest detractor. While Orson would become persona non grata in Hollywood, Houseman went on to a very successful producing career.
The script here is constructed from numerous real instances—-here a touch of Val Lewton’s B horror-movie mythos, there a bit of the Selznick legend, now a grace-note from John Barrymore’s life, and so on—-done with all the smoothness of Vincente Minnelli at his best, most personably star-acted by Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame, Walter Pidgeon, Gilbert Roland, Barry Sullivan. The picture manages to be both realistically critical of Hollywood and in awe at the same time—-an uneasy tension to sustain. But even at its most melodramatic moments, Minnelli manages to shoot in such a way as to make it work humanly; very much exemplifying the meaning of what the French call great mise en scene—-meaning literally, how everything is “put in the scene.” After all, isn’t that what movie direction really is?
In that regard the trick to playing one of our greatest dramatists, Clifford Odets’ uniquely explosive and evocative dialog is to do what was accomplished brilliantly with Alexander Mackendrick’s direction of Sweet Smell of Success (1957)—-throw the lines away with enormous dexterity rather than hit them hard. Odets actually told that to Mackendrick, saying that if you hit his dialog too hard, it’ll sound phony and melodramatic, but will play terrifically if thrown away. I wish Clifford had said that to Fritz Lang, whose version of Odets’ vivid triangle drama, Clash by Night (1952), is often marred by an over-emphasis with the words; even Barbara Stanwyck, who usually has perfect pitch gets encouraged to push by the director—whose first language was not English—and who, therefore missed the right beat for the ultra-American wording.
But then, American-born director Robert Aldrich has the same problems with Odets’ The Big Knife, and Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger and Shelley Winters are anything but throwaway artists, so the picture has an overheated, near hysterical atmosphere that does not capture the historical resonance or wintry poetry of the original stage play. In France, this drama was staged by the immortal Jean Renoir with French heartthrob Daniel Gelin starred; the original Broadway production was directed by Lee Strasberg with the powerful John Garfield in the lead. In 1959, as my first directorial effort, I co-produced The Big Knife in New York, the only Odets play performed off-Broadway in his lifetime. (This production, by the way, introduced Carroll O’Connor—-as the studio-head–to American audiences.)
The playwright wrote me a letter when he released the rights advising me that the suicide of the movie-star lead was to be understood as “an act of faith,” which is not something the movie conveys. He also told me that the star part was originally written with Cary Grant in mind. While Jack Palance is many things, Cary Grant he is not; but then neither is John Garfield. The playwright’s ideal image reveals that he intended the role to be played with ultimate charm not toughness. This, of course, would make the dark ending much more devastating and tragic.
Nevertheless, of these three Hollywood views, The Big Knife is certainly the darkest—the studio blackmailing the movie-star over an accidental death for which a studio man took the fall–and the heroine’s piercing final cry of ”Help!” might easily speak for all the terribly wounded or woefully wounding characters we encounter in this fascinating trio from the final full decade of the movies’ golden age.