September 17, 2011

#16: Sunset Boulevard

Billy Wilder's cynical shot at Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is a shining example of film noir: a moody character study chock full of shadows, suspense and unrequited longing, both for love and faded glory. It's a great worry to us when we realize that the world doesn't need us the way we need it, but our anti-heroine has the lucky position of never having realized this. 

Company: Ryan and Paul, our magnanimous hosts; Kecia, whom I'm trying to convince to dress as Norma for Halloween; Alex, movie maven and lover of suspense; Marisa, slender femme fatale

Cuisine: sushi (I was starving), vodka-7, and a host of movie treats including homemade brownies (thanks Paul!), gummy bears, popcorn and frosted animal cookies. Alex observed that it looked like a Charlie Brown thanksgiving in there. :)

Woops. Spoiled the ending.

The film is narrated in a moody, poetic voiceover by our "hero," aspiring young Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (Oscar nominee William Holden) who has fallen on hard times... although one feels he couldn't imagine the screenplay his life was about to become. No one in Hollywood will buy his script, and he's fallen behind on his car payments, prompting him to flee repossession men in a car chase along Sunset Boulevard. When he blows a tire, he's forced to pull over and sees what looks like an abandoned garage, a perfect hiding spot for his car on the lam. "Well, that one's a freebie," he thinks.

Well, yes, that would be a freebie, except... "You there!" comes a call from whoever lives in the adjacent house. She beckons him inside like a spider luring prey to a web, and once inside, Joe discovers reclusive faded silent-film star Norma Desmond (the magnificent and over-the-top Oscar nominee Gloria Swanson) living in a delapitated mansion that serves as a relic of her past fortune. She was the victim of sound in motion pictures, yes, but she also gained a reputation as being a difficult actor. Why actors would ever choose to be difficult, I'll never understand. How do you not see the moral here? DUH.

"So help me!"

Desmond hasn't left her cave in years, with only her butler Max (the understated and creepy Oscar nominee Erich von Stroheim) for company and moral support, as a way of clinging to her glamorous past. If she doesn't go outside, she won't see the world changing and revolving without her. See how that works? Her lavish villa is littered with photos of her young self, standing as reminders to her of what was and what could be. She's begun work on a script she hopes can be produced to revive her stalled film career, so it's just sheer luck that a talented screenwriter with reason to hide stumbles into her clutches. Gillis hesitantly agrees to the gig.

If the fact that you can see the white all the way around her eyes wasn't enough indication, then let me set it straight for you, Gillis: Desmond is a whack job. She doesn't allow Gillis to leave the house, she hovers over him as he works on her story, retaining total creative control, and hello! That chimpanzee funeral the first night he's there! Duh. And the New Year's party she throws... for just the two of them. As Liz Lemon would say, she's staunchly in favor of Cocoa Puffs. Gillis understand this to some extent, but is in no position to turn down Desmond's charity, and even starts to revel in it, while moonlighting to write his own screenplay with film studio reader Betty Shaefer (the lovely but little-used Oscar nominee Nancy Olson).

Wilder centers so squarely on their weird romance that it's hard to think of anything while writing this but their performances. Holden is the straight man and has the brunt of the story to present, while Swanson has a gay old time camping it up and yet staying grounded in her own whacked version of reality. Her lines sound like scenes she had once upon a time in films that never required her to say them aloud. Maybe that's why she can speak them now with such conviction: to her, they really aren't rehearsed, they're a part of her past that's never been said.

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Finally the screenplay is sent to the studio, where it could not possibly be validated quickly enough for Norma. After mysterious phone calls from the director's assistant, which Norma refuses to acknowledge out of pride, she drives Joe and herself to the studio to confront her old friend, Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself). It's on set, sitting in the director's chair, where she feels most at home; old stagehands and aspiring actors, who remember and revere her, crowd in for a peek, for an encounter with the great Norma Desmond, much to her delight.

What a great shot above: Norma, suddenly front and center again, nearly blinded by the warmth of a spotlight she hasn't felt in years, sitting in the director's chair. Because of the similar company we kept while watching this film, we kept making references to the big Oscar winner from 1950, All About Eve (Kecia, Alex, Ryan and Paul were all present), and they do make a fascinating double feature. While that film centered on the feuds between actors, Sunset Boulevard finds its tension in the relationship between actor and writer. One cannot function without the other: the actor would have no words to say without the writer, and the writer would only have words with no voice. Norma doesn't see it this way: as she drives on to the Paramount lot, she scolds the guards, noting that without her, "there wouldn't be a Paramount." But she needs Gillis, and DeMille and all of them; otherwise, she's just a washed-up actress living alone, watching her films at home and undergoing radical skin treatments to keep her youth. Why else would she hire Gillis? It's out of necessity, and some part of her must know it... right?

Desmond finds out about Joe's moonlighting and calls Betty in a desperate, twisted, jealous attempt to drive them apart, but Joe discovers her and invites Betty over to expose the truth of his gigolo lifestyle.

Underscored by Franz Waxman's luscious, creepy score, Max exposes the truth of his own life, too juicy to reveal here -- just go rent it! You'll see that everything builds to an inevitable and inspired climax.

And because I said I would...
"Find your way." -- Ryan

"Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond."

The film ends in one of the great Hollywood endings, one that both glamorizes and satirizes the very institution that made the film possible at all. Sunset Boulevard stands as maybe the best backstage story in which the audience never finds its way backstage (save for the few moments that we spend with Norma in that spotlight). It's a shame that Swanson lost the Oscar (I haven't seen Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, who also beat out both the Eve girls, but trust me that I will) in such a competitive year -- any other year she would have won. But it's a performance that stands alone, not needing an Oscar to validate it. Many, many lesser performances have won.

I'm at home for harvest, and so it'll be a busy time that might not leave much room for blogging or moviegoing, but hopefully I'll get to #15 (2001: A Space Odyssey) very soon! Until then, happy fall!

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