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DVD Review: Paramount Centennial Collection: ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Sabrina’
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Dr. Royce Clemens   |  
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Sabrina and Sunset Boulevard DVDsSunset Boulevard and Sabrina
2-Disc Collector’s sets
The Paramount Centennial Collection
Directed by Billy Wilder
Starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn
Paramount Home Entertainment
Release date: November 11, 2008

In my mind, there is a Holy Trinity of filmmakers. Three directors who, among all their work, you could find any and every reason for watching a film. There’s Akira Kurosawa, there’s Stanley Kubrick…

And then there’s Billy Wilder.

Wilder lived the longest, died the latest, won the most Oscars, displayed the most versatility and yet somehow, for some strange reason, is the most underseen and underloved among this recent group of self-styled movie geeks. Yeah, everyone’s seen The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, and yes there are some who try to boost their cred by watching Seven Samurai, but it’s depressing to see how few have seen at least one Wilder film…. Or even name one.

With the possible exception of Howard Hawks (who made films as dissimilar as The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday and the original The Thing), no mainstream Hollywood director has ever shown Wilder’s utter refusal to be pigeon-holed into one kind of movie. Wilder made films as disparate as The Apartment and Double Indemnity. As Stalag 17 and The Seven Year Itch. As the long lost Ace In The Hole and the woefully underrated The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Thanks to Paramount DVD, which has released the first three volumes of its Centennial Collection, we can see Wilder at the top of his game in two of his most dissimilar films. One being 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, the other being 1954’s Sabrina. Both show Wilder’s innate genius as a writer and his wonderful, if understated directorial skill.

In Sunset Boulevard, William Holden plays down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis. Here’s a man who can’t get a job to save his life, with a mountain of debt, relying on the indulgences of his friends. One day, as he’s outrunning the guys trying to repo his car, he stumbles onto the gothic mansion of forgotten silent films star Norma Desmond (played by silent film star Gloria Swanson).

And what a mansion it is. This is one of those places in the movies that colonizes the mind after you’ve seen it, like Rick’s Café Americain, or the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

She lives there with her butler Max (silent film director Erich von Stroheim) and is toiling away on her big comeback script. She needs a writer to help refine it, so she offers Joe a chance to live there and be kept as little less than a gigolo and little more than a pet. The longer Joe is exposed to this forgotten actress, the more he sees that she’s clinging to sanity by a thread, and a somewhat thin one at that.

To watch Sunset Boulevard is to be enshrouded in sheer bleakness punctuated by jolts of hard cynicism about Hollywood and age. The entire film is dominated by the considerable performance of Swanson, who uttered the famous line “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille.” She skirts dangerously close to camp, but is held in place by the realistic approach of Wilder’s script. He goes to great pains to show that Desmond has long given up any aspirations towards being a real human being and has lived her life in thrall to her own Hollywood artifice. She’d rather die a star than live as a civilian, so Swanson can taken advantage of all the big-as-life silent star mannerisms at her disposal and it still remains rooted in character. As Gertrude Stein once pointed out about L.A., I shall point out about Norma Desmond: “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

But the entry into the heart of madness is Holden as Gillis, who infuses his character with clipped self-loathing. That he is Desmond’s prisoner comes out of necessity, but he doesn’t have to like it. From Holden comes the considerable tension in Sunset Boulevard, as Gillis’ heart and soul are on the line. The struggle for his life, however, doesn’t turn out so well. In one of the most bracing narrative moves in film history, the film opens with Gillis already dead in Desmond’s swimming pool, narrating the events that lead up to his demise.

So from utter darkness, we go to… a Cinderella story. Wilder’s light-as-a-feather romantic comedy Sabrina is headlined completely by Academy Award winners, with Humphrey Bogart (who won two years before with The African Queen), Audrey Hepburn (who won the year before for Roman Holiday), and William Holden again (who also won the year before for Wilder’s Stalag 17).

