Last week’s post about the days of classic mid-century fantasy films was a boatload of fun, so I wanted to throw some reviews of my favorite film classics in to dilute the onslaught of Disney mania that overtakes me…well, all the time. Also, since most of what is coming out now is remakes or sequels, I thought it would be fun to plumb the depths of the Hollywood archives and revisit some films that are super amazing all on their lonesome.
To start, we’ll look at Sunset Boulevard, a bonkers noir/Gothic classic that offended most everyone in Hollywood when it first aired, but has stood the test of time, remaining an entertaining, self-aware, cracked-out tale of lost youth and manipulation.
The story follows Joe Gillis (Holden), a hack Hollywood writer who is basically the Platonic model of The Cynic. Strapped for cash, he finds himself fleeing some repo men (sans any genetic operas). He hides his car in what he thinks is an old abandoned mansion. But (plot twist!) it’s actually the domicile of the legendary Norma Desmond (Swanson), famed silent movie star of the 20’s. *organ music* Her only friend is a dead chimpanzee and her gruff butler, Max (von Stroheim).
Norma, it seems, has written a mountainous, chaotic film script and she finds herself in need of a writer to help her “edit” it. This script will mark Norma’s return to the screen, even though she’s reached the decrepit, ancient, wizened age of…50… *crowd gasps*
Joe, sensing an easy con, agrees to help her and gets drawn into Norma’s fantasy world and away from the promising enthusiasm of his friend Betty Schaefer (Olson), a quick-witted, intelligent writer who desperately wants to help Joe get a promising idea of his off the ground.
Until Norma realizes that she’s not willing to share Joe with anyone else.
*organ hits a minor chord*
Part of what makes this film so good is the eccentric performance of Gloria Swanson, who was actually a star of silent films whose career took a different path when talkies were introduced (she went into radio). Her portrayal of Norma is so over-the-top as to be almost comical, but she infuses it with enough genuine sass and strength that, as Joe gets pulled into her web, you find yourself genuinely wishing they’ll both be happy (even though you totally saw Joe’s lifeless corpse in the first scene of the film).
What I love about her performance is how protean she is. Norma Desmond is fifty during the film, but she looks fabulous. At the time Gloria Swanson looked easily ten years younger than she actually was. But in moments when Norma becomes unglued or desperate, it’s like she transforms (ala Darth Sidious during his fight with Mace Windu) into some sort of clutching vulture and suddenly looks much older. By the end, when she has completely lost all grip on reality, she looks like a completely different person from the vital eccentric we met at the beginning. Wilder is so good at bringing all of Norma’s many facets to the surface.
Swanson throws herself into the part with such intensity, I’m shocked that she didn’t make many movies after this one (studios wanted her to basically just keep playing Norma Desmond forever in other movies and she obviously wasn’t interested in being typecast). It takes a lot of talent to make Norma a flawed human as opposed to a clownish figure of mockery, and we’re lucky Swanson agreed to share this performance with us at all since she had effectively retired from film by the mid 40’s.
But try as she might, she doesn’t steal the show completely.
Betty is my favorite character in the whole film. She’s the perfect foil for Joe in that she can match him word for word in any battle of wits, but while he’s grumpy and cynical, she’s such a sparkling optimist who brings Joe’s best qualities to the surface. The overwhelming tragedy of the film is hers, since she falls in love with Joe and is so ready to reorganize her life to accommodate his (even at the expense of her fiancee, Artie), but she completely misjudges how much he is willing to give up to be with her. In the final scene, you want to simultaneously chide her for being naive and punch Joe in the face for not running away with her when he had the chance.
And then there’s Joe himself. In any other movie, he’d be the handsome hero (or at least the brooding anti-hero), but in this one, he gets tossed about once he enters into the bizarre battle of the sexes with Norma, going from con-artist to replacement-for-a-chimpanzee to kept man to prisoner to corpse. As she loses her mind, he loses all his power until eventually the two just self-destruct together. He’s smart and likable, but once Norma gets her hands on him, he becomes a powerless boy toy and, for a time, he finds that he doesn’t really mind that. This is something that even modern films would be hesitant to show, mind you.
This film offended many in the industry who felt it made a mockery of their profession, but I think it operates with brutal honesty about how Hollywood worships youth and often plays to the lowest common denominator in order to sell tickets. It’s cynical, but it’s not wrong.
I just adore it, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you need to (even though I just spoiled everything). Swanson’s performance, augmented by the fantastic opulent sets and Franz Waxman’s dramatic score, is something that needs to be experienced.
And, if you want to dive deeper into the story, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sensational musical adaptation takes the story and makes it bigger. It expands on Betty’s character and adds in a lot more commentary on life in the film industry. Plus, the music is just spectacular. The original American cast recording is the best, featuring Glenn Close as a much more flamboyant Norma (if that’s even possible) and Alan Campbell as an angrier Joe. It also features the gorgeous Judy Kuhn (who played the singing voice of Pocahontas for the Disney film) as Betty, a performance I love just as much as Olson’s original performance in the film.
So, watch it. It’s important.
I’ll see you on Monday with my review of Finding Dory!