Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sunset Boulevard (1950) ***

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Before there was The Artist (2011) there was director Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Both movies shine a very bright light on the plight of a silent film star in the Hollywood Sound Era.  Of course, things end much better for George Valentin in The Artist than they do for Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard, but that’s probably why I prefer Norma’s story.  It also helps that the acting is insanely good, the script is dark and acidic, and the set design is ostentatiously divine. 

SunsetBoulevardThe story opens with out-of-work screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a pool—are spoiler alerts really needed after this?—and Joe narrating how he came to find himself there. Trying to evade the repo-man, Joe pulls his car into the driveway and subsequent garage of silent movie queen Norma Desmond.  His timing is both good and bad. It’s bad because Norma’s beloved chimp is soon to be interned, but good because she is planning a return (please don’t say ‘comeback’) to the screen via a screenplay she has penned herself that needs the deft hand of an abled-bodied writer.  Joe, of course, is the obvious choice—he’s broke and hiding from repo-men. 

Norma’s enormous gilded mansion is a decaying monument to herself—photographs and paintings of her line the walls and furniture tops. The house and Norma are attended by Max (Erich von Stroheim)—a quiet, unassuming former director and husband of Norma. I expect it was rather painful to watch Norma make Joe her gigolo, but Max was the sme_on_filmort of man who just wanted to keep his ‘star’ happy. Anyway, the movie takes on a sadistically ironic feel when someone from Paramount calls the house and Norma assumes Cecil B. DeMille wants to direct her in the Salome screenplay she and Joe have penned. Suffice to say this was not the case—they wanted to use her Isotta-Fraschini (see: big, expensive car)—but no one tells Norma and she sets off on a beauty-workout montage that would make Rocky proud.  All the while, Joe is getting cozy with a young female screenwriter (Nancy Olson) and thinking of a way to escape his situation.  Alas, no one ever leaves a star—at least that’s what Norma thinks—and Joe ends up floating face-down in the pool.

I never really liked Gloria Swanson’s silent films and her early forays into the Sound Era were nothing to write home about, either.  Yet, there is something mesmerizing about her campy performance as Norma.  Of course, Wilder and fellow screenwriters Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr., incorporated so much of the real Swanson into Norma that it’s hard to know SunsetBoulevard (1)where one woman begins and the other ends.  For example, in her heyday, Swanson was known to have received 10,000 fan letters in a single week and she lived in a gigantic Italianate palace on Sunset Blvd—just as Norma did.  Surely, Swanson knew how grotesquely Wilder was portraying Norma, which only adds to her overall performance. It’s as though she were saying, “You want a delusional megalomaniac past her prime, do you? Well, feast your eyes on these wild eyes, affected mannerisms, and predatory, stalking gait!” Swanson earned her third, and most deserved, Oscar nomination for a role that countless faded female stars turned down, but only she had the panache to play!

The other three principal actors (Holden, Stroheim, and Olson) were also nominated for Academy Awards, but none would have shined quite as bright without Swanson (and in Olson’s case you can only wonder how weak the Best Supporting Actress category was that year?). Holden is convincing as the cynical, world-weary Joe, who finds annex-swanson-gloria-sunset-boulevard_11himself grudgingly accepting the position of gigolo to a lunatic.  Yet, it’s not his acting that I most remember when I think of him in this, but his wonderful physique when he emerges shirtless from the swimming pool (before he was dead, mind you).

In Stroheim’s case, he like Swanson, was playing a caricature of himself.  He hadn’t directed a film in nearly 15 years when Wilder asked him to play Max von Mayerling and screen a version of his Queen Kelly (1929) for Norma and Joe to watch (it starred Swanson).  When he “directs” the final scene in the movie, you know where Norma comes down the stairs and says, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up,” it must have stung just a bit—Stroheim was considered to be just as good as DeMille in the 1920s but their careers took dramatically different turns in the Sound Era. 

But there would have been no standout performances without Wilder’s brilliant script—it drips with acidic venom for the excesses of Hollywood.  No element is safe, but the Studio System is his biggest target.  When Norma says to Joe the writer, “We didn't need dialogue. We had faces” and “You'll make a rope of words and strangle this business! With a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!” Wilder was making a statement about what passed for artistry in (then) modern cinema.  Some, like Louis B. Mayer, were outraged by Wilder’s film and he took some heat for it, but in the end he had the last laugh as Sunset Boulevard endures as one of the best films ever about sunset-boulevard-thumb-560xauto-25619Hollywood.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer, and Moyer for their Oscar-winning art direction and set design.  They made good use of the Getty mansion (which was actually located on Wilshire Blvd. before they tore it down and built the beyond boring Harbor Building).  Massive in size, every inch was used to display Norma’s ostentatious personality.  From the swan-shaped bed to the overcrowded living room, everything screams: Look at me! 

