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    Two Singular Sensations

    By Jan Wahl–

    One of my favorite expressions is “progress not perfection.” But I am about to lay out two movies that are true perfection, from cast to writing to direction, camera, costumes, and sets. Each one is perfect escapism for the summer doldrums, each classic and repeatable.

    Sunset Blvd (1950) is a tawdry, terrific tale of an aging silent movie queen. She hires a hunky young screenwriter to help her with a comeback. Her name is Norma Desmond and she is one of the great characters of all time. This Billy Wilder film is a combination of noir, black comedy, and deep character study, full of Hollywood insider atmosphere and players. Based on the story of real-life stars such as Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, and Mabel Normand, the actress who plays Norma is on that list: the divine queen herself, Gloria Swanson. Her acting as the eventually psychotic Norma is amazing and she should have won the Oscar. I am still resentful at the Academy for only nominating her, but she will go down in history as the incredible Miss Desmond.

    The screenwriter who develops a dangerous relationship with her is played by William Holden, in a role originally offered to Montgomery Clift. Norma was offered to Theda Bara, Mae West (“Hey, I ain’t no has been!”), and Shirley Temple; all of these actresses declined. Holden is perfect as he navigates the treacherous world of Norma, her mansion, and her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim.) In a middle finger to Hollywood, Holden’s Joe hates the studio, moguls, and bosses who critique. It is no wonder the movie was hated by Establishment Hollywood and almost never saw a release.

    The screenwriting by Wilder and Charles Brackett is remarkable. “You used to be Norma Desmond; you used to be big.” “I’m still big; it’s the pictures that got small.” That is merely one example, but the writing goes far and deep as we have enveloped so much of it in our lexicon. In 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a wonderful Broadway musical based on it, and I am praying for the movie version. 

    Sam Staggs wrote one of the favorite books titled Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard. Staggs is a great Hollywood writer, giving us books like When Blanche Met Brando about the making of A Streetcar Named Desire and All About All About Eve. In Close Up he goes behind the scenes during the making of the film, addresses the personalities involved, and the disaster when Hollywood realized Wilder was mocking his own. Whether you watch this film for the first time or resee it, Sunset Blvd is sheer perfection.

    Let us go in a completely different direction. 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes answers the question, “What’s the big deal about Marilyn Monroe?” Let us add Jane Russell to that as we meet two showgirls on their way to Europe. One of them, Lorelei Lee, is about to be married to a very wealthy man, much to the dismay of his father. The other, a tough dame beautifully played by Russell, is along this Atlantic cruise as a chaperone to Lorelei. 

    Russell delivers in a Mae West voice: “Nobody chaperones the chaperone; that’s why I’m so right for this job.” Howard Hawks directed this rollicking and sexy musical, with choreography by the great Jack Cole. Cole was an eccentric artist, an out of the closet gay man, who brought East Indian, sexy, homoerotic moves and wild sensuality to all he did. Russell told me he completely put his stamp on all their numbers, along with Gwen Verdon. One of the best is a number in the ship’s gym called “Is There Anyone Here for Love?” It is one of the most perfect musical numbers ever put on film.

    Adapted from Anita Loo’s sensational novel of 1925 and originally starring Carol Channing on Broadway, the character of Lorelei sharply lampoons men’s desire to women, a burlesque of femineity and the razor-edged brains of the “dumb” blonde.  Her righteous gold-digging dame is loveable and unforgettable. She is so luminous that she practically glows in the dark.  Monroe’s regular costume designer, William Travilla, adds to the verve and wit of this movie. We are talking perfection. See it again for yourself.

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian and film critic on various broadcast outlets. She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

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    Published on May 23, 2024