A murdered screenwriter. An idealistic young female reader working her way up in a studio. A producer who might consider pushing a baseball project if he could turn it into a musical for a female star. Hollywood luminaries playing themselves. That's not the roll call for The Player. It's a partial cast of characters for Sunset Blvd., Billy Wilder's creepiest, most original film. With its second wave of international attention, the film has been justly lauded for Wilder's deployment of horror and black comedy to expose cushy, crawling corruption. But the key to its success is William Holden's anti-hero, Joe Gillis, the debt-ridden screenwriter who becomes the kept man of silent-era movie legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Desmond and her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), are Old Hollywood in all its crazy grandeur -- the director and his co-writers (Charles Brackett, who also produced, and D.M. Marshman Jr.) bask in Desmond's baroqueness, giving her lines as pungent as Margo Channing's in All About Eve and an exit as potent in its own glittery way as Blanche DuBois'. The studio reader (Nancy Olson) is Young Hollywood; she wants Gillis to write something "true and moving." But Gillis, who narrates the picture in amusing tough-guy lingo, represents the Hollywood norm. Compromise has become a habit with him -- and Holden expresses the ravaging self-loathing that goes with it. No one has put across better the Hollywood experience of feeling lousy when dressed to the nines.
-- Michael Sragow
Sunset Blvd. screens Saturday, Feb. 22, at 8 p.m. at the Paramount, Broadway and 19th Street in Oakland. Tickets are $5; call (510) 465-6400.