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Posts Tagged ‘William Holden’

Yesterday I was on the phone with an actor from Minneapolis for a project I am shooting next week. It’s not an elaborate shoot, but I am casting three actors for a shoot I am doing in Des Moines which is doubling for San Francisco. (Not as hard as you think since many of  the older San Francisco Victorian houses were built by Midwesterners for relocated Midwesterners.)  No matter your budget, you always have schedule and budget issues when casting a project. It’s the nature of the beast when you try to bring a group of people (cast & crew) together for a production.

And it’s easy to think when producing lower-budget projects that more money and time would solve your problems. But listen to difficulties and last-minute solutions that the great director Billy Wilder had in casting the classic Sunset Boulevard:

“I wanted to make things a little harder for myself, I wanted to do that thing which never quite works—a picture about Hollywood. Originally it was a comedy, possibly for Mae West. The picture became about a silent star and a writer. And we could not find the person to play the great silent star. Mae West did not want to do it. Mary Pickford, no. We were about to sign or not sign Pola Negri for the movie. Then we came upon the idea of Gloria Swanson. She had already been abandoned; she was a death knell—she had lost a lot of money on the Paramount lot. But I insisted on her. A wonderful idea, that carried with it the great value that she had been a silent star, and had made a picture with Erich von Stroheim called Queen Kelly, which we could also use on the projection screen in her home. We did a screen test, she did a few lines, where an angry Swanson maintains that she’s still the greatest. Now we had a picture.

Montgomery Cliff was to play the writer. Three days before, he pulled out. It so happened Mr. Clift had had an affair with an older woman in New York. And he did not want to make his first big picture, playing the lead, the story os a man being kept by a very rich woman twice his age…Leading men at that time we all under contract to the studios. And I had to start shooting on Monday, right? So I went through the list Paramount had at that time. And they had a young actor named William Holden. Beedle was his name really, and he had changed it. He made a picture I enjoyed, it was very good, Golden Boy, I gave Holden the script to Holden at one o-clock, and at three he was at my house, and he said, “Absolutely, I want to do it.”‘
Billy Wilder
Conversations with Wilder (interviews with screenwriter Cameron Crowe)
Pages 47-48

Scott W. Smith

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“God help you if you use voice-over in your work my friends. God help you! That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.”
Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in Adaptation

“You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion – with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit.”
William Holden VO in Sunset Blvd.

Last night I watched The Holiday listening to the director’s commentary by writer/director Nancy Meyers and she mentioned that while writing The Holiday that she watched Billy Wilder’s The Apartment three times. I haven’t quoted Wilder in a while so now is as good a time as any unearth another one from the great six-time Oscar winner.

In some circles having voice-over narration is taboo, but Wilder didn’t shy away from it. Heck, Wilder (and additional writers  Charles Brackett & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) in Sunset Blvd. even had a dead guy give VO. And the writers won an Oscar for the story. Granted that was 60 years ago, but is voice-over narration really sloppy writing?

What about these films?

The Shawshank Redemption
Forrest Gump
Days of Heaven
Taxi Driver
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Big Lebowski
Election
A Christmas Story
Goodfellas
Stand by Me
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Fight Club
The Usual Suspects
American Beauty
The Princess Bride
Double Indemnity

 

Unless someone changed the definition of sloppy writing there isn’t a whole lot of fat in those films. And just for good measure, Nancy Meyers is fond of using voice-over narration and she’s the most successful female box office money-making director. And she takes her lead in the voice-over department from Wilder.

“In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.”
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s sreenwriting tips as told to Cameron Crowe

Scott W. Smith

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“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
                                  Woody Allen 

“It ought to be the business of every day to prepare for our last day.”
                                  Matthew Henry

 

There have been many high profile celebrity deaths in the last two weeks. It’s been kind of hard to miss that fact. A lot of people have been asking, “What’s going on?”

While the concentration of celebrity deaths in a short time is unusually high I don’t think anything is going on beyond what occurs 5,500 times everyday in the United States. That’s the number of people according to the New England Journal of Medicine who die everyday in this country. It’s just not something we tend to dwell on everyday.

Celebrity deaths from Marilyn Monroe, to James Dean, to Elvis, to Princess Diana, to Michael Jackson seem to grab our attention and provide never-ending discussions.  Death scenes in movies also grab our attention. Some of the all-time most memorable scenes in movie history are centered around death. Here are a few examples:

The shower scene in Psycho, the opening scene in Jaws, the closing scene in Braveheart, the vast number of bodies spread out on the field of battle in Gone with the Wind, and William Holden floating in a pool in Sunset Boulevard. The list goes on and on. (Tim Dirks’ filmsite.org has a whole list called Greatest Movie Death Scenes.) 

