February 20, 2013

Waugh and Wilder: "Sunset Boulevard's" forgotten roots in an Evelyn Waugh novel

My new column in Taki's Magazine:
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with Gloria Swanson as a silent-screen legend plotting a comeback and William Holden as her toy boy, remains one of the most famous movies ever. Yet Sunset Boulevard’s origins in an Evelyn Waugh novel have been forgotten. This cultural amnesia is curious since the reactionary novelist and the refugee writer-director are still two of the more talked-about figures of the mid-century.

Read the whole thing there.

This isn't hugely topical, but it seems like a fairly interesting historical link that has been lost.


FredR said...

I can't bear how cruel Waugh can be. That poor girl in The Loved One!

Anonymous said...

"I can't bear how cruel Waugh can be. That poor girl in The Loved One!"

As I recall, he gave her a dignified send-off, something about how in her suicide she was rejecting rinky-dink phony American culture and communing with her noble Greek ancestors.

Matthew said...

The musical was better. Much better.

Anonymous said...





Anonymous said...

His name should have been Billy Milder.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article by a true movie whiz.


Udolpho.com said...

Sunset Boulevard is a so overrated.

Anonymous said...

"Despite not being fluent in English until after arriving in America as a refugee from Hitler in 1934, Wilder quickly became a master of American smart-aleck vernacular."

Shtick is pretty much the same in any language. Wilder was a populist in Germany and one here. He had the mind of Neil Simon albeit few notches higher.

He was a fine director but not one I ever cared for.

Like Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler, and Otto Preminger, Wilder knew the craft and the tricks, but he was a professional than an 'auteur'. Does it matter? Not really. A good pro is preferable to a bad auteur. But I prefer movies with more heart and soul... and the vision thing.

Lang, now he was a visionary.

Anonymous said...

Wilder... the Art Buchwald of cinema.
Buchwald wrote the material that became COMING TO AMERICA. Buchwald did sue and came off with lotsa dough.

Steve Sailer said...

A lot of "Sunset Boulevard's" lines are on-the-nose. It's not subtle.

Anonymous said...

"Sunset Boulevard is a so overrated."

I remember seeing it long ago on TV in the late 70s and early 80s as a kid. It was on so often, and I caught it in parts. I didn't know much about Old Hollywood and still don't and don't much care.

What I found most jarring was it was narrated by a dead guy.
This explains why I had a dream not long ago where Joe Pesci appeared as the guy in SUNSET BLVD. Pesci was the Holden character screaming expletives as he floated dead in a swimming pool.
I wondered why I made such a connection in my dream... and
BINGO! Pesci narrates as a dead guy in CASINO.

I wonder if SB had some influence on MULHOLLAND DR.

Anonymous said...

Waugh the Anglo snob supplied the dry martini. Wilder the Jew jerked it into soda pop.

Same thing with THE GRADUATE. Novel by Anglo-American, movie by Jew.

Drawbacks said...

Despite having read The Loved One once and seen Sunset Boulevard several times, I'd never picked up on this.
Here's an interesting article, making the case that all the in-jokes, "the ‘Paramountness’ of Sunset Boulevard is not just a prop or a backdrop for the film; it is inherently part of the story." The details about the cruelty in casting Erich von Stroheim as Max are particularly rich.

Anonymous said...

"The musical was better. Much better."

Tell me yer kidding.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoyed the spoofs on the Carol Burnett Show.

Glossy said...

"Sir Francis’s only “Loved One” (the term used by the Forest Lawn-like funeral complex), he meets naive and melancholy cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos..."

Aimée means "loved one" in French. Thanatogenos means "death-causing" in Greek.

Thursday said...

Still, Wilder was less an auteur than Hollywood’s leading collaborator.

Sigh. Why do people seem to think that because artist took something (or a lot of things) from someone else this somehow disproves the auteur theory? Does the fact that Shakespeare apparently couldn't come up with a good plot to save his life (The Tempest is great, but it is more pageant than page turner), and had to pillage other men's books for story ideas, mean that we shouldn't think of him as the primary author of his plays?

