"Sunset Boulevard" on Hollywood Boulevard

April 5
10:52 PM 2004
Click here for photos from Sunset Boulevard...

After the rousing success of last years Actor's Fund special event, an all-star reading of "All About Eve," last night at Hollywood's famed Pantages Theatre, the stars again were back out in force, this time to read through the other classic film of the same year, "Sunset Boulevard."

Widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, "Sunset Boulevard" weaves the tale of a struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who is taken in by a faded silent film star, Norma Desmond. What first begins as a business arrangement to aide the "return" of Desmond to the screen, quickly descends into a tragedy of Greek proportions, as Norma begins to fall for the younger man, and slowly constricts her python like grip on Gillis – with disastrous results for all involved.

Though "Sunset Boulevard" lost out on the Best Picture Oscar to "All About Eve," the film is still legendary for its incredible screenplay with some of the best movie one-liners in history, and deft direction by Billy Wilder, not to mention the intense secrecy the film was shot under given its not so kind look at how Hollywood treated its discarded silent film stars.

The Pantages Theatre, built in 1930 in the heart of Hollywood, was perhaps the perfect venue for this staged reading, as the grandiosity of the space, complete with its Art Deco design, gilded interior and red velvet curtains, seemed to echo the overblown interior of Norma Desmond's Sunset Boulevard mansion. On stage, however, was a minimalist design, meant only to suggest the various settings of the movie. While the stage consisted mainly of three sets of stools and music stands, which the actors constantly shifted between to connote a change in setting, there was also a director's chair, an old movie camera, and two Greek columns which suggested the stage where DeMille was shooting his latest film. (One fun historic note: the theatre is also where the Academy Awards were held the year [1951] "Sunset Blvd." was nominated for Best Picture).

Bringing the screenplay to life was a collection of some of today's hottest film, TV and theatre stars (and sometimes stars who have excelled in all three mediums). The program of actors read like a who's who in entertainment, complete with Academy Award, Tony and Emmy winners. 

Central to any production of "Sunset Boulevard," whether the film, the musical or in this staged reading, is the casting of Norma Desmond, the silent film star forgotten by Hollywood, hoping for a comeback - opps, I mean 'return'. Lucky for the audience, Angelica Huston took on the role with gusto and aplomb. From her first off-stage utterance of "You there, why are you so late," her voice unmistakable, she had the audience in the palm of her hand, seemingly destined to play the role. She did not disappoint, and if anything, raised the bar when she glided on stage, as if floating, in a long sweeping black dress, covered, aptly, in shimmering diamonds. The rapturous applause which accompanied her entrance concurred that she was not Angelica Huston – she WAS Norma Desmond. She commanded the stage every time she was on it, and was so powerful in her performance, you felt her presence even when she was off-stage. Careful not to play her as a classic camp figure, but also not falling into the trap of portraying Norma as crazy, Ms. Huston was magnificent in every way, and ended the evening, breaking your heart, with one of the most classic final lines in motion picture in history, "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up," which instantly has the crowd on its feet.

Just as entrancing, in the role of Joe Gillis, is the stage and now screen star, Patrick Wilson (look for him opening in the film, "The Alamo" this weekend, not to mention as Raoul in the film adaptation of "The Phantom of the Opera" coming to theatres in December). Given that Joe narrates the story and sets the tone for the evening, there was a lot riding on Wilson's shoulders. As down on his luck screenwriter Gillis, it took Wilson a few scenes before he seemed to truly get into the groove as Joe. However, while not as strong or as multi-faceted as William Holden, he certainly held his own against the star-studded cast, and proved that he is more than just a pretty face. 

Fresh from his Academy Award nomination for "The House of Sand and Fog," Ben Kingsley made an amazing Max von Mayerling, the movie director who was once married to Norma, but now acts as her butler and protector. Creating a great accent to complement his character, Kingsley's 'Max' was both funny and scary, touching and sad, adding complex layers to a character one could easily make very one-dimensional. Like Huston, Ms. Kingsley truly owned the role, and for the two hours he was on stage, he made you forget there ever was an Erich von Stroheim, who played the character in the film.

And what would any good drama be without a little love triangle to complicate matters? For that, add in Lauren Ambrose, star of HBO's acclaimed drama, "Six Feet Under" as the screenwriter wannabe who steals Joe Gillis's heart. As 'Betty Schaefer, Ambrose had perhaps more pressure on her than any other actor, for Nancy Olsen Livingston – the woman who played the part in the movie – was in the audience watching her every move. But Ambrose, too, was brilliant, and certainly did Ms. Livingston proud. With her flowing red locks framing her alibaster face, Ambrose's 'Betty' was full of wit, sarcasm, eagerness and romance, who makes you feel her heart-breaking when the man show loves shows her the door, not wanting to taint her innocence.

Rounding out the cast in a variety of roles was Noah Wyle (Betty's boyfriend Artie Green), James Cromwell (as studio executive Sheldrake), Daisy Egan (Betty's roommate Connie, and last minute sub for Marissa Jaret Winokur), not to mention Charles Durning, Steve Guttenberg, Ed Begley, Jr., Wilmer Valderrama, Robert Morse, Ken Howard and Stefanie Powers.

All in all, this benefit reading provided an entertaining and enjoyable afternoon in Los Angeles. It was a truly unique event, and remarkable in that everyone in the entire building, from the actors on stage to the audience in the seats, seemed to be having a great time. With all the actors generously donating their time, you could tell that each one – even major "names" who perhaps had only one or two lines – were simply there to have fun and support a worthy cause. For at least one day in LA, there were no egos, no billing squabbles or complaints about the size of one's trailer; it was only about the work and giving the audience a memorable day of entertainment.

While the staged reading was an immense success from a performance perspective, more important is the fact that it raised $200,000 to benefit the Actor's Fund, the only national social service organization that assists members of the entertainment community in every sector of the industry. With a mission, "to advance, foster and benefit the welfare of all professionals in the entertainment community who are in need of help, ensuring that these efforts are accomplished with compassion, confidentiality and preservation of dignity for the individuals concerned," the Fund provides such services to over 12,000 individuals each year, and has been doing so for over 120 years.

For more information about the Actor's Fund, or to make your own donation, please call 323-933-9244 (ext. 54) or visit http://www.actorsfund.org.


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