Tuesday, May 18, 2010

1950 - Sunset Boulevard

Last week, I accompanied Kat and her parents, who are in town visiting, to take in a Broadway show. We chose A Little Night Music, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. One of them was making her Broadway debut. The other decidedly was not. Five-time Tony Award winner Lansbury (whose screen debut, incidentally, has already featured in this project) was an absolute delight to watch. Although all her stage time was in a wheelchair, she was spirited and sprightly, bounding out of the chair for her curtain call. Not bad for an 84-year-old. I can only hope I am as prolific at her age.

You can now vote for the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy by selecting one of the options in the poll on the right.

Meanwhile, we begin taking a look at the Academy's contenders for Best Picture in 1950, starting with...

Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder
Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman, Jr.
William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
3 wins, including Best Writing, Story & Screenplay

A classic amongst classics, Sunset Boulevard tells the tragic tale of down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden), who reluctantly accepts a writing assignment from fading silent film star Norma Desmond (Swanson). Norma is desperate to make her return to the big screen in an adaptation of Salomé, once Joe has fixed up her poorly written first draft. In return, she provides him with a room to stay in, a wardrobe full of expensive suits and all the champagne and caviar a man could ever want. Joe becomes the definition of a kept man, and as Norma's delusions grow, so too does Joe's desire to escape from her confining clutches.

Joe serves as the narrator for the film and, in the opening scene, he introduces us to his own bullet-ridden body floating face down in a swimming pool. We then flashback to several months earlier as Joe narrates the story of how he came to such a violent end. Interestingly, when I first saw Sunset Boulevard - on late-night television many years ago - I missed this opening scene, understandably resulting in a somewhat different viewing experience. Seeing Joe's murder at the end of the picture was quite a shock, to say the least. I mean, how was he narrating if he was dead? (American Beauty had not yet been released.) Anyway, I learnt my lesson and so began my near obsessive habit of refusing to watch a movie unless I see it from the very beginning.

On the subject of Joe's narration, it would be easy to criticise the film for having too much of this film noir device. At times, the narration seems to stretch on for pages and pages, linking scenes and just being generally expository. But it also has an oddly engrossing effect. By constantly hearing Joe's voice, we get the eerie feeling that we are experiencing the whole story right there alongside Joe himself. Undoubtedly, this quality is in large part attributable to the sharp script.

Now a cinematic icon, the character of Norma Desmond is a fascinating study. Gloria Swanson (pictured), herself a silent film star, portrays Norma with such wide-eyed melodrama that it is abundantly clear why Swanson never quite made the transition to talkies. As Swanson gets more and more histrionic, Norma seems more and more crazy. Therein lies the genius of the casting.

William Holden is also perfectly cast as the smart and decent man in a desperate situation. Erich von Stroheim is just shy of creepy as Norma's stoic butler, Max, who is rather complicit in Norma's deterioration - after all, when Norma finally gets her close-up, it is Max who is her director again. I also enjoyed Nancy Olson's performance as the sweet but determined script reader, Betty. A handful of cameos litter the film, too. Famed director Cecil B. DeMille is more than competent in front of the camera as well. And look out for Buster Keaton, also playing himself.


  1. A PERFECT movie! Easily my choice for Best Picture!

  2. To flashback or not to flashback, that is the question. Following the structure he used to great success in Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder and his co-scriptwriters structure Sunset Blvd. in film noir style with narration and flashback. Unlike Indemnity, where the deaths of the co-conspirators are not unexpected, Joe Gillis's demise would have been pretty shocking if we didn't already know of it in advance. Your initial viewing of the movie is a great example. Still, Holden's narration is such a strong part of the film and allows Wilder and team to dish out their most cynical lines, I'd hate to see it changed or removed. Two contemporary examples of this predicament are Blade Runner and Payback. The director's cuts of these films both remove the narration and offer different conclusions.

    As for Sunset Blvd. itself, it is quite a movie. Since it is in direct competition with All About Eve, it can't avoid comparisons. I must admit the gap between them has narrowed considerably with my latest viewings. Eve seems a more ensemble piece to me. Sure, Bette Davis is at its center, but she doesn't always remain the focus of attention. Swanson, on the other hand, seems to hover over all the scenes once her character is introduced, whether she is on screen or not - sort of the way Brando did in The Godfather. Her gestures are grotesque and her delivery melodramatic, yet her small scenes of normalcy are perfectly handled as well. I really don't believe Anne Baxter pulled votes away from Bette Davis as much as there was split between Davis and Swanson, with Judy Holliday as the compromise and eventual winner. If ever there was a vote count disclosure allowed for one Best Actress Award, 1950 would be my request

    I had mentioned Wilder's mean-spiritedness before, but looking at Sunset Blvd. again, I didn't feel like he was unnecessarily cruel. He gave us a delusional star, supported by her adoring first husband and a struggling screenwriter eventually defeated by self-contempt - to the extent that he almost welcomed the bullets.