Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunset Boulevard

Year: 1950
AFI Top 100 Rating: 16
Writer: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Director: Billy Wilder
Star: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim

I consider “Sunset Boulevard” to be the greatest film by a director who specialized in making great films. Though it incorporates elements of noir, horror, drama and comedy, it transcends these genres and becomes one of those rare films that is indefinable. It’s also just about perfect.

We first meet Joe Gillis (William Holden) as he is floating upside down in a swimming pool, very much dead. He’s a screenwriter though, so death doesn’t shut him up, and he narrates the story of how he got to be in that pool. Turns out poor Joe was also poor in the literal sense—about to get his car repossessed and pride long shattered from being turned down by every studio in Hollywood. A flat tire leads him to the marble doorstep of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who invites him to stay with her and help her rewrite the script for her comeback…er…return to film. It starts as that, but soon develops into something much, much sicker.

The first time we meet Norma she is grieving the death of her pet monkey. She and her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) mistake Joe for the undertaker and allow him into her mansion. To call Casa Norma an overstatement would be an understatement—it seems as if Paramount dumped the entire contents of its prop rooms inside those walls. Swanson overacts throughout the film, but it is a calculated overacting that makes the film that much more fascinating. It is as if the character of Norma Desmond got so used to acting like she was in a silent film that she began acting like that in real life, and no one was around to yell “Cut!” Her melodrama underlines all of her emotions, from her manipulations to the moments of her real desperation, which paradoxically makes her all the more sympathetic.

Yes, I said sympathetic. She’s a monster, but a monster we come to care very much about. The key to this is Max, who we learn was once much more than just her butler: He was the director who discovered her and became the first of her three husbands. He still adores her as much as he ever did, handling her like a cracked porcelain doll. He caters to her every need, resends fan mail and tries not to let Joe’s relationship with Norma eat him up inside. Because he cares, we care. Because he loves, we love. There’s a moment deep in the film where Norma leaves Max and Joe to meet alone with Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself), and we are anxious and horrified that her dreams will shatter. It is in that moment that we realize how much we have come to care for this weird, unpleasant woman, and because of that the final reel is that much more bittersweet.

Because the movie has a heart, however sick it is, screenwriters Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. have a field day making everything surrounding that heart as bleak, sarcastic and dark as possible. This begins and ends with the Joe character, who can’t be too upset that he’s dead because he knows he was never a very good guy to begin with. While he (barely) admits once in the film that he likes Norma, he fills minutes of the film with narration that deconstructs her entire world and those sad creatures that fill it. Norma’s waxworks (her silent film friends, including Buster Keaton in a great cameo). Her house. Her car. Her persona. Her script. They are all mockable and he digs in with both hands, perhaps because it is the only way to stop him from weeping from the sadness of it all. His relationship with Norma at some point becomes sexual, but Wilder is right to keep the details cloudy. During the nights, Joe escapes from Norma to meet with a young woman named Betty (Nancy Olson). She’s engaged, but he still falls for her.

There are many reasons I love the film, but Betty is one of the biggest. In any lesser film, her character would be such a write-off. She’s would be the ambitious upstart who is good personified and ultimately do the right thing, no matter the cost. But Wilder and his co-writers turn Betty into a free-thinking, strong woman. Not only does she challenge Joe in the first scene they share by insisting that his new script isn’t any good, but later is more frustrated that Joe left because he was a rung in her ladder, not because he’s just so (*bats eyes*) dreamy. She has layers. She even admits that she got a nose job when she wanted to be an actress. In the end, Betty walks out of the movie with the kind of dignity you wouldn’t expect from a character of her type.

Wilder made a career of making masterpieces, from “Some Like It Hot” to “The Apartment” to “Double Indemnity,” which are all in the AFI Top 100 along with “Sunset Boulevard.” But there’s also “Witness For the Prosecution” (rarely seen today but easily ranks with his best), “Ace in the Hole,” “Sabrina,” “The Seven Year Itch”…my apologies, I’m beginning to list. For me, this film has the most deeply felt emotions and one of the greatest characters ever committed to film. Its irony and cynicism is a mask that slowly degrades the more you watch the film, and you begin to realize that just because there is much melodrama and “loudness” (for lack of a better word), there is just as much subtlety and beauty.

The stuff that happened behind the scenes of this movie is just as interesting as what happens onscreen, and in this viewing I tried to put everything I learned and read out of my mind. And yes, the movie still works beautifully on its own, whether or not you know that Swanson was a real silent film actor and that von Stroheim was really her director for many years. There have been many masterpieces made about Hollywood, but only one of them has Norma Desmond, so let’s face it…nothing else can compare. Despite the film’s famous closing line, the film blurs to black before Norma can get that final close-up. She didn’t need it. She’s made quite an impact already.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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