#225. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

It’s on hold at the moment while I focus on just powering through the Project but I got kind of obsessed with Erich Von Stroheim for a while, particularly the story of his tortured seven-hour epic, Greed, and wrote over a hundred pages of a novel that talks a lot about the man and his work and I happened to be right in the thick of it when I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time. It was during my first couple nights at the apartment. I was still sleeping on an air mattress and I came home from work, crossed the street for a quesadilla, then went upstairs to my room and watched it on my laptop at the little wobbly black desk from which I’m posting this now and fell immediately into an eager kinda love with it. Had that intuition you sometimes get with what felt like a totally self-contained and accessible story, the feeling insists, without explanation, that a lot just went over your head.

Erich Von Stroheim as a young man, when he could still get decent work in the States.

Sunset Boulevard is funny and eerie and it reminded me of what it was like to watch Dr. Mabuse a couple years ago and to wonder if the movie’s spell over me was due more to the director’s style or the star’s performance — which aslo has me thinking now about the difference between a movie’s star and it’s main character, and whether they’re necessarily the same thing. The Dark Knight seems like a good analogy: Christian Bale is the protagonist, but Heath Ledger becomes the star. Perhaps contrary to the filmmaker’s intentions.

Here, our main character is an obnoxiously cynical screenwriter named Joe (William Holden): he’s down on his luck and hard up for cash and, like a standard noir hero, provides some cheeky narration (in this case, from beyond the grave). Beginning with a shot of his corpse, I was reminded of the terrific opening in Mildred Pierce — a disorienting series of shots depicting (and misleading us about) the murder in which our narrative will then, via flashback, slowly culminate.

So the story in Sunset Boulevard is about the events leading up to Joe’s death, and throughout the movie we’re looking at the world through his eyes — he’s the protagonist and the governing perspective and very obviously our hero.

The story is about Joe.

The film, however, is about Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She’s middle-aged and beautiful, wealthy, neurotic as hell with delusions of grandeur, living alone in a huge mansion with her manservant, Max, played by Erich Von Stroheim.

Joe end sup parking his car at Norma’s place one day to keep it from getting repossessed and ends up roaming the property, which looks pretty desolate (shots of him wandering around gave me flashbacks to Limite — a trauma), and eventually he goes inside the house, thinking it’s abandoned, and there he finds Norma preparing the body of a pet monkey for burial. It’s one of the best character intros I’ve ever seen. She’s robed and wearing sunglasses indoors and her hair’s tied up, she’s walking and talking a mile a minute.

They have a quippy exchange in which Joe (and we) learn that she used to be a silent film star.

Joe says, “Hey, you’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures, you used to be big.”

She rears up at him and her eyebrows do this undulant angry thing, her eyes drop to a squint. She says, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

She got out of filmmaking with the advent of sound and now spends her time writing, in longhand, an unending script about the life of Salome — a script she’s sure Cecil B. DeMille (with whom she used to work) will direct, casting her in the lead.

Without seeing the script for ourselves, Joe takes a look at the pages and tells us it’s awful. he needs money, though, so he offers to work on it with her. She hires him.

And then for a while we see Joe uncover her layers of eccentricity as Norma slowly falls in love with him. She talks endlessly about herself, about how great and gorgeous she was and, it’s implied, could still be. She’s hostile and kind of annoying but also terribly wounded underneath it all. She wants the crowds to come back, wants the fanfare she enjoyed in the ’20s, and if there’s a kind thing to be said about her sense of entitlement it’s that she is, at least, working on a script. She’s realized that she has to do something in pursuit of her goal. She’s kinda rising to the occasion. Is it the best thing she could be doing to put a spark back into her career? No. It’s also painfully naive and narcissistic. But it’s something. She’s taking the noble risk of being a person with a big ego who’s going to work very hard at creating a piece of art that might turn out to be terrible. She’s risking that confrontation with her limitations. Good on her. And afterward, when the script’s done, she subjects herself to a rigid beauty regimen to prepare for her return to screen.

All of this shows vestiges of what we can imagine was the work ethic that made her so famous.

A close look at her behavior suggests she was a different person before falling into obscurity. A hard worker. Someone who probably had a good head on her shoulders before Hollywood inflated it.

I feel like I’ve met this person a dozen times. I see her a lot among college professors and I’ve got some relatives who exude the same thing. I’ve got a particular friend who manifests it in a flash when talking about why he never went pro as a baseball player. It’s so ugly. This way of talking about how much potential they once had and what they could have accomplished had their talents not been criminally overlooked. Here they are, decades removed from that period of promise, and they still talk with so much resentment about how their glory was taken from them.

That above-mentioned friend of mine: he’s in his early 50s and his temper flips on a dime if you prompt him to talk about his highschool baseball coach, whom he claims harbored a grudge against him because my friend was a better athlete than the coach’s son. So the coach (allegedly) feigned negligence about some crucial part of my friend’s scholarship application and so my friend didn’t get the scholarship and that’s why he now works for a little more than minimum wage 35 years later.