Thursday said...

Sunset Blvd. is good, but Double Indemnity is better. Maybe even The Apartment too.

Steve Sailer said...

"Why do people seem to think that because artist took something (or a lot of things) from someone else this somehow disproves the auteur theory?"

No, I'm drawing a distinction between Woody Allen (auteur even when he has collaborators on his screenplay) and Billy Wilder (who took on far more of his collaborators' personalities than Allen does). If Woody Allen had made "Double Indemnity" it would have come out a Woody Allen movie, but Wilder got more of the influence of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler into his movie.

Anonymous said...


"Still, Wilder was less an auteur than Hollywood’s leading collaborator. He needed somebody else’s initial spark, and Waugh provided much of Wilder’s impetus for Sunset Boulevard."


"Why do people seem to think that because artist took something (or a lot of things) from someone else this somehow disproves the auteur theory?"

Thurs, Sailer wasn't talking about the 'auteur theory' but seemed to be applying it as to why Wilder wasn't really an auteur.
Andrew Sarris, the dean of American auteurism agreed in the 60s and 70s. He said Wilder lacked PERSONALITY, the most important thing for an auteur to have. Later, Sarris changed his mind and elevated Wilder. I think he came around to appreciating Wyler too.

My beef with Sailer is the line:

"He needed somebody else’s initial spark"

Relying on someone else for the INITIAL SPARK doesn't preclude auteurship. After all, Kubrick relied on other authors to provide the initial spark on most of his films. Kurosawa relied on Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Ed McBain, Shakespeare, and etc for the initial spark. What makes an auteur has nothing to do with the INITIAL spark but what the director does with the material once he moves past the initial spark.

And auteurism as pertaining to directors has mostly to do with 'personal style' and 'vision' than with story, plot, or dialogue. So, the entire script could be written by someone else, but as long as the director imprints it with his own personality, he is an auteur.
On the other hand, even if someone writes and directs his own movie, he might NOT be considered an auteur if his filmmaking style is conventional, by-the-book, and industry-standard.
Milius wrote and directed his movies, but he wasn't recognize as much of an auteur because his directing style was so conventional and indistinct. He was an auteur more as a writer than as a director. His lines are pure Milius, but his directing style ranges from pedestrian to adequate. Any journeyman director could have made CONAN THE BARBARIAN.
Similarly, Paul Schrader was distinct as a writer but not really as a director. Does anyone care about BLUE COLLAR or CAT PEOPLE anymore? (I have a soft spot for HARDCORE because my aunt was totally freaked when she took me to see it at the local second-run not knowing what it was about. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.) Scorsese was the directorial auteur of TAXI DRIVER, just as Coppola was for APOCALYPSE NOW.

As for Billy Wilder...

Granted, I haven't read THE LOVED ONE, and it's been some time since I watched SUNSET BOULEVARD. But judging by most of Wilder's films, I wouldn't say Wilder was a faithful adapter of other people's visions. Rather, he transformed everything to something between middle-brow respectability and middle-brow transgression. So, whatever the original vision might have been, Wilder watered it down for the mass audience. He popularized it.

So, my guess is that there's little Waugh in SUNSET, but then there isn't much Wilder either as Wilderism was all about pandering to both the mass audience and the respectable bourgeoisie. Thus, he was something like an audienteur.
Wilder always thought in terms of "how can I rake in the bucks while also gaining the respect of the educated." A kind of 'something for everyone'.

Wilder had writing and directing skills, but he thought as a producer, salesman, diplomat, and negotiator than as an artist. Instead of immersing himself in any vision--the writer's, his own, or the public's--, he tried to connect the dots to negotiate the high with the middle and the middle with the low, the literary with the philistine.

For some, this might strike as lack of commitment, but it wasn't a bad thing to have in Hollywood.

Robert Zemeckis works more or less in this mode.

Anonymous said...

