Sunday, May 16, 2010

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They'll Love It Everyplace

I've realized it's been a while since I posted. So I just wanted to drop back in to say a little bit about Sunset Blvd.

As I was watching this classic for the first time last night, I wondered if my opinion was a little biased. I had always heard it was one of the greatest movies ever made. Was I consciously rebelling against the status quo by feeling dissatisfied with much of the proceedings? Could it be that it would be me, Walter Hollmann, who objected to a campy performance from a screen queen of a bygone era? Such a thing would be unheard, unworthy of me! I've built my passion for cinema on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Vincent Price. Camp is my bread and butter. What was keeping me from committing to this film?

Then came New Year's Eve, about 50 minutes into this almost two-hour film. And that's when I realized the trouble. It wasn't the borderline camp performance of Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond -- who, at 49 years of age, was incredibly sexy (how William Holden struggled with this for those 50 minutes is beyond me) -- but the fucking voice-over, telling me in its pulpy vocabulary what was unfolding before my eyes. And I realized this because William Holden's voice-over disappears for about twenty or thirty minutes as an actual story unfolds, and I loved every part of it. This span of time enhances one's appreciation for Swanson's incredible performance, one that is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest acting feats of all time.

For Swanson is incredible, Holden...serviceable -- but then, I've always cared for his later work more -- and Erich Von Stroheim a marvel. But that script by producer Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder relies too much on that voice-over, and it almost kills the whole experience. Most of what we see...we see. We don't need Joe Gillis telling us in his melodramatic narrative voice what we're watching. Of course, the entire film is a screed against Hollywood, one more vicious than any version of What Makes Sammy Run? could ever hope to be, so perhaps the voice-over works as an example of the writer's ego. I can see where one might see the unnecessary metaphors and embellishments as a dig at egotistical writers who use superfluous language, and Joe Gillis certainly seems like one of those. But it undercuts many of the dramatic moments, especially the finale.

I don't know how many of you have seen it, but I'm glad I went into it knowing as little as I did. Still, we all know the finale: Holden's been dead since the opening credits, and Swanson/Norma descends the staircase as news cameras go, thinking they're movie cameras. "I'm ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille." And they actually have Holden narrate what's going on, about how Norma finally got in front of the cameras again, but at what price, and boo-hoo Hollywood, and it's SO IRRITATING that I can only marvel that Norma only shot him three times instead of the full six he deserved.

That said...

What Billy Wilder and cinematographer John F. Seitz accomplish with the shots of the film are awe-inspiring. I never expected to see the beauty that I saw, from the decrepit mansion on the titular street to the Reader's Department at Paramount Studios. The Oscar-winning production design is of course a credit to the overall effect as well, but good Lord, Seitz flatters it with his subtle and effective technique. This is the man who lit Double Indemnity for Christ's sake, nominated for seven Oscars and somehow never winning a single one. He's no Ernest Haller (Baby Jane, Gone with the Wind, Rebel without a Cause), but goddamn he's a class-act!

Erich Von Stroheim...I know he never changes his expression, nor does he really alter his line-readings. But his performance here was genuine. Perhaps the fact that he actually did direct Swanson in a feature 20 years prior to this film helped; whatever, it was striking to see him on-screen, and this wound up being my favorite performance in the film. Maybe it's because he's the most developed and sympathetic of the leads -- Norma's insane, Joe is a dick, and Betty is cute but the Girl Next Door -- maybe, yes, it's the role and not necessarily the actor...but no. No, Von Stroheim plays the devoted manservant with the right amount of worship, wisdom, and gravitas. To choose between him and George Sanders in All About Eve is unfair.

And when it forgets that damnable VO, the script soars. Those legendary lines are legendary for a reason. It's not just the way Swanson delivers them -- though, rest assured, that is 60% of it. Wilder, Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr., have written some delicious dialogue. "I am big; it's the pictures that got small." "You'd be killing yourself to an empty house." "-Don't you sometimes hate yourself?  -Constantly." I literally laughed out loud at that last one, and this was two in the morning, people. Even those little narrative elements, like the burial and the unlocked doors, are just nuts and whipped cream on the Sunset sundae.

The more I reflect on Sunset Blvd, the more I adore it. Especially Gloria Swanson's performance. I need to see Judy Holliday's performance in Born Yesterday, because already 1950 seems like a badass year for actressing. I mean, Swanson, Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in Eve and Eleanor Parker in Caged!? Holy fuck. Has any year ever measured up to this level of excellence? If we're starved for perfect actress lineups in Oscars since then, it's because 1950 used up all the superlative brilliance.

Yeah, I'm very happy I saw it. I'm happy I'm listening to the soundtrack of Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical version at the moment. Mind, I didn't fall in love with it the way I did All About Eve, nor is the musical a match for the fabulousness of the amazing, immortal, incredible Applause. But it's a classic for a reason, and those who doubt its excellence...well, I can understand their point of view, but I don't agree with it.


Unknown said...

I'll agree. The ending worked much better when I was an adolescent (then 7 years old). But the overall picture is a fantastic work. There are so many people who fight old hollywood... golden hollywood. They say that the acting is unreal and the scripts are too wordy. But in any film it is necessary to let go a little and just enjoy.

I think classics, above anything else, recognized the "entertain" aspect of entertainment. As stupid as that sounds many filmmakers (like Ridley Scott in his latest Robin Hood endeavor) have seemed to forget that films can be an escape from reality, not some slowly agonizing experience leading us to recognize that these tragic characters are indeed ourselves. Why d'you think it is most movies still have happy endings?

Anyway, I ramble. And Sunset Blvd certainly does not have a happy ending. But it does give us an escape. It creaks and sallows. But it never forgets that despite everything it its self is a hollywood picture. And what a picture at that.

Andrew K. said...

Do you know what's a wicked good Actress year? Hepburn, Davis, Remick, Bancroft and Page...I can't remember the exact year, but they're all real good to me...

And I'm glad you liked it, you're not alone on being tepid about Holden.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Andrew - 1962? Baby Jane, Miracle Worker...don't know the others. I'd like Holden more if he, you know, changed expression. He's so serious! It works for Network, but this and Sabrina just make me wonder what all the fuss was about.

Caleb - I think it's always been the same, just styles have changed, so yesteryear's "realism" seems quaint by today's standards. On the Waterfront is certainly more concerned with realism than entertainment, and that's only four years after Sunset Blvd. I don't think Sunset is advocating an "escape from reality" either, for is that not what makes Norma Desmond so mad? Yes, it's deliciously entertaining, and a lot of that comes from the camp aspects, but good camp is never done on purpose.

As for Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, it does have great action sequences and humorous moments, and often sacrifices realism for "Hollywood moments", so I don't know if that's a good example.