Since a major part of movies center around conflict then it’s natural that death would be at the center of some of our most memorable movie experiences.  Here’s some solid advise on how to write a death scene:

“In The Godfather, Don Corleone falls and has a fatal heart attack while entertaining his grandson. The physical life of the scene is superb: Brando slices an orange and places the peel against his teeth, pretending to be a monster. It not only adds an interesting texture but also breaks the stasis of the scene when the child bursts into tears and forces Corleone to comfort him. The physical life created a flow and opened the door for a very specific and interesting character revel. It is a very original way to write a death scene by juxtaposing play with death.” 
                              James Ryan  
                              Screenwriting from the Heart
                              page 150 

 

Scott W. Smith

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She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast
He was a Midwestern boy on his own
She looked at him with those soft eyes,
So innocent and blue
He knew right then he was too far from home he was too far from home

                                           Bob Seger
                                           Hollywood Nights 

 

Though I’ve said that Diablo Cody was the inspiration for me to start the Screenwriting from Iowa blog, it was an event that happened three years after she was born that probably planted the seed that eventually led me to Iowa.

When William Holden the lead actor of Sunset Boulevard died November 12, 1981 it made a huge impact on me. I had just moved to L.A. a few months prior from Orlando and was attending film school and studying acting. I was already familiar with his work on the movies Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, and Network. I knew that he was an Oscar winner and one of the biggest stars of the 1950s.

But it wasn’t his films and life that made the news of his death leaving such an impression on me. It was the way he died. The news in L.A. at that time played up the fact that he apparently fell while drunk in his Santa Monica apartment and had hit his head on a table and bled to death. And he laid there dead in his apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean for several days before anyone missed him. He died alone. 

I remember thinking at that time, “How is that possible?” How is it possible for a guy that’s achieved everything I could ever hope to achieve in the movie business to lay in his condo for several days before any one missed him? This is the original Golden Boy, who was linked romantically to Audrey Hepburn, Shelly Winters, Grace Kelly and at the end with Stefanie Powers,. He had a six decade career including heavyweight the films The Bridge on the River Kawi, Sabrina, and The Wild Bunch.

He was rich and famous and he is now #25 on AFI’s list of top movie stars. But he died alone.

Two weeks later actress Natalie Wood died in a mysterious late-night accident involving a boat off Santa Catalina Island in Southern California.

A few miles away from where Holden died, and just four months later actor/comedian John Belushi died of a heroin overdose at the Chateau Marmont which just happens to be on Sunset Boulevard.  Much of my misspent youth as a teenager was spent laughing at Belushi’s antics on Saturday Night Live (Cheezebuger, Cheezburger), Animal House and The Blues Brothers so I didn’t find anything funny about his death.

I was only 20 years old and hadn’t even been in L.A. a year and I knew something was wrong with the place. While I was an intern on a cable TV show called Alive and Well that was taped in Marina del Rey I remember talking to L.A. Dodger Steve Yeager who was a guest on the show about L.A. and he told me something I never forgot. (Yeager, by the way, went to high school in Dayton, Ohio which just happened to be where William Holden’s character was from in Sunset Boulevard.) I asked Yeager if he thought L.A. was a plastic town and he said, “Yes, but if you live here long enough you don’t see the plastic.”

I only lived there five years so I could still see the plastic when I headed back to Florida. I still love much about L.A, but maybe it wasn’t so crazy to eventually move to Iowa. 

Yesterday I read that Forbes listed nearby Iowa City, Iowa as the #9 best small metro places to live and work (Waterloo-Cedar Falls was #33) and not too far away Des Moines was listed as the #7 best metro places to live and work.  How did California fare? According to Forbes writer Kurt Badenhausen “Bringing up the rear of our rankings are the troubled spots in California. The Golden State had its worst showing ever in our tally.” Los Angeles ranked #180.

I hope as the digital revolution continues that the William Holden’s and John Belushi’s of the future (if they aren’t big enough to live in Montana or France) can do their thing in their home states and avoid some of the L.A. trappings. Holden and Belushi weren’t the first do die in excess in L.A. and they won’t be the last. (And it’s also true that every part of the country has its problems with drugs and alcohol. But L.A. seems to have a special gift for leading actors and musicians—and in some cases actors turned musicians—toward a path of destruction.)

