Sunset booooulevard, twisty booooulevard!
The first thing I had to break to the kids on this one is that Sunset Boulevard is not a musical. (And this was even harder to explain when we got to The Producers.) The Boy and The Flower like to make mix tapes and for our “streets, roads and highways” mix (one that vexed The Boy sorely), he had put on this song from an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, which is remarkable mostly because I don’t hate it. (Not a fan of ALW, is what I’m saying.)
This actually set them back a bit, but I assured them that this would be a fine film even without the musical stylings of the guy who brought us Starlight Express. After all, we’d had good luck with Billy Wilder so far.
Even so, I think we were all taken aback by how great this movie was. William Holden plays William Holden doing William Holden—I mean, seriously, was the guy ever anything but a hard bitten cynic, down-on-his-luck, shady-side-of-the-street type?
Well, he’s good at it. And in this movie, he starts out dead. The movie explains how he got to be dead, which is basically by being a heel for 110 minutes. Holden plays Joe Gillis, a washed up screenwriter with the repo guys after him, who avoids them by turning into an abandoned home on Sunset Blvd (lol) which turns out not to be abandoned but in fact inhabited by silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, who would share the Oscar loss to Judy Holiday with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for All About Eve) who is alone except for her one caretaker, Max (played by silent movie great Eric Von Stroheim, The Honeymoon, Greed) and who has clearly lost her marbles.
She’s working on a comeback screenplay and Gillis, spotting a way out of his financial troubles, agrees to look it over for her, carefully tailoring his responses to her insane ramblings. But Desmond is manipulative on a level the dopey Gillis can’t comprehend: She moves him in to a room over the garage. She buys him clothes. When it starts to rain, she moves him into the house. She doesn’t give him money. And he lets her get away with it, because he figures he’s getting away with something.
Then he abandons her on New Years because he’s suddenly aware that she has hallucinated a romantic relationship between them. She attempts suicide, and then things get even weirder…
This is a really dark movie. You’re not going to find admirable characters here. Morose Max turns out to be operating more out of guilt than genuine loyalty. Even the ambitious, fresh-faced young writer, Betty (charmingly played by Nancy Olson) turns out to be ready to throw over one of the only genuine characters in the movie—her boyfriend Artie, played by a bubbly Jack Webb!—for her attraction to the broody Gillis.
Besides Artie, the only really nice person in the movie is Cecil B. DeMille (played, of course, by Cecil B. DeMille). Other people playing themselves include H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper. The presence of people playing themselves—or someone like themselves, as Stroheim—is a powerful technique, though it’s probably lost today on all but the most dedicated film fans. (Stroheim, it turns out, is playing a great silent filmmaker comparable to D.W. Griffith and C. B. De Mille, which is a fair description of him.)
But DeMille plays himself, treating Desmond as if hardly any time has passed, trying to keep her spirit from being crushed. The studio crowd turning out to shower love on Desmond alongside of his heartfelt monologue on the faded silent star are almost the only real warm (with a fatal irony) moments in the film. (Gillis’ interaction with Betty—before the realization that he can do nothing but destroy her life—is another one.) It’s utterly heartfelt. And underscored by Desmond’s instantly prima-donna-plus behvaior, showing us that even in her prime, this star was a terror.
Swanson is amazing here. She is tragicomic figure, exciting sympathy and a sort of derision borne of her comic struggle to be 20 years younger. It is a genuinely brilliant and some would say “courageous” performance. She chews the scenery, but in a situation where nothing less would work. The pathos is utterly amped by her cartoonishness. And the destruction she can wage by virtue of a few good investments made when Los Angeles was a tank town is no less than astonishing.
The thing is, Swanson is only 50 years old here. She’s still very good looking. Myrna Loy was 45 and in Cheaper By The Dozen the same year. (And was the romantic lead opposite Cary Grant only two years earlier in the terrific Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.) The point isn’t that Hollywood isn’t a savage mill grinding up feminine beauty, but that Desmond’s ridiculousness is solely and entirely due to her failure to accept any aspect of her age. I don’t know if acting is ever really “brave” but it’s certainly bravura here.
We loved it, and the kids had forgotten about the musical, more or less, by the time we got out.
Check it out, obvy.