All right, people. The TV season is done. (Well, sort of. I just made a list of, like, eight summer programs I plan to check out, but at least three of those are reality or variety shows of some kind, so they don’t really count.) No excuses anymore — it’s time to go back to my list of film noir flicks. Up today?
It’s probably not the kind of movie I could watch all the time, but overall, I enjoyed Sunset Boulevard.
In an attempt to dodge debt collectors, screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself living with former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), working on the script she believes will herald her return to the spotlight.
1. When you hear film noir, I imagine you — or at least most people — think of private eyes and shadowy streets and femme fatales offering dangerous propositions. But this movie is a different kind of noir. Like Body Heat, it’s not a detective story. Unlike Body Heat, though, it’s a Hollywood story. I also kind of see it as a black comedy, although I suspect that’s never where you’d find it in the video store. (I’m old. I like to pretend that video stores still exist.)
Hollywood loves Hollywood stories, so it’s no big surprise that Sunset Boulevard grabbed a boatload of Academy Awards and nominations. But it’s also no big surprise that I liked this, because I, too, have a weakness for Hollywood stories. I don’t know why. I don’t live anywhere near that part of California. I guess it’s just from taking various film history classes in college. I find old Hollywood kind of fascinating, especially the transition (and fallout) from the silent era to the talkies. (This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons that Singin’ in the Rain is one of my favorite musicals. Well, that and Cosmo.)
2. So, it’s pretty awesome to see this movie utilize actual silent film stars whose careers took a turn (or completely fell by the wayside) when sound came to the big screen. Gloria Swanson, for instance, was a silent film actress — when Joe and Norma watch one of her old movies, they’re actually watching a scene from Queen Kelly, one of Swanson’s past films. (Queen Kelly was also directed by Erich von Stroheim, who plays Norma’s butler, Max. I like von Stoheim here, and I remember liking his performance in Grand Illusion too — but I can just say that I hated his film Greed? It’s been a really long time since I’ve seen it, but still. HATED it. Christ, that was a long, ugly sort of movie.)
Anyway. When Norma has friends over for a nice game of bridge, all the actors are playing themselves — including my favorite silent film star, Buster Keaton.
Man, I should watch The General again. I own it now. Maybe later this week, if I get all my writing done. Heh. Maybe next week, then.
3. Gloria Swanson, herself, is pretty awesome in this film.
As you can see, she just makes this . . . face. I won’t lie: I tried making this face a few times myself, but thankfully, it’s pretty easy to destroy all photographic evidence now. (Also, I couldn’t even come close. I didn’t think it’d be that hard — embarrassing, sure, but not actually hard — but my facial features just don’t want to mold into that particular flavor of crazy, apparently.)
So, yeah, Swanson’s great. She’s completely over the top, but in a way that totally works for the character. It’s like she’s performing in a silent movie all of the time. (To be honest, she kind of reminded me of Faye Dunaway from Mommie Dearest — which doesn’t exactly sound like a compliment, I know, but . . . I dunno, it works here.)
4. I also enjoy William Holden.
I last saw Holden in The Wild Bunch, where I didn’t particularly care for him. Or, rather, I didn’t care for his character, Pike — I don’t think I ever took any particular issue with the acting itself. But it’s interesting to see him so young here. I actually looked him up, thinking he looked like Joseph Cotten from The Third Man. (Point of interest: he doesn’t, not really. But my memory for faces has never been particularly great.) And then I was like, “Nope, I was wr . . . holy shit, I do know this guy.”
I kind of like Joe Gillis (certainly more than I liked Pike), even though he’s a bit of a schmuck. There are times when I feel sympathy for him, and other times where I’m like, Dude, you made your own bed. You know what you do now, right? I’m not entirely sure how much sympathy I’m supposed to have for him, though, and there are one or two moments where I probably wouldn’t mind if his character motivation was a little clearer. Although that could, in fact, be deliberate, as I suspect that Joe Gillis — like many of us — doesn’t really know what the hell he wants.
Still. There is a scene that I’ll discuss in the Spoiler Section that was a little . . . troublesome . . . for me. I don’t know. It’s more of a personal issue than anything, I guess. A character does something that I have serious Feelings about, at least when it happens in real life, and sometimes it’s hard to be objective about that kind of shit. But I’m not sure there’s anything really wrong with the scene on its own, so I’m not sure exactly what, if anything, I’d choose to change about it.
5. I do also feel like this movie might go on a little bit longer than it needs to. Which is a strange thing to say because it’s not a particularly long film, not even quite two hours. And I might revise my opinion on this later because sometimes I do feel a little restless with the pacing of a movie on the first go, only to have no problem with it on a second viewing — but because of the way it’s structured, this story has a certain, shall we say, inevitability to it, and at some point I was struggling against a few, Okay, I get it, I pretty much know how this is going, so let’s just GET THERE already feelings.
6. That being said, I still enjoyed this movie quite a bit. Again, I know Sunset Boulevard is a drama, but it’s satirical as all hell, and the dark, occasionally bizarre, and overall scathing humor I see running throughout the piece works well for me. The dialogue is fantastic (naturally, I liked all the Writer’s Humor) and . . . DUDE. This is the movie. This is where “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” actually comes from!
