Hollywood loves to make movies about itself.
Occasionally, it turns out self-addressed love letters. (“La La Land” was somehow nominated for best picture, if you’ll recall.)
But when filmmakers turn the cameras on themselves, they most often aspire to expose the compromise, politics, hypocrisy and shattered egos you’ve always suspected lies behind the curtain of the fantasy factory. No one has ever done it better, or darker, than Billy Wilder in his 1950 classic “Sunset Boulevard,” which is screening in a restored version at first-run stadium theaters on Wednesday.
Wilder’s film has become part of the common vernacular — “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” is a familiar quip to many folks who have never seen the movie or heard of Norma Desmond. And the movie often screens as part of revival festivals.
But the chance to see a restored “Sunset Boulevard” on modern projection equipment is a rare treat, and it’s a chance to fully appreciate the incredible courage of Gloria Swanson’s iconic performance.
Swanson stars as Desmond, a faded mega-star of the silent film era who is slipping into paranoid dementia as she fantasizes about making her comeback via a script she’s writing.
Shady scriptwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) stumbles upon Desmond’s shabby mansion and quickly moves in as her co-writer and romantic interest.
Nothing turns out well for anyone involved.
A quick history refresher: Swanson was, in fact, a giant of the silent era and widely considered among the most beautiful women in the world during her heyday. Many of Desmond’s tales of faded glory — including one about a maharaja who sought out one of her stockings so he could hang himself with it — are part of Swanson’s personal legend.
Like many stars of that era, her glory faded quickly with the advent of talkies. After starring in eight releases in 1916 alone, Swanson had only five screen credits in the 1930s.
In “Sunset Boulevard,” Wilder challenged Swanson not only to tap into personal melancholy, but also to be filmed unflinchingly as a 60-year-old woman struggling to regain her youth. And Swanson never flinched.
Numerous close-ups of Desmond as she struggles through exercises and applying heavy makeup have as much impact as Wilder’s meticulous dialogue. Swanson’s honesty and vulnerability make Norma Desmond among the most tragically memorable characters in all of American art, filmed or otherwise.
It’s one of the most fearless performances ever committed to film, echoed by Jeanne Moreau in “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958) and few others. The chance to see these scenes on a modern screen makes Wednesday’s screenings a rare treat for film lovers.
And if you’ve never seen “Sunset Boulevard,” take this opportunity to correct a major oversight. It’s simply the best movie about Hollywood ever made, and it’s on the very short list of essentially perfect films.
The screenings are part of Fathom Events’ TCM Big Screen Classics Series and are accompanied by brief comments from the movie network’s hosts. The next two features in the series are Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” (1967) — quite probably the greatest movie ever made about Broadway — and Robert Wise’s “West Side Story” (1961).
If you are interested in more flicks about how screwed up Hollywood can be, your options are extensive. Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992) is a can’t-miss, and the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” (2016) is charming, if a bit cluttered.
For our recommendations, we’ll focus on lesser-known films that use absurdist humor to drive home their point.
‘Hollywood Shuffle’ (1987)
This satire about the limited Hollywood roles available to African-Americans deserves praise for tackling a tough issue a couple of decades before it became mainstream conversation. But it holds up so well because it’s just freakin’ hysterical.
Writer/director Robert Townsend also stars as Bobby, an aspiring actor whose fantasy reactions to his casting-call frustrations are both insightful and uproarious — the Eddie Murphy laugh-a-thon just never gets old. The supporting cast is packed with some of the best comedic talent of the era, including co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans and John Witherspoon as an aspiring food stand owner.
“C’mon, say it with me: Winky … Dinky … DOG!”
‘The Stunt Man’ (1980)
What happens when you stumble onto a movie set and accidentally cause the death of a stunt man? The director makes you his replacement, and in exchange for protecting you from the cops, he’ll put you in increasingly insane situations.
Peter O’Toole gives one of his best performances as a megalomanic director who terrorizes everybody on the set, from actors to screenwriters. Writer Lawrence B. Marcus injects humor as he pokes holes in the glamour of movie-making. “The Stunt Man,” like the other films we are recommending here, is broadly episodic, and the pace is pretty jumpy. The result is a fun, entertaining flick that still makes its point.
‘Hollywood Boulevard’ (1976)
Roger Corman’s “let the kids do it” philosophy at his New Word Pictures B-movie factory resulted in some delightful experiments, and few were better than this affectionate, occasionally biting parody of ’70s exploitation drive-in movies.
Joe Dante and Allan Arkush each got their second directing credits on the completely random, often absurdist story of ingenue Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson) as she stumbles through Tinsletown’s sex and drug-laced underbelly. Mary Woronov is her typical perfection as a Norma Desmond-esque B-movie queen who will go to any lengths to hold onto her throne.
The film is alternately goofy — Commander Cody shows up for no apparent reason to perform “Everybody’s Doin’ It” — and satirically harrowing. A drive-in projectionist tries to assault Candy when he’s unable to distinguish between what he sees on screen and reality. Fairly heady stuff. And Godzilla gets one of his few American screen credits.