Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Films I Love #25: Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is quite possibly the greatest of Hollywood cinema's many self-parodic characters. Norma is an antique of the silent age, one of the many great stars of the silent era who, too invested in the expressive melodramatics and gestural acting of silent cinema, simply could not make the transition to sound. If anything, though, Billy Wilder's darkly comic masterpiece only proves that silent film's acting conventions work just as well in the sound era, lending some credence to Norma's grand pronouncement, "I'm still big, it's the pictures that got small." Swanson's Norma is a sad, creepy creation, stalking through the film with her hands twisted up into Nosferatu-like claws, a true (silent) movie monster. She's obsessed with the past, and she sees her second chance in down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who's broke and ready to give up on his Hollywood dreams altogether when he accidentally becomes involved with Norma. The cynical Gillis sees in her a chance for money and comfort, even though he knows her ludicrous proposed script, a lavish Egyptian fantasy she's been crafting for Cecil B. DeMille, has no chance of getting off the ground.
This is certainly one of the great Hollywood satires, a moving ode to those figures left behind in the wake of progress, including the director Erich von Stroheim, who appears as Norma's former lover and director, now reduced to her doting, eternally loyal butler — an arc that mirrors Stroheim's own fall from Hollywood's graces. By the same token, Wilder inserts cameos of several prominent real-life actors whose careers really were, like Norma's, sabotaged by the dawn of sound: Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner. But the heart of the film is Norma herself, mad and exaggerated and yet compulsively watchable, even her dementia reminding us of the power of gesture, of the way silent actors relied on their faces, communicating physically rather than verbally. Norma's constantly performing, whether she's donning Charlie Chaplin drag to do a silent comedy bit or exploding into teary melodramatics. She's always on screen in her mind, always in character, always ready for her closeup.