Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Monday, June 16, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim

Sunset Boulevard is not a film that is easily defined. It features elements of noir (the voice-over by writer turned gigolo Joe Gillis is right in line with classic noir voice-overs), elements of straight drama, and elements of self-referential parody. When Joe (William Holden) turns up at the desolate mansion of silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Wilder creates a finely-crafted Gothic atmosphere. From the wind that whistles through the organ like a ghostly player to the abandoned pool and tennis court, the spectre of death seems to loom over the mansion. It begins with death – Joe’s death – when we meet him for the first time floating face down in Norma’s pool. Being a writer, Joe should have known better than to stick around given how many times the words “dead” and “death” crop up in his first conversations with Norma, whom he meets over the body of her dead chimpanzee.

Norma and her house both exist in a kind of paralysis, a form of suspended animation. Internally, both Norma and the house exist in the 1920s, when Valentino danced on the ballroom floor and Norma was the greatest star in the whole world. Time stops for her in the moment that sound is introduced to film, and she remains convinced that silent films are due for a resurrection, that sound is just a passing fad. She’s written an epic screenplay for her expected comeback and hires Joe to stay on at the house and do an editing job. Or so it seems. Really, she’s hiring him into the world’s oldest profession, a fact which Joe finds distasteful but which doesn’t stop him from accepting the gifts Norma insists on giving him. In between Norma’s romantic overtures, the talk is all about the good old days and Norma’s return to the screen, which she believes to be inevitable.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the best films to come out of the 1950s – this one and Singin’ In The Rain - preoccupy themselves with Hollywood’s silent era. By the beginning of the decade, the Golden Age of Hollywood was over and the studio system was dying. Never again would the studios have a stable of stars whom they would effectively own and whose careers they would dictate, and never again would there be so many big stars at one time. In light of this, it’s only natural that Hollywood filmmakers would take a look at the last bygone era with a mixture of nostalgia and cynicism, perhaps as a way to prepare for the changes yet to come.

Needless to say, Hollywood is mercilessly criticized in this film. The Great Star has gone mad in the absence of her former fame, the director is now a servant, the writer tells his best story after his death. Hollywood is characterized here as a soul-sucking machine that uses people up and leaves them shells of their former selves. The false realities created by Hollywood have generated a grotesque version of life where people don't live as much as they act out their narratives. Most obviously there’s Norma, who lives as if it is still 1927, in a house filled with photographs of herself – studio photographs, importantly (“How could she breathe in that house full of Norma Desmonds?”) – and “fan letters” written by Max (Erich von Stroheim), her butler, former director, and former husband. But there’s also Betty (Nancy Olson), the woman who captures Joe’s heart as they work together on a screenplay. They take a walk around the lot and she describes growing up at the studio, where both her parents worked. Her neighbourhood street was the lot’s false city block, the nose on her face is a surgical construction, created during a brief flirtation with acting. Even the most sincere characters are tainted by a degree of falseness.

Sunset Boulevard is like a gift for film buffs because it’s so self-referential, so full of little bits of trivia. From the first film Norma shows Joe, to the guests at Norma’s card game, Wilder stacks the film with elements of meta without letting those elements take over the story. Ever the master, Wilder skilfully controls the story, guiding it towards its conclusion. Holden, a Wilder favourite who would also appear for the director in Sabrina and Stalag 17, delivers a wonderfully understated performance, more or less allowing himself to take Swanson’s lead. As Norma, Swanson delivers an iconic performance (perhaps too iconic given that she said “I’ve got nobody floating in my swimming pool” in response to a question regarding the autobiographical nature of the film), alternately comic and terrifying. Her final descent down her staircase is a thing of beauty, breathtaking and chilling as her madness finally takes complete control and she utters her immortal speech:
I promise you I'll never desert you again because after Salome we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark! All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

No matter how many times I see this film, I’m always stunned by these final moments. It skirts so close to the edge - any closer and it would have veered wildly into the realm of insane comedy. And yet, between them, Wilder and Swanson pull it off.

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