Is Woody Allen an auteur?
Now, 'auteur' doesn't mean 'author'. Allen is clearly the author of his films. Auteur means having a distinct/unique/special directorial style. Did Allen have any such?

Maybe with his early comedies though one can argue that Allen was juggling slapstick, vaudeville, standup, and everything under the sun. Indeed, he was so busy mixing and tossing different styles that it's not easy to say what his own style was. Even so, he did it in his own way, so I suppose one could say stuff like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, BANANAS, and SLEEPER are the work of an auteur or at least an anti-auteurist auteur. (Anti-auteurist in the sense that Allen was pretty much sending up and lampooning every known film style out there. TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, for instance, toys with every cliche of every crime and gangster film and documentary; thus, one can argue that it has no inherent style of its own. Even so, Allen's brilliant knack for this sort of thing was unparalleled.)

What about his later films?
Stylistically, ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN are pastiche of various European art film mannerisms. There is nothing original or unique about them. One can spot a Godardism here, Rohmerism there, Truffautism somewhere, Bergmanism hither, etc.
STARDUST MEMORIES is a series of Fellinisms. So is PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS is Bergman Lite. INTERIORS is Bergman heavy, as are SEPTEMBER and ANOTHER WOMAN. HUSBANDS AND WIVES is Cassavetesism.

You know what is distinctly Fellinesque, distinctly Kurosawan, distinctly Kubrickian, distinctly Bergmanesque, distinctly Fordian, distinctly Hitchcockian, distinctly Godardian, distinctly Ophulsian, distinctly Dreyerian, distinctly Bressonian, distinctly Wellesian, and etc.
But what is distinctly Allenian, especially about his later films? I dunno.

But Allen became more bearable when he stopped trying so hard to cop the styles of master auteurs and just make movies for the fun of it. MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY is a riff on Hitchcock and Welles but thankfully without the strain. It's Allen finally accepting his limitations--funny writer, funny actor, okay director--and having fun. So, though he made some good movies in the late 70s and 80s, his movies since the 90s are actually more naturally Allenish. He made peace with himself.

Schrader is another director who never really developed his own style. Anyone could have directed AMERICAN GIGOLO. Schrader did for go style in LIGHT SLEEPER, but all he did was cop the style of Bresson.
In the director's seat, at best a copeur.

Five Daarstens said...

This weeks "In Our Time" podcast by the BBC covers the Evelyn Waugh novel "Decline and Fall". It should be available tomorrow (Thursday).



Udolpho.com said...

Agree with Sailer, Wilder was not an auteur, just an accomplished director. People are confusing "auteur" with conventional appraisals of merit. Woody Allen's movies are very definitely Woody Allen movies, with a recurring motif of neurotic striving and scrambling and a tendency to pseudo-intellectualism (Allen was a dropout and also a dropper of names). He has his own dialogue rhythms and staging preferences (although Gordon Willis helped him tremendously when they worked together).

Udolpho.com said...

By the way auteur is more properly affixed to the direction of a specific film, as one can do work for hire (as Kubrick did early on) and then proceed to make other films that are entirely shaped by oneself. Obsessing over every single Woody Allen film to "prove" that he wasn't really an auteur is badly confusing the intent of the label.

Steve Sailer said...

Just for the record, one more piece of evidence that Wilder started out with Waugh's satire on Forest Lawn, "The Loved One," is that the original opening scene in "Sunset Boulevard" was set in a morgue with dozens of corpses awaiting burial. Preview audiences didn't take this the right way, so the movie had to be reworked.


James Kabala said...

On the "Is this a coded gay relationship?" issue, I think Steve temporarily forgets the conservative image that Hollywood tried to project in the Production Code era. Sure, in the circles in which Wilder moved in real life a sexual relationship between an older woman and a young screenwriter/kept man might not have been regarded as shocking or unusual, but I doubt if Middle American filmgoers would have been so blase.

Anonymous said...

Finally saw a TWILIGHT movie: BREAKING DAWN pt 1.

This review sums it up perfectly.