Finally, I must commend Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning film scoreSUN025AL.  It bookends the film perfectly, but plays exceptionally well in that infamous, unforgettable final scene as Norma glides down the staircase and approaches the camera for her final close-up—which ironically ends up being a long-shot.  What a way to end a movie! One of the best closing shots ever—right up there with The Third Man (1949), Modern Times (1936), and The Birds (1963).

 

 

18 comments:

  1. Not only did Swanson have panache, she had guts. Her performance is fearless. I think what sets this film so far above the rest is the double-edged sword of Billy Wilder. Yes, he portrays Norma as a grotesque, but there is also a sadness because, deep down, Wilder makes her right. The glory of films had been forever altered diminished by sound. Wilder was a genius of the sound era, but he grew up during the silent era. So, there is a bit of shaming for Norma's rather shabby treatment at Paramount. Anyway, one could go no forever about this wonderful film!

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    1. I see you're a fan, too. Wilder does make you feel somewhat sorry for Norma.

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  2. "his wonderful physique when he emerges shirtless from the swimming pool"

    Ha ha ha! Indeed, agreed!

    I also love the set design, the outrageous acting, and the script (as per Wilder's track record) is just divine. But what astonishes me, what is maybe my favorite thing about this movie, is how meta everything is. Not just Swanson and von Stroheim, but DeMille, the mentions of real stars, real directors, real studios, real films, heck, even William Holden was essentially playing a version of himself as he had found early success but floundered through most of the forties. The whole film feels like a razor-thin gauze stretched over the realities of Hollywood.

    I'm not surprised at all that while this was nominated for Best Picture, it lost to All About Eve, given its utter condemnation of The Industry.

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    1. It is meta, isn't it. I think that's why Wilder took so much guff. Good point about the reason's why this might have lost the Oscar to All About Eve.

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  3. Everything about SB is fabulous. So many good actors, including the lovely Nancy Olson as Betty.

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    1. We'll have to agree to disagree about Nancy Olson, but I think overall the film is fabulous, too.

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  4. I love love love this movie. It's my favorite Holden film, my #2 film of the entire 1950's, and among my top 5 films of all time.

    I consider this to be William Holden's finest hour and think that he ought to have won the Oscar for his performance. Trying to understand how Jose Ferrer beat him out, I attempted to watch "Cyrano de Bergerac." I was bored to tears and gave up after 15 minutes, so I will never see the performance that beat out Holden's.

    While the film was about an aging silent film star, I think it is completely relatable to every walk of life. We are living in a youth-oriented society, with millions of dollars being spent on drugs, cosmetics, and procedures to help us cling to youth a bit longer. Norma Desmond wasn't/isn't the only one unwilling to grow old gracefully.

    Nancy Olson and Bill Holden appeared together in 4 films, and I read somewhere that there was hope of making them a hot pair. Obviously, that didn't work. I consider "Sunset Boulevard" to be the best chemistry between them.

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    1. I liked Cyrano de Bergerac, but I don't know if Ferrer was Oscar worthy. Personally, I think Jimmy Stewart's turn in Harvey was the best male performance that year.
      Good point about how this film is still relevant today, with our fixation and fear of aging.

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  5. I also love/love the film Sunset Boulevard. When first viewing this film, I was surprised by the depth of characters. Especially.. the outrageous Norma's fragile/enormous ego. The story is dark and twisted with Norma's character coming out at the most surprising moments. The mansion, Cinematography and lighting are wonderful. A movie I will never forget.

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    1. Each character's backstory does add depth to their overall performances. The ending is what I can't forget--and so many outrageous things that come out of Norma's mouth.

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  6. I could go on all day about "Sunset Boulevard" but won't, since you've expressed it wonderfully here. I agree with those who've said it's as timely now as it ever was.

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  7. Kim, So very true that "Sunset Blvd." has one of the killer closing shots in all of film (and you include it among some monumental finishes). My reaction to Holden is similar to yours, his performance is convincing but his (living) physique is unforgettable. He went on to deliver other credible performances as jaded, cynical men (watching him in "Network" right now) but I don't know that he ever displayed his physique as gloriously again. Excellent take on one of the great classics.

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    1. He did look hot emerging from that pool, didn't he?
      BTW, Network is awesome!

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  8. Kim, I got this BluRay for Christmas and have always found Swnason to be mesmerizing as you described. Wilder's casting and script were inspired and his direction is brilliant. I must say that the more I watch the film, the less I like Betty. She is just as big a user as Joe. After all, Betty wants to be a writer and is willing to dump her fiancee Artie for Joe since Joe can help her achieve her goal. I think you are so right that this movie's ending is what makes it great. As the story progresses, you do wonder, how can Wilder possibly wrap this masterpiece up without ruining the atmosphere. As you point out, the music, the absurd rantings of Norma, and the great closing shot make this film the work of art that it is.

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    1. Betty was a user--which I think she shows at the end when she tells Joe to pack his things and leave with her after seeing that he was Norma's kept man. Really? What woman would want him after seeing that?

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  9. this really great blog and articles about classic movies.. thanks for the information i got here about classic movies.

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