Wednesday, September 21, 2011
I saw Sunset Boulevard for the first time last week. Oh. My. God. What a great movie! In case anyone in the Western world isn't familiar with it, the story centers around Norma Desmond (played by silent film legend Gloria Swanson) , a washed-up silent film star who dreams of a big Hollywood comback, and Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), a screenwriter whose career has never taken off and who is pretty much down to his last few bucks. Fate brings Joe to Norma's crumbling mansion when he hides in her driveway to avoid reposession of his car. Joe is drawn into Norma's demented world of faded glory like a fly stepping into a spiderweb.
In other hands, this could have been a very different movie -- but the actors give the characters dimension. Watching it, we believe that Joe isn't just a gigolo who enjoys expensive gifts and a lavish lifestyle paid for by a rich older woman. We believe he really cares about Norma, who is lonely and lost as well as demented and living in the past.
Billy Wilder's directing is done with a very deft hand -- two parts film noir, one part monster movie. There is a montage where Norma undergoes a series of bizarre youth-regaining treatments that can't help but make the viewer think of Frankenstein's monster. In heavily shadowed scenes, the character of Max von Mayerling (played by Erich von Stroheim) is gradually revealed as a sort of Dr. Frankenstein. He is Norma's servant, but he also has an unhealthy amount of control over her. We begin to wonder what payoff he is getting by lying to her and playing along with her crazy fantasies.
Part of what made this movie so great for me is that I've seen a few silent movies, as well as the early talkie The Taming of the Shrew (with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, both of whom had also been silent movie stars). In The Taming of the Shrew, Fairbanks and Pickford absolutely chew the scenery. Never before had I seen such heavy-handed overacting, but it showed that the very talents that made great silent films did not translate well to talking pictures. It made Norma's plight more understandable and her devotion to dramatic facial expressions and gestures sad instead of laughable. Gloria Swanson gives a tour de force performance as a woman who is like a screen image instead of a human being.
Edith Head did a great job with the costumes. Most of the characters wear everyday clothes that were fashionable at the time. Norma's clothes, like her personality, are larger than life. They are based on fashionable looks of 1950, but Edith Head added scarves and head wraps, fur stoles and pounds of diamond jewelry -- Norma never completely lets go of the fashions of her glory days. Max is creepy as a manservant in a quasi-military uniform. Norma and Max's clothes reflect that they are living in a world of their own, for the most part oblivious to the fact that life has gone on without them outside the walls of the mansion.
Sunset Boulevard. I absolutely loved it.