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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

by on 2011/03/10

“Writing words, words, more words! Well, you’ll make a rope of words and strangle this business!”

* * * *

Did you ever see the Twilight Zone where Rod Serling gets pulled into the very episode he’s narrating? It kind of starts all Pygmalion, gets a bit Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then quickly devolves into Misery?

Oh wait. It wasn’t a Twilight Zone. It was (wait for it) Sunset Boulevard.

Though I’d never seen this movie before, I knew of its reputation. Plus, I couldn’t miss its frequent appearance on lists all over the net: classics, selections for a New Year’s Eve and, most recently, film noir.

I hesitated. There was Billy Wilder again. While I loved his Double Indemnity, disappointment with Stalag 17 lingered in my mind. If there were a couple of scenes I disliked, then the vast majority bought Wilder more stock in my favour.

(And those scenes were the New Year’s Eve party, and the late night Paramount stroll, if you must know.)

William Holden (Bridge on the River Kwai) plays Joe Gillis, a struggling Hollywood writer. Fleeing creditors, he hides in a monstrous, crumbling mansion. There he discovers has-been silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), now a mad recluse. She is attended to by Max (La Grande Illusion’s Erich von Stroheim), a servant with secrets of his own, who enables and fosters her delusions.

Gillis’ curiosity, combined with his hosts’ opportunism, leads him down a slippery slope. Gradually he finds he’s unable — even reluctant — to escape the pampered living death he has been drawn into. As he himself admits, it’s a “peculiar prison of mine”. He may be deeply flawed, but he knows it as well as anyone.

Now, before I go any farther, let me get an unpopular truth out of the way. I am not a particular fan of Swanson here. When I heard of her memorable performance, I didn’t expect blunt force trauma.

(Yes, I know. Gasp, shock, travesty, sacrilege, fail, meh, whatever.)

The histrionics cross an ineffable line, suggesting Desmond is not just the star of another era, but of another medium entirely. “Melodrama” needs its definition expanded to include her level of hamminess. Rationalize it as you wish. I’ve tried in vain to convince myself: she’s theatrical, a diva . . . her silent style has no place in a talkie world . . . she’s become a victim of her own acting. For me, it’s just too much, and it distracts me from the story.

That distraction is shame, because it’s a story worth exploring. Sunset Boulevard observes a fascinating world from two angles, the dark side of show biz, and the darker side of show biz. We see the struggle of its active participants, and the warped delusions of those it abandons.

That it got produced at all was a long shot. That it won the participation of Hollywood luminaries — including DeMille, Keaton, and Warner — was a miracle. Knowing a bit of background adds resonance to an already entertaining piece. It doesn’t make the darkness any easier to bear, but does make it even more interesting.

For, make no mistake, it is dark indeed. Author and teacher Leo Buscaglia once suggested growing old is less an issue than feeling useless. Here a woman of relative youth (fifty) is made to feel both ways. Her longing for the past and her desperate bid for “love” suggest a desire for validation. We rarely come across such an intense embodiment of pathos. I may not admire her, but neither will I forget her.

On something of a side note, I have never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and yet Wilder offers everything I would have expected, given what little I know of it. Sunset Boulevard blends a creepy sanctuary, haunted by the faded glories of yesteryear, filtered through the conventions of a gritty, cynical noir.

I felt it was the spiritual antecedent of movies like Whale Music. I wondered how they could attempt to succeed or surpass it when the original remains so powerful. Which might be the very point: without revision and reinvention, the story risks becoming alone and lonely, stale, pathetic, and irrelevant. Possibly even dangerous.

* * * *

Rated PG

110 minutes

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