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Sunday, September 9, 2012

My View of Sunset Boulevard

  As a pretty serious film buff, there have been a few major movies that I have not yet seen.  Since this list contains movies made forty, sixty and even eighty years ago, and this list of movie titles does not grow, I have not gone out of my way to watch them all quickly in order to strike them off the list.  I have time to work through them slowly, opening each one like a gift, knowing that these are special movies.  Some of these movies do not live up to their hype, but these are rare.  Most of the time I discover that their pantheon status is well-deserved.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  I'd passed on the chance to watch Sunset Boulevard earlier in life for several reasons, the most prominent being that it just seemed to be about an old lady who was unhappy with having lost her popularity as a silent film star.  It just didn't sound too thrilling, and when I was younger I tended to look for more thrilling movies than ones that were not.  And although I loved William Holden in Stalag 17, I had never heard of Gloria Swanson, and so I felt no compulsion to watch a movie in which she was the female lead.  Back then I was more interested in Kathryn Hepburn, Grace Kelly, or Kim Novak.
  So after being bedridden with the flu, I found Sunset Boulevard on Netflix and decided it was time to give it a chance.  After all, it was rated as one of the top films ever made about Hollywood.  It has been included in the Library of Congress' first list of 25 films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  It had been nominated for 11 Academy Awards.  (Not always a good indicator, mind you.)  It was a Billy Wilder classic, which could be a good thing, and could be a bad thing.  I like Wilder, some of his movies top my favorites list.  But some of his top my most disappointed list as well.
  And so, like Gloria Swanson's character in the movie (though I did not know it at the time), I settled in to watch an old screen legend on my in-house movie screen.
  From the opening shots, we see two corpses:  one of a man lying face-down in a pool, one of a monkey lying in state, the silk sheet drawn back to reveal its death-mask.  The first image tells us this is going to be a noir-thriller.  The second tells us it is going to be anything but common; it is, in fact, going to be a Gothic, macabre tale.
  Joe Gillis, played with William Holden's usual laconic dry humor, is a struggling Hollywood hack who desperately needs to make some dough.  Sure, he's behind in his rent, but his big concern is losing his car, which as any man will tell you, symbolizes his freedom.  Unable to scrounge up a job, he ducks his car into what appears to be an abandoned garage on Sunset Boulevard while running from the repo-men.  Sunset is known for lavish, wealthy estates populated by the original stars of Hollywood, most of whom, at this time (1950) are living in seclusion, having dropped out of the public eye since the introduction of sound in pictures twenty-three years earlier.  Most of these stars, once the most envied by the public, were nearly forgotten in the wake of the unprecedented explosion of Hollywood's popularity.
  To Joe's unnerved surprise, the house is not empty.
  Here's where I began to enjoy this movie.  The house is presented as something close to Dracula's castle.  No, it's not a castle in the conventional moat-and-drawbridge sort of way, but this Italianate mansion actually has a creaky gate, bizarre decorations, and wide, open rooms that certainly give us that Castle feeling.  The butler, with his gargoyle-like stony expression, adds to the classic-horror feel as Joe is told he is "expected".
  Oh boy, don't walk in that gate!
  A woman's throaty voice calls out from the top of the stairs.  "You're late.  Come up here!"
  Oh boy, don't go up them stairs!
  The butler tells him, "if you need help with the casket, just call me."
  Excuse me?
  At the top of the stairs, he hears that same woman's voice say-- "In here."
  Oh boy, don't go in there.
  "He's right here."  She draws back that silk sheet to reveal the dead monkey.
  How does Bill Holden get out of this with only some dry humor and good looks?
Gloria Swanson's iconic portrayal of Norma Desmond
 And so begins this tale, of a man who discovers a silent film star, Norma Desmond (Swanson's role), who is living in some sort of Boris Karloff unreality, and decides she wants Holden to stay with her.  Holden's Joe Gillis, who doesn't flee as any right-minded man would, thinks he can exploit her for a job and some easy dough.  Well, why not?  If had acted as a right-minded man should, it would not have been a movie.
  From here on in, like Joe, we begin to learn of a Hollywood that no longer exists.  Of card games played by former stars: Gloria Swanson was actually a silent screen film star, and she gets old friends Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson to join her at the card table.  What a delight it was to see Keaton in this cameo!  Her old friend and director Cecil B. Demille gets to play a significant part in the story, and even that old gossip Hedda Hopper shows up for the fun.  We are allowed to see the back-lots and offices of Paramount Pictures, as well as the sound stages.  All of which would make this a fun, cheery picture, except for the fact that these sights are only dressing added to the main story in that macabre house of Swanson's.
  Director Billy Wilder does this on purpose.  He wants to show us this hidden, sad layer of Hollywood, but he knows we won't buy it if it is done without the heavy involvement of the real Hollywood.  If Demille's role had been a generic, fake director, it would have made the movie just look like a farce.  So bizarre is the world that Wilder is showcasing that he must use these elements of truth to get us to agree to come along for the ride.
  Not all of Hollywood was thrilled at Wilder's depiction of their universe.  Many of the older stars complained about it.  But that had to be sheer vanity, since Wilder does a great job of highlighting one woman's loss of sanity, without condemning the entire industry along with her.
  There are some fascinating images used in this movie.  None of the doors in the mansion have locks, all of them have been removed, leaving holes in every door.  Oddball beauty treatments resemble something out of Phantom of the Opera.  The lavish, downright hokey decor in Swanson's house is great, especially when you find out that the set decorator actually designed similar houses for actual stars like Mae West.  Should anyone be surprised that Hollywood stars might have bad taste?
  The plot is not too original.  But it doesn't have to be.  It is simply a take on how Hollywood, with all of its money and glitz, can seduce a man who wants to do something good with his talent.  This is illustrated by the contrast between the glamorous Swanson and Holden's sweet love-interest, played by newcomer Nancy Olson.  (Boy, even her name reeks of sweetness.  She's almost too pure to be believable, looking and acting like one of those innocent college girls in a Superman comic book.)  A special gem in the movie is Nancy's friend Arty, played with enthusiastic joie de vivre by the unlikely Jack Webb.  He's so young, and so full of expression, I had to look him up on the Internet to figure out who he was.  I knew he looked familiar, but I would never have guessed Joe Friday could be so...smiley.
  There is so much I'd like to say about this movie, but can't, for fear of ruining it for the few out there who have not seen it.  (It seems unlikely, given its status, but I hadn't seen it until just the other day, so I have to assume there are others.)  All I can add is that once you've seen it, read up on the history of the actors involved.  Pay particular attention to the butler (Eric von Stroheim) .  His role is full of wonderful irony that is even more so when his real life is taken into consideration.
  Holden gets all the witty, cynical lines, as when he responds to Olson's comment that she had heard he had some talent--"That was last year.  This year I'm trying to earn a living."  But it's Swanson who gets the best lines.  When Holden threatens to leave her, she holds that movie-star profile high and says "No one ever leaves a star--that's what makes one a star."  But what Wilder makes so painfully clear is that though the stars may light up the sky for a time, stars also fall.  And when they do, it is fascinating to watch them plummet from the sky. 

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