Feature: The 'Sunset Blvd.' all-stars

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  March 24, 2004 at 5:37 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 24 (UPI) -- An all-star cast headed by Oscar-winners Anjelica Huston and Sir Ben Kingsley is preparing for a reading of Billy Wilder's classic film "Sunset Blvd." in Hollywood on April 4 to raise money for the Actors' Fund of America.

The reading, at the historic Pantages Theatre, is the second annual installment of "Screenplays on Stage." Last year's reading of "All About Eve" featured an all-star cast headed by Stockard Channing, Angela Lansbury and Kirk Douglas.

Huston will read the role of Norma Desmond -- the silent film star who immortalized the line: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." Kingsley will play her devoted butler, Max von Mayerling.

Patrick Wilson, a Golden Globe nominee for "Angels in America" and a Tony Award nominee for "The Full Monty" and "Oklahoma!" plays Joe Gillis, the screenwriter who hooks up with Desmond and is later shot and killed by her. Lauren Ambrose of HBO's "Six Feet Under" plays Betty Schaefer, the secretary who actually wants to be a writer.

The cast also includes Stanley Donen as Cecil B. DeMille, Ed Begley Jr., Steve Guttenberg, Wilmer Valderrama and Charles Durning. Stefanie Powers will introduce the evening and play legendary Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper.

The 1950 black comedy earned 11 Oscar nominations -- including Best Picture, Best Director for Wilder, Best Actor for William Holden and Best Actress for Gloria Swanson. It won three statuettes -- including one for the screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.

1950 turned out to be a pretty good year for classic movies about show business. It was the same year that "All About Eve" won a record 14 nominations and took six Oscars, including Best Picture.

Tony-winner Peter Hunt ("1776") is directing the production. He told United Press International that "Sunset Blvd." and "All About Eve" were products of a kind of golden age for writing in Hollywood.

"They are literate and witty and moving," he said. "And they work verbally as well as pictorially."

The reading will use an adaptation by playwright David Rambo, who also adapted "All About Eve" last year. Rambo told UPI he has no intention of trying to improve on a screenplay that is among the best-known and best-loved in the acting community.

"A great part of our audience has spent a large part of their lifetimes imagining themselves as Norma or Joe or Cecil," he said. "I think half our audience would be able to quote along with the actors."

That's more or less how it went last year, said Ambrose, who read the part of Phoebe in "All About Eve."

"It was just this uproarious good time," she said. "Everyone knew every line."

In "Sunset Blvd.," Ambrose will read the part originated by Nancy Olson, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Olson is a co-host for this year's event, along with producer Kate Edelman Johnson and Wilder's widow, Audrey Wilder.

A major part of the screenplay's appeal for actors is the way it sends up the exploitative character of the movie business.

"What Billy used to say about the four main characters ... is that they are all opportunists," said Olson. "And if you look at the body of Billy's work, he writes quite a bit about opportunists and the consequences of opportunism."

On the other hand, producer David Michaels said, actors are the most generous people in the world: The stars lining up for "Sunset Blvd." are donating their talent.

"It's thrilling," said Rambo. "They're all great in their own right and they will never be in the same room again."

Rambo also applauded Paramount Pictures for allowing the use of the screenplay.

"This is one of their crown jewels if not the crown jewel," he said.

The Actors' Fund (actorsfund.org) is getting $26 to $151 for general admission at the Pantages, a 2,700-seat theater that was home to the Academy Awards from 1949-59. VIP tickets are a bit pricier, ranging from $250 to $2,500. The top ticket also gets you into the cast party.

Even though the company is not under the pressure associated with a new production hoping for a long and successful run, Hunt said there is anxiety nevertheless.

"The obligation to the audience remains exactly the same no matter what the setup is," he said. "Clearly, you have an obligation to, if you will, give them their money's worth."

The Actors' Fund, founded more than 120 years ago, provides assistance to more than 12,000 entertainment professionals with healthcare, housing and other needs.

Michaels said the creative team behind "Screenplays on Stage" has what he called a "five-year plan" in mind, but he isn't speculating about what screenplays might be adapted for future presentations.

"The rules we've made up for this series are, it has to be a screenplay that's never been done on stage as a straight play, and it needs to be about showbiz," he said.

But he also left open the possibility that exceptions might be made for future readings.

"We made up the rules," he said, "so we can break them."

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