If you live in L.A. and you love the movies it’s hard not to think about the two Sunset Boulevards: the actual street, and the classic 1950 film directed and co-written by Billy Wilder. There have been any number of great films made about the movie business, but none that captures the awful, perverse blurring of past and present, youth and age, celebrity and anonymity like Sunset Boulevard. At the end of the film, Gloria Swanson descends the stairs with the weird grace of an aging ballerina and a look of frozen madness on her face before delivering the famed closing line, “All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.” Then as she glides towards the camera, half-Cobra Woman, half-Vampira, the image literally blurs and dissolves, as if Wilder were acknowledging that she was slipping into that terrible gray zone between the actual making of a movie called Sunset Boulevard and the myth that would become Norma Desmond.
While working for the American Cinematheque in Hollywood in the 1990s, I made any number of attempts to get Wilder to come out for a tribute. I was patient — usually if I waited long enough I could get a filmmaker to appear in-person — but not Wilder. He just wasn’t interested. He dodged one invitation on the phone, saying, “I’d like to tell you that I have to rush down to San Diego in an ambulance to see my sick sister, but the truth is I just want to stay home and watch football.” Then he hung up. But, if you wait long enough, strange things happen in Hollywood. For many years the non-profit Cinematheque had announced one permanent home after another only to see the projects fall through, but in the mid-1990s they took over Sid Grauman’s legendary 1922 Egyptian Theatre and launched what became a $15 million renovation. As part of their fundraising campaign they updated their prospectus with quotes from well-known filmmakers. Most, like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Spike Lee, offered earnest, boilerplate “We think the Cinematheque is a really terrific idea” statements. On January 14, 1998, I was sitting at my desk at lunchtime when our startled office manager Nancy came to the door. “Dennis, Billy Wilder is here to see you,” she said and stepped aside. I looked up dumbfounded as the 91-year old Wilder shuffled into my office accompanied by an ancient secretary who looked, if anything, more infirm than he did. Wilder launched into a mini-tirade about the impossibility of getting anyone on the phone at the Cinematheque so he could give his fundraising testimonial, and then fixed me with a blunt glare: “Do you take dictation, young man?” I mumbled yes and then he delivered the following in his thick Austrian accent:
“Once upon a time, I knew a blind director. He was legally blind. He didn’t want any guide, anybody with a white cane or a seeing-eye dog. He directed a few good pictures, really remarkable for a blind man. Then one day — wonder of wonders — he saw. The idea that he could now see what he directed before, instead of just shadows and walls. What’s more, he could write. Boy, did he rewrite! Two pictures altogether — one is still on the shelf at the studio, the other went straight to the toilet. He died before he was 70. Poor schnook!”
Wilder insisted I print it out so he could proofread it; he added a punctuation mark at the end of “Poor schnook!” dated and signed it, and then disappeared as mysteriously as he came. To this day I have no idea what Wilder’s bizarre parable means. Is he the blind director who gets the double-edged gift of sight? And I’d even doubt the whole incident occurred except that I was there and the Cinematheque printed his testimonial in their fundraising brochure. It was, all in all, a moment straight out of Sunset Boulevard.