Do you wonder if William Holden when he was all alone in his apartment did he ever fire up a projector and watch Sunset Boulevard?  He was a respected (and still working actor) but faded movie star that Susanne Vega referenced in her song Tom’s Diner;

I open
Up the paper
There’s a story
Of an actor

Who had died
While he was drinking
It was no one
I had heard of

  

Certainly as Holden wandered alone in his large apartment at least once had to see some parallels between his life and Norma Desmond’s. 

And right now a 20 year old actor is pulling into Hollywood for the first time and he’s never heard of Norma Desmond, William Holden…or even Susanne Vega.

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

 


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Did you know the Midwest had a big part in the success of Sunset Boulevard? Not only was Gloria Swanson born in Chicago and William Holden born in O’Fallon, Illinois (just east of St. Louis) but Nancy Olson who received and Academy Award nomination in her supporting role in the film was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But it was a preview screening just north of the city of Chicago that first signaled there was a problem with the opening scene.

While few have seen the original opening of the movie since 1949 there are scripts kicking around with the original open. The opening scene takes place in a morgue where William Holden’s character Joe Gillis lies dead with other dead bodies of men, women and children. Then things get funky when the voices of the dead people begin to talk.

                                                           A MAN”S VOICE
                                             Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here.
                                             It’s all right.
                      
                                                             GILLIS
                                             I’m not scared.

And then they all continue talking about how they died and one asks if “Satchel Paige beat the White Sox yesterday?” to which the Gillis voice-over replies, “No I wouldn’t. I died before the morning paper came.” The tone Wilder was after was missed by that first audience in the Midwest.

“Because of the touchy subject matter. Paramount sought a venue far from Hollywood to preview the picture. Evanston, Illinois, seemed distant enough. After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A County Morgue, the audience stunned Billy Wilder. Years later he recalled, ‘When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. In the mood of hilarity I walked out of the preview, very depressed.’”
                                                    Sam Staggs
                                                    Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard
                                                    Page 151

Paramount got the same negative reviews in Poughkeepsie, New York  and Great Neck on Long Island. The release was delayed as Wilder took six months to make changes.  When the film was released with changes in 1950 it was generally well received in the larger cities with some reviews having a clear understanding of the lasting value of the film. But the film was not a blockbuster hit. But it would go on to become what many have called the greatest film about Hollywood and in 1998 AFI would list Sunset Boulevard  as #12 on its top 100 film list.

 

Scott W. Smith

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It’s been many years since I watched the classic Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard. I don’t recall seeing it in the over five years since I moved to Iowa. What I realized seeing it recently is that perhaps the most famous on-screen screeenwriter had Midwest roots.

“As I drove back into town I added up my prospects and they added up to exactly zero. Apparently I just didn’t have what it takes. The time had come to wrap up the whole Hollywood deal and go home. Maybe if I hawked all my junk there’d be enough for a bus ticket back to Ohio. Back to that $35 a week job behind the copy desk at the Dayton Evening Post if it was still open. Back to the smirking delight of the whole office. ‘Alright you wise guys, why don’t you go out and take a crack at Hollywood.’”
Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Sunset Boulevard 

A modern day Joe Gillis hopefully wouldn’t end up floating dead in a pool in a mansion on Sunset Boulevard but would return to Dayton and hook up with some actors from there and Yellow Springs, as well as some creative folks from nearby Cincinnati and that little fat girl in Ohio with her digital camera and they’d made their own films.

(By the way… I’ll be one state over from Ohio in Michigan next month speaking on screenwriting and production and will fill you in as I know more details in case anyone in the area is interested in attending.)

Re-write 101:
The script version I have of Sunset Boulevard is dated March 21, 1949 and here is what the writers (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) had written originally:

“So, I started back towards Hollywood. All the way down Sunset Boulevard I was composing a letter: ‘To W.W. Agree, Managing Editor, the Dayton Evening Post, Dayton, Ohio.  Dear Mr. Halitosis: I am in a terrible predicament. I have just been offered a writer-producer-director contract at seven thousand a week for seven years straight. Shall I do it? Shall I subject myself to the corruption and sham of this tinsel town with its terrible people, or is my place back home where there are no people —just plain folks? In other words, how’s about that thirty-five-dollar-a-week job behind the rewrite desk?’”

Scott W. Smith

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