Well. Kind of.
The line is actually, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Which, I mean. It’s close, but man. This is like The Empire Strikes Back all over again.
If you’d like the actual context of that quote, please continue on.
Well. Before we get to that, let’s talk about how we begin the movie.
Yes, that’s Joe, or rather, Dead Joe. Dead Joe is narrating the whole film. I was pretty relieved when we saw Dead Joe right away, because I knew going in that our narrator had kicked the bucket, and I was under the mistaken impression that this was supposed to be some kind of twist. Not that you can legitimately expect to remain unspoiled for movies that were literally made over fifty years ago — but still. It was nice, knowing the whole movie wasn’t building up to some big shocking revelation that I already knew.
I don’t think I’ll go over everything that happens in this movie, but there are a few things we should discuss. For instance, the chimpanzee funeral.
Norma initially mistakes Joe as the guy who’s going to bury her beloved dead chimpanzee, which is just so WTF that I don’t even have words. Like, seriously . . . this is a movie about Hollywood and selling out and trying to defy growing old . . . and then there just happens to be a chimpanzee funeral. It is absolutely absurd. I kind of love it.
Where I have trouble . . . well, let’s briefly discuss Joe and Norma’s relationship. Joe initially plans to turn her epic travesty of a script into something vaguely workable, just to get money out of her. Norma insists Joe lives there in her house until the script is done. (She also refuses to let him cut anything that might give her even a second less screen time.) Eventually, Norma makes a move, but Joe rejects her advances. He goes to party with his writer friends for a little while, and when he comes back to the house — basically to pack — he finds that Norma has attempted to kill herself. So he sticks around.
Now. It’s important to understand that both people in this relationship are totally using each other. Joe is scamming Norma from day one, and Norma treats Joe like a doll, dressing him up and throwing money at him in exchange for his companionship and, ah, other services. (Not to mention how Norma has her butler pack up Joe’s old apartment without his permission.) Their whole relationship feels a little extortionist/extortionee, even though the role of extortionist seems to keep switching by the day. In fact, no one’s really a good guy in this story — even Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), the young, idealistic screenwriter that Joe falls for, isn’t entirely virtuous herself, considering that she falls for Joe, too, despite being engaged to his best friend.
I have these troublesome, capital ‘F’ feelings when people threaten suicide as a means of emotional blackmail against a loved one, and Norma does this more than once during the film. And while I don’t actually believe that this is the only reason Joe sticks around — ultimately, I suspect he’s just grown too accustomed to the money and convenience of his new lifestyle — I do think it’s a big part of it, and as a viewer, I struggle with that. Norma’s ultimately the villain in this story, since she (spoilers) kills our protagonist, but she’s also a tragic figure that I do think Billy Wilder is asking you to have sympathy for . . . but when you introduce shit like that, my sympathy is automatically limited.
Like I said, though, I’m not sure I’d change this scene, even if I had the power to do so. It doesn’t feel out of character or anything. It doesn’t feel cheap or wrong. But it does bring up some squicky feelings for me, so I figured they were worth mentioning.
Back to the story, though: Joe’s script is predictably terrible, but Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t have the heart to tell Norma it’s never going to happen when she comes to visit. Meanwhile, Joe and Betty secretly work on a new, completely different script, which turns into some Kissy Kissy Time between the two of them.
Holden and Olson have pretty great chemistry with one another, which makes their scenes together a lot more interesting than they had any right to be. I actually kind of wanted them to get together, even though I clearly knew that wasn’t going to happen. (And even though Betty’s obviously too good for him. I mean, she isn’t perfect, but she still probably has the higher ground over Joe.)
Norma finds out about Betty, naturally, and calls her right up, ready to divulge all of Joe’s dirty little secrets. But Joe overhears and yanks the phone away, so he can spill his secrets all by himself. He invites Betty over to have a good look at his kept man living situation. Betty, for her part, seems a little troubled by it, but tells Joe to leave with her anyway. He refuses, saying this is the life he wants — but the second she’s out the door, Joe tells Norma he’s going back to Ohio or wherever.
Norma doesn’t take this well, as you might expect, and shoots him in the back, like, three times. And when the police and reporters come, Norma has officially lost any vague touch she might have once had with reality.
The police play along as Norma comes down the staircase, convinced that she’s about to film her awful movie. She gives her famous, constantly misquoted line . . . and that’s about the end.
Joe: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Joe: “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be 25.”
Betty: “Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?”
Norma: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”
Max: “Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it.”
Joe: “Funny, how gentle people get with you once you’re dead.”
Norma: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Joe: “Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be.”
Betty: “Oh, the old familiar story. You help a timid little soul cross a crowded street, and she turns out to be a multimillionaire and leaves you all her money.”
Joe: “That’s the trouble with you readers. You know all the plots.”
Betty: “Perhaps the reason I hated ‘Bases Loaded’ is that I knew your name. I’d always heard you had some talent.”
Joe: “That was last year. This year I’m trying to earn a living.”
Joe: “Shhh. You’ll wake up the monkey.”
Dark, funny, and deeply satirical. I don’t know if I loved it, but I definitely liked it. Kind of hard to beat that last shot, too.
The spotlight makes you fucking wacky.