Saturday, July 3, 2010
Day One: Sunset Blvd.
Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #31
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden and Gloria Swanson
We begin this movie odyssey with a film that I've wanted to see for a very long time. I've always read that Mulholland Dr., one of my favorite movies of all time, is like a darker, David Lynch-ified Sunset Blvd. Having seen the films in the wrong order for that comparison to make sense, I set off to watch a lighter, un-David Lynched Mulholland Dr. instead.
The comparisons are well-deserved, and Sunset Blvd. is easily one of the best classic Hollywood movies I've ever seen – even if "anti-Hollywood" is perhaps a better description for it. We open on Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck though not talentless Hollywood screenwriter played admirably by William Holden, as he seeks sanctuary from debt collectors. He takes shelter in a seemingly abandoned garage, but is ushered into the mansion by a foreign butler. The Mulholland Dr. similarities take off from there, as our protagonist discovers that he has been brought inside because the butler thought he was bringing a coffin for a dead chimpanzee.
After the confusion is assuaged, we quickly learn that the giant house belongs to Norma Desmond, a forgotten (and delusional) silent film star from a lost era in Hollywood played terrifyingly by Gloria Swanson. She hires Joe ostensibly to ghost-write her comeback film, an adaptation of the story of Salome, but he's really there to keep her company as she spirals into madness. Joe spends the rest of the film simultaneously overcoming Stockholm syndrome and trying to keep from going mad.
Sunset Blvd. fascinated me for two primary reasons: In 1950, when it was released, there were hundreds of former film stars just like Norma Desmond living in Hollywood. The movie business had transformed when cinemas were equipped for audio and again not much later with the advent of Technicolor, and for every Charlie Chaplin who adapted with the times and became successful in talkies, there were fifty Norma Desmonds who would never find work again. This film must have struck a very real chord with audiences who knew this or, worse, lived it.
Second, Gloria Swanson's performance as Norma is one of the most disturbing performances I've ever seen, nearly on par with Jack Nicholson in The Shining. True, Sunset Blvd. isn't a horror film or anything remotely like one, but the madness that Norma descends into is as frightening as that of any serial killer. Caked with the copious amounts of makeup she needed to stand out before camera technology improved, she watches her own movies without accompaniment, keeps photographs of herself all over her living room, believes that she is still as popular as she ever was, and remains convinced that her comeback picture will be made any moment, even when it is clear to all that it won't. Even the film's trademark line – "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup" – is truly frightening in context.
While it would be easy to assume a movie from 1950 entitled Sunset Blvd. is a tribute to the glitz, glamor and excess of Golden Age Hollywood, the movie defies all expectations and stands alone as an absolute masterpiece of noir.
The Good: Gloria Swanson's otherworldly performance as Norma Desmond. Special mention to the fact that Joe Gillis alludes several times to the possibility that he could leave Hollywood and go back to copy editing in Dayton, Ohio. Word up, Joe! I might be doing just that soon!
The Bad (SPOILERS!): Gotta admit, I groaned when I realized Joe, our narrator, has been dead the entire movie. Everything else is steeped in gritty realism, and I'm supposed to believe this guy has been narrating the whole thing from the spirit realm? Maybe it was just assumed that everyone believed in that stuff in 1950.
The Skinny: Deserves to be in the Top 250. No question about it.