Thursday 14 January 2010

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

It's fair to say that in 2004 I had no clue at all what to expect from Sunset Boulevard, which was released in the same year as Harvey. I knew the most famous line, of course, but not that there are quite a few more genuine peaches in there too. I knew nothing at all about the plot, which concerns a subject no less broad than the history of Hollywood itself. I had even confused it with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version, not realising it was actually a noted film noir. The only thing I did know was that Gloria Swanson had won abiding respect for one of the great individual performances in cinematic history, though I didn't realise just how much that respect was deserved. I do now.

She fulfils everything her role requires, absolutely everything, and that's far more difficult a thing to do than it sounds. It's relatively easy to play an actor but in Sunset Boulevard Swanson plays a Star, of the calibre that hasn't been seen since the silent movies of the teens and twenties. As Norma Desmond, she dominates the film even though William Holden has far more screen time and turns in an excellent performance of his own. She sweeps through the film with consummate style as if the whole thing was made specifically for her and nobody else is really of any consequence whatsoever. Her Golden Globe was well deserved and I'm amazed that she didn't win the Oscar. Judy Holliday, who won out over Swanson with her performance in Born Yesterday, another William Holden movie of 1950 which I hadn't even heard of in 2004 and still haven't seen, must either have been truly awesome or there were some sort of political shenanigans going on at the Academy.

Swanson may dominate the film but technically the lead is William Holden, who plays Joe Gillis, a second rate Hollywood screenwriter who is down on his luck and running from creditors. Circumstance brings him to former silent movie star Norma Desmond, who has spent the last twenty years reliving her famous past in her huge but decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard. She acquires him to turn a script she has written into a vehicle for Cecil B DeMille to use for her return to the silver screen. There's no other word to use but 'acquire' as she gradually takes over his life as much as she does everyone else's. After all, what a Star wants, a Star gets.

This attitude towards Hollywood stardom isn't a particularly endearing one, and the scriptwriters were so worried about the potentially hostile reaction to the movie from inside the industry that it was given the working title of 'Can of Beans'. However the script didn't stop various major Hollywood names appearing as themselves, such as real life silent screen legends Buster Keaton, H B Warner and Anna Q Nilsson who join Desmond at her mansion for bridge. DeMille played himself on the set of Samson and Delilah, which he was shooting at the time. In more regular roles, there's also Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Jack Webb a long while before Dragnet, and Erich von Stroheim who gives a bravado performance as Desmond's first husband, who through his long association with her has descended in life from a star director of the silent era to what amounts to little more than her butler and chauffeur.
All this points to an intriguing sense of humour in the casting department. Von Stroheim doesn't just play a former silent film director, he really was a former silent film director whose excessive attention to realism and subtle psychological plots led both to his masterpiece, Greed, and to his transition into merely acting. He almost invented budget overruns and had no interest in observing standard timeframes. He was all about art and the studios weren't. Greed was eventually released in a butchered two hour version by the studio who didn't follow von Stroheim's priorities and promptly fired him. The full ten hour version is one of the most prominent lost movies of them all.

A later example of similar excess was Queen Kelly, which we glimpse during Sunset Boulevard when Norma Desmond screens it for Joe. Von Stroheim also wrote Queen Kelly and Gloria Swanson produced and starred in it, only to fire him for much the same reasons as he'd been fired from Greed. By this time, which was 1929, he'd shot four hours, a mere third of what it was supposed to become, and the film languished as mere footage for decades, eventually finding a limited release after the success of Sunset Boulevard. With his career as a director over and as he had become known as 'The Man You Love to Hate' for his many parts as German officers during the First World War, he consequently returned to acting and made quite a name for himself. This was his last appearance in an American film, one that he later dismissed as 'that butler role'.

Similarly, Gloria Swanson doesn't just play a silent screen idol, she really was a silent screen idol who was no less than the epitome of glamour in 1920s Hollywood. She retired in 1932 after a highly successful career, only five years after The Jazz Singer kickstarted the inevitable death of the silent film. She was only 33 years old. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond fails spectacularly in her quest for a comeback but Swanson did successfully make a number of them after her early retirement, the greatest of which being this one. While other Hollywood legends such as Mae West and Mary Pickford declined the role because it didn't fit into either their own image of themselves or the public's view of them, Swanson really entered into the spirit of Norma Desmond and infused much of herself into the part. All the photos that decorate her mansion are real publicity photos from Swanson's own career; and the nickname that Cecil B DeMille uses when greeting Desmond, 'Young Fella', was the one that he had previously given Swanson because he said that she was braver than any man.

I don't know how much of this was suggested by director Billy Wilder but he certainly managed to get a lot of realism into the film. Everything shot within Paramount Studios could almost be seen as documentary: directions given are accurate and DeMille was actually shooting at the time, so the extras weren't just extras. The fictional script planned by Joe Gillis and Betty, the girl he falls for, about a couple who are never together because of their inability to synchronise work schedules, was real. Wilder himself and Max Kolpé had written it for a 1932 film called Das Blaue vom Himmel. Even the name Norma Desmond had basis in reality: it was probably constructed from the names of William Desmond Taylor and Mabel Normand. He was a silent era director whose murder has never been solved and she was a star who was having an affair with him at the time.
All this background realism helps us realise that the story of Norma Desmond is the story of Hollywood, from her perspective and it's not a pretty one. As she says so memorably, she didn't stop being big, movies just got smaller once people could speak. The great stars are gone or have decayed from silent movie stars into silent bridge partners. This transition from faces to words is personified by Norma Desmond's histrionics and glorious gestures as contrasted with William Holden's dry noir style talkativeness and restrained movement. She was the past and he was the future.

I've become something of a silent film afficionado since 2004, when I had merely dabbled. I hadn't seen a single one of either Swanson's or Von Stroheim's movies at that time, but had seen enough to recognise this massive difference in style. Without a voice to act as a focus, silent actors had to overact with their bodies and their faces to tell their stories; and at the other end of the scale, film noir actors often underact because noir is driven by dialogue and lighting with actors are almost relegated to being talking props. Now I've seen both Greed and Queen Kelly, along with quite a few other films featuring Swanson and von Stroheim as actors, not least Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, which features stunning work from the latter. There are certainly interesting films with Swanson, from her early days in slapstick comedy to later romantic leads, but I haven't seen anything yet that comes close to what she did here.

The story succeeds because it's easy to associate the decline of Hollywood with the decline of Norma Desmond herself. After all I'm from the generation that grew up watching Hollywood contract blockbuster sequelitis and value special effects over decent scripts. The last few years have been a real eyeopener for me, as I watch classic films at home then go to movie theatres to watch newer releases. The differences get more obvious as time goes by. The story suggests that the real change was between silent movies and sound pictures, and there's some justification in that, but there's still one major flaw in the argument though. Sunset Boulevard is a talkie and it's unmistakably a classic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. For me, there haven't been any real consistency in truly good movies since 2009.