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FILM : Memory Lane for Swanson

August 06, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

The famous last scene in "Sunset Boulevard," when Gloria Swanson moves ethereally, madly down the stairs of her memory-haunted mansion for that final close-up, has always been as eerie to me as anything Hitchcock ever dreamed up.

What Swanson and director Billy Wilder do with Norma Desmond--the reclusive silent screen star who lets a sick love affair and dreams of a comeback push her right into an asylum--is turn isolation into a weapon, and ambition into the scariest of ironies.

That's the personal side of "Sunset Boulevard," the 1950 movie screening tonight in Mission Viejo as part of the Saddleback College/Edwards Cinemas classic film series. The no-nonsense side levels a smartly aimed low blow at Hollywood, its image-making fickleness and casual exploitation.

Long before "The Player," Robert Altman's viciously funny take on the contemporary studio system, there was "Sunset Boulevard."

As in "The Player," a bitter screenwriter gets things going in "Sunset Boulevard." William Holden, in his most acidic performance, plays Joe Gillis, the down-on-his-luck writer who stumbles into Desmond's decaying estate and decaying life.

He lets Desmond take care of him while he works on her comeback script, a ludicrous remake of "Salome."

In their free time, when Gillis isn't forced to make love to Desmond, they watch her old movies, which, incidentally, were taken from Swanson's own silent days. In voice-overs, Gillis chronicles his descent in glib ways that belie the movie's fatalistic creepiness.

"Sunset Boulevard's" assets are many: Wilder's edgy direction, Hans Dreier and John Meehan's art direction, Sam Comer and Ray Moyer's sets (Desmond's manse reflects her obsessive personality in every corner).

Most startling is Swanson's performance. It shows courage, because Swanson must have known that, in some ways, she was portraying herself, or at least a dark image of herself.

Although Swanson's career seemed lofty even in retirement, her Desmond became a surrogate for all the movie stars who didn't bow out with grace.

What: Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard."

When: Thursday, Aug. 6, at 7 p.m.

Where: Edwards Crown Valley, 26862 Crown Valley Parkway, Mission Viejo.

Whereabouts: Take the Santa Ana (5) Freeway to Crown Valley Parkway and head east. The theater is in the Edwards Mission Viejo Mall.

Wherewithal: $6.50.

Where to Call: (714) 582-4656.

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