Hepburn plays Sabrina, the daughter of the chauffeur at the mansion of the Larrabee family. Bogart is Linus, who is focused solely on the family corporation and Holden plays his brother David, who is preoccupied with fast cars and loose women. Sabrina has nursed the most all-encompassing crush of David for the longest time, but he seems oblivious to her. So she heads off to Paris to attend a culinary academy, gets all sophisticated and debonair, comes back and David fawns over this girl he just noticed.

Of course, the ensuing romance between David and Sabrina potentially screws up his relationship with his fiancée and the business deal Linus has with the fiancee’s family, so Linus takes it upon himself to get Sabrina to fall in love with him, so David can go back to the woman he was going to marry. But this plan backfires as Linus actually, genuinely falls in love with Sabrina.

Folks, I have whined and bitched and pissed and moaned for the longest time about how romantic comedies blow because they place the plot above the characters. You can’t just have two people falling in love, you have to have bets and betrayal and attractive people acting like fools. And now finally, I have Sabrina to point to and say “This is how it’s done, take notes, and don’t subject me to bullshit like What Happens In Vegas ever, ever again.”

Because Wilder and Sabrina don’t forget about its characters. In a weird sort of way, they inhabit the same netherworld of moral ambiguity that the people in Sunset Boulevard do. No one is entirely nice or entirely mean. Even the elfin Hepburn as Sabrina pines in Paris for David with the same kind of fervor that cons plan in prison to kill the guy who ratted them out. All the two-facedness doesn’t make anyone in the film evil. It just makes them more human. And anchoring the film is Bogart, who plays Linus as a wounded, proud man venturing into unfamiliar territory.

But Wilder’s pervasive cynicism taints even this fairy tale from the first minutes. His script displays a kind of condescension towards the idle rich as the opening narration tells of “The indoor swimming pool and the outdoor swimming pool, the indoor tennis court and the outdoor tennis court” all next to each other. His contempt is palpable, and quite funny.

In fact, if I were to level a complaint against Sabrina, it’s because of Audrey Hepburn… I just don’t get her… But that’s a story for another review.

So on the new release shelves are two sterling examples of one of the best directors ever to walk the earth, and if you haven’t seen one Billy Wilder film, you have absolutely no right, under God or man to call yourself a movie geek.

Yeah, I said it! NOW WHO WANTS TO FUCKIN’ FIGHT ME?!

Sunset Boulevard-**** out of 4
Sabrina-***1/2 out of 4

DVD Bonus Features

-FEATURES ‘N’ SHIT-
Everything under the sun. These are both two-disc sets, and if you buy them, you never have to look either of them up on IMDB ever again. See below for listing; features new for the Centennial Collection are noted.

Paramount Centennial Collection #1: Sunset Boulevard

• Commentary: Commentary by Ed Sikov (author of “On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder”) Used on 2002 Release
• Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning (22:46) New
• The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard by Joseph Wambaugh (14:20) HD New
• Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic (14:29) New
• Two Sides of Ms. Swanson (10:32) New
• Stories of Sunset Boulevard (11:17) New
• Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden (11:15) New
• Recording Sunset Boulevard (5:48) New
• The City of Sunset Boulevard (5:32) New
• Morgue Prologue Script Pages Used on 2002 Release
• Franz Waxman and The Music of Sunset Boulevard (14:25) Used on 2002 Release
• Behind the Gates: The Lot (5:03) New
• Hollywood Location Map Used on 2002 Release
• Paramount in the ’50s (9:32) Used on previous releases (use “Paramount in the ’50s – Retrospective Featurette” on packaging)
• Edith Head – The Paramount Years Featurette (13:42) – Used in 2002
• Original Theatrical Trailer (3:12) Used on 2002 Release
• Galleries

Paramount Centennial Collection #3: Sabrina

• Audrey Hepburn: Fashion Icon (17:32) New
• Sabrina’s World (11:25) New
• Supporting Sabrina (16:32) New
• William Holden: The Paramount Years (29:46) New
• Sabrina Documentary (11:40) Used on 2001 release (menu/pkg listed as ‘Sabrina Documentary’ – no title card)
• Behind the Gates: Camera (5:07) New
• Paramount in the ’50s (9:32) Used on previous releases (use “Paramount in the ’50s – Retrospective Featurette” on packaging)
• Galleries

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