Maybe it actually unfolded that way. But to be an intelligent, able-bodied, charismatic person and argue that you made nothing of yourself in the past 35 years because one person screwed you over once when you were a kid is absurd.

I work by the mailboxes in the English department at a local college and when professors pause to chat they often riff, unprompted, about how the college doesn’t appreciate them, their students are disrespectful, Miami is fake and audiences are stupid and music isn’t what it was. They often cite some great secret skill or achievement of theirs, something that often resides in the past, that, if only the world would stop oppressing them and take not of their prodigious virtue, insight, skill, achievement — then everybody would be impressed, and show respect, and ask forgiveness.

I’ve got a chatty acquaintance whose life story has been communicated in two or three sittings across the space of a few months, a smart guy, he’s in his early 70s and he never went to college but he’s a well-read guy, he’s been a news junkie all his life and, as a Cuban exile, bring an interesting perspective to things. He had a family and worked a nine-to-five his whole life and bent to the orders of superiors he never respected. Harbored resentment at the thought of being so much smarter than the people he answered to. And maybe he was. His kids became schoolteachers and his marriage was bad so he got a divorce and now he’s married to somebody who, it’s not even just that they’re different, she actually dislikes him. Talks down to him. Feels she was conned into marrying him. That he painted a portrait of a better kinda life than the one they actually lead.

He’s not happy.

She’s promising him some big gallant party at her mansion and when he shows up he finds it’s just the two of them, with butlers galore, all the food and drink they can handle.

And when he’s out now with anybody, friends or relatives or whomever, he takes the mic and dominates the conversation. He monologues. And it’s all invectives. Talks about how this person’s an idiot and that person’s an asshole, a communist, a fascist, a sympathizer, a zealot, an apologist, sycophant, narcissist, know-it-all, ingrate — on and on, the guy’s just angry, and it never takes long for the indignant sololoquy to circle back to the root of all his ire: it’s people like that who ruin(ed) things for people like me.

It’s such an aggravating quality and I feel like I see so much of it.

Norma Desmond has it, and yes it’s obnoxious, but there’s tenderness underneath. What she wants (what all of the above-mentioned people want) is to be loved. When she begins to trust Joe as a sympathetic ear, she seems to flash an awareness of how far she’s fallen. How she’s been left behind. Her misanthropy, her resentment of Hollywood, is all a fragile mask over her shame, her longing.

And there’s a definite vibe of something like longing way down in the marrow of the movie. Or at least an appreciation for something that’s gone. For our dead narrator, it’s a longing for the simpler early life before he had to see the awful truth of the glitzy world he worked so hard to be a part of. For Norma Desmond, it’s her own celebrity. What I didn’t catch onto, though, until I heard it discussed on the podcast Unspooled, is that Sunset Boulevard, which we would today consider a movie from “old Hollywood,” is itself a meditation on the older “old Hollywood,” an era of towering stars and achievements that’ve been left behind, and with a discreet cameo by Buster Keaton, and a stirring one by Cecil B. DeMille (to say nothing of the immediate heartache one can feel at the sight of Erich Von Stroheim’s stoic grief), the movie is presenting us with actual faces of people who managed to either transition from one era to the next, or who fell by the side. Shows how Hollywood builds a person up, milks them for their best years and contributions, and tosses them aside.

The anecdote recounted in Unspooled, what’s believed to be the germ of the movie, is that one night Billy Wilder was eating at some posh Hollywood restaurant and he saw an old man at the bar getting drunker and drunker, he was alone and clearly depressed, and everybody was regarding him like he was gross, embarrassing. Wilder thinks he recognizes the guy. Nudges a friend. “Who’s that guy at the bar?” His friend looks over. “The drunk? Nobody.”

It was D.W. Griffith.

Director Billy Wilder

I’m getting longwinded here.

The reason I’m so excited and verbose about the movie is I guess a feeling, while watching it, of being int he presence not only of greatness, watching a legit masterpiece, but of encountering a fully-realized artistic voice (Wilder’s) that speaks to me personally. The last movie on the List to really disappoint me (before Rio Grande) was Orpheus — but it was interesting! I enjoyed re-considering it afterward. The List has been a great time, the last few movies have all been decidedly worthwhile.

But, looking back over The Reckless Moment and White Heat and Adam’s Rib and Winchester ’73, I’m noticing that I’ve enjoyed them all, they’ve all been exceptional, but none of them felt masterful. I’m not even sure what I mean by that, but the experience of watching Sunset Boulevard was just way more immersive than anything to hit the List in a while, and suggested the hand of a director who’s maybe got more control over his material than those others do. It’s more nuanced. There are inside jokes about the industry (like realizing that Von Stroheim’s butler character was once a great director) that are also tragic.

Ahdunno. It’s the kinda movie you can go on about forever. Therein lies it’s greatness, I guess.


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