No Phantom at the Opera


Last Thursday night I was at the Grand Opera House to see the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical 'Sunset Boulevard'. It played to a packed house and was a brilliant performance from beginning to end. It runs until March 23rd.

The musical is based on the 1950 film of the same name which starred Gloria Swanson and William Holden. It is about the last six months in the life of a young but washed-up Hollywood screenplay writer, Joe Gillis, who while escaping from two men who are attempting to repossess his car drives into 10086 Sunset Boulevard. (Wilder, himself, often had to hide his car from the repossessors.) The house at the end of the drive looks like a derelict mansion but from an upstairs window a woman calls upon him to come in and asks him why he is so late. She is Norma Desmond, a faded, silent-movie star, who has mistaken Gillis for a pet mortician come to bury her dead monkey! The butler, the bald Max, lets him in. The mansion is creepy, with a sweeping, gilded wrought-iron balustrade and a pipe organ. The dresser is covered in old photographs of Norma's former days of fame in the sun. Half the time Norma, to whom Max is totally devoted, watches her old movies. Gillis ends up being a kept man, a gigolo, and helps Norma with her appalling script on the life of Salome (who in the Bible demanded the head of John the Baptist). Norma is hoping that with the script she will make her comeback and expects Cecil B. de Mille to direct her in the lead role. Without going into great detail the story was, and is, about the hypocrisy and cut-throat nature of Tinseltown (which 'gave us new ways to dream', according to one of the many memorable lines in the musical).

The director of the original 'Sunset Boulevard' was Austrian-born Billy Wilder, who was so named by his mother after she saw the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show as a teenager. Wilder is ninety seven and has led a colourful life, to say the least. As a boy in Vienna he spent a lot of time watching Hollywood movies but he first studied law before becoming a reporter on an evening newspaper. He later said: "If there was a murder I would be sent to the house of the parents of the murderer to ask for his photograph."

He began to write film reviews and worked as a script ghostwriter when he moved to Berlin. One of his first films was 'Menschen am Sonntag' which was about the life of ordinary working-class Berliners on a Sunday and had critical success. At the premiere of his German film 'Was Frauen traumen' ('What Women Dream'), in 1933, his name and that of his co-writer were removed from the credits and expunged from the printed programme - because Wilder was Jewish. He fled Europe, learnt English from novels as he crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Hollywood with a few dollars in his pocket. He wrote scripts but held a low opinion of directors. He was once asked if he thought it was important for a director also to know how to write. He replied: "No, but it helps if he knows how to read."

His directorial debut was 'The Major and the Minor' starring Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers and was about a woman who wants to go home from New York but only has enough money for a child's train ticket. She disguises herself as a twelve-year-old, then falls in love with a soldier she meets on the train (thus the title).

Among his most famous films are 'Double Indemnity', 'The Lost Weekend', 'Stalag 17', Marilyn Monroe in 'The Seven Year Itch' (with the famous scene where Monroe holds down her dress while a subway grate blows it around her), 'Some Like It Hot' (Tom Hartley's favourite film, where the men dress up as women!), 'The Spirit of St. Louis' (Charles Lindbergh's non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris, including a wonderful scene where he waves to Irish villagers), 'The Front Page' (a black comedy about a ruthless newspaper reporter covering the impending execution of a murderer),and, of course, 'Sunset Boulevard'.

'The Lost Weekend' was about five days in the life of a mediocre writer battling his drinking problem, played, again, by Ray Milland. The woman standing by her man was Jane Wyman (wife of future president, the cowboy Ronald Regan). When Milland pathetically begs a bartender for just one drink the bartender replies with a line that has gone into history, "Yeah, one's too many and a hundred's not enough."

Wilder's personal life was a mess. He says that he liked "fast cars and fast women" and was going out with two women while he was married. In 1945 he was sent to Germany to help with the de-Nazification programme and to serve as a film commissioner for the army's Psychological War Division. He learnt that his mother, stepfather and grandmother had all died in Auschwitz and he tried, unsuccessfully, to find his father's grave in a war-damaged Jewish cemetery in Berlin.

'Sunset Boulevard' was critically acclaimed and earned Wilder his third Oscar. But because Paramount owns all the rights Wilder receives no royalties from the Andrew Lloyd Webber revival. Not that he's poor. In the 1980s he sold his private art collection for over thirty million dollars.

The production in the Grand Opera House is stunning and Belfast people after all they have been through deserve something as sumptuous as this. At the interval I was at the reviews in the gents where a certain Andersonstown man, who shall remain nameless, said: "My wife dragged me out to this. But isn't it ******* brilliant!"


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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison