Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) refuses to be left behind. One of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent era, Norma witnessed her offers wane as the pictures began talking, a fate that also befell a number of her contemporaries. Though the film roles have dried up, Norma intends to make a comeback return. Writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) is struggling to get a script of his produced, and is on the run from creditors aiming to repossess his car. Chance brings him to Norma's palatial Sunset Boulevard residence, and she offers him a sweet deal: polish her draft of a film about Salome for her to star in and she'll cover his debts. However, Joe winds up being caught in Norma's web of self-delusion, with her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) keeping him in check and Norma herself sabotaging his budding flirtation with Paramount Studios reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). And somehow, before it all ends, Joe will end up dead in a swimming pool.

Even though Hollywood hadn't even reached its first half-century mark in 1950, Sunset Boulevard was director Billy Wilder's poison-hearted "love" letter to the studio system. By this point in his career, Wilder was already one of the most successful directors in the business, winning the Best Director Oscar in 1945 for his sobering alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend and scoring major acclaim for films as diverse as the 1939 comedy Ninotchka and the 1944 noir Double Indemnity. Though Wilder worked in a number of genres, there was one constant throughout his filmography: an irreverent streak that at once betrayed a deep love of cinema and what it could do as well as gleefully subverted Hollywood's well-established notions. The Austrian-born filmmaker was a true enfant terrible and relished every moment of the role.

For a movie about the movie business, Wilder manages to cram in a number of high-profile cameos and name-drops, giving the film one of the more authentic appearances amongst its compatriots in the subgenre. But there is a reason that Wilder's Hollywood noir has made such a lasting impact, far beyond the bitterness towards its subject, the wittiness of its dialogue, and its then-novice use of "beyond the grave" narration. And that reason is Norma Desmond.

More after the jump.

Before we get to Norma, however, let's take a moment to appreciate just how self-reflexive Sunset Boulevard is. The story of an aging star trying to reclaim the spotlight was fairly tried-and-true even then, but Wilder packs the film with winking references to days of Hollywood gone by. Paramount Studios gets a major shoutout (not surprising, considering that Paramount produced the film), and personalities from executive David O. Selznik to actor Tyrone Power are name-dropped (without their permission) by different characters. Similarly, the casting is loaded with references to the silent era. In one of the most deliberate scenes, Joe describes Norma's weekly bridge game with a group of old-Hollywood stars he's dubbed "the waxworks," and the camera pans around the table to reveal:

Anna Q. Nilsson (1920's The Toll Gate)

H.B. Warner (1927's The King of Kings)

And, most notably, Buster Keaton (1924's Sherlock, Jr. and 1926's The General).

An even more impressive feat of self-reflexivity comes in the casting of Stroheim as Max. In a major late-film reveal, Max tells Joe that he is not merely a butler, but at one point was considered one of the three great directors of the silent era alongside D.W. Griffiths and Cecil B. DeMille (who also makes an appearance in the film as himself). He also reveals that he "discovered" Norma and gave her her first big break, and that he was her first husband. In reality, Stroheim was considered by contemporary critics as a true auteur from the silent era (though his esteem has somewhat receded in recent years), and worked on a few films with Swanson during the height of her popularity in the 1920s. Casting the pair here was one hell of a coup for Wilder, giving him a clever in-joke that nonetheless gives the film a veneer of credibility as a "true" Hollywood story.

Which brings us back to Norma, and Swanson's indelible performance. Swanson herself saw her glory years in the silent era; in fact, not only was she among the nominees for the first-ever Best Actress Oscar, she was the biggest star at Paramount Pictures during the 1920s, at least in terms of box-office draw. In this film, Wilder gifted her with what would become her most memorable role, and she took it and ran with it. Watching Swanson sink her teeth into the character is to watch an actor in full control of her performance and persona. It's oxymoronic that performances of astonishingly vain characters are described as "without vanity," but that's exactly what Swanson is here. She understands that her Norma is infected with the toxic syndrome that is fame, and that she's developed complications of megalomania and delirium as her career has waned. Swanson utters every word with the conviction that she is still the brightest star in the Hollywood constellation, even though she's long since burned out. Her obsession with Salome makes sense: she longs to be a woman who is still in her prime, who still commands the spotlight, who still receives hundreds of fan letters a week (ones that aren't written by her loyal butler).

Wilder cedes the film's best moments over to this idea, letting Swanson bask in the glory of renewed stardom even though Norma is only cruelly teased with it. When Norma is mistakenly informed that DeMille is interested in directing her picture, she has Max and Joe take her to the studio where he is already rehearsing another film. There, it is revealed to the audience that the call Norma received was actually about leasing her car for a Bing Crosby picture. But Norma is still blissfully unaware, with DeMille continuing to fuel her fantasy by not correcting her. This even extends to her waiting on the set, being spotted by the spotlight technician, and for one shining moment, being in the limelight.

She basks in the light, a true movie star back in her rightful home. And shortly, she's surrounded by her adoring public as they form a mob around her.

It's a sadistic fantasy, though. For, like fame itself, the moment is over almost as soon as it begins. The actors and crew return to their duties, the spotlight comes down, and Norma is left again alone, with nothing but her own delusions to comfort her. But comfort her they do: Swanson was trained as a silent actress, and her expressive face conveys every single feeling that Norma is experiencing on the set. Its not sadness, or nostalgia, or even brief flattery. No, this moment is not a special surprise, but what she expects every time she steps onto the backlot. And the look on her face is nothing more than immense satisfaction, the wrongs of the world against her finally righted, even if for a moment.

Yet juxtapose this moment with one shortly thereafter. Norma is at home, and wanders into Joe's room. For a very quick few frames, Norma is shrouded in darkness, with only her robe visible in the light.

Norma has disappeared in a fade-to-black. Yes, she does linger, as a ghostly wisp in the darkness with a few bright spots shining through. But the memory is as light and airy as the robe she's wearing. If there were a single frame in the film that best symbolized Norma's current status in Hollywood, this would be it.

But Norma has never been completely abandoned. As Joe notes in the narration, even as the public has turned their backs on her, even as her butler and her live-in writer/lover stay only out of pity and her own machinations, there is one entity who has never betrayed her: her "celluloid self." It's the reason Norma continues to watch her own movies on her private projector, and it's why she's created an entire room devoted just to her own memorabilia. Her fame and career may be faded, but the films she made will always be there. Her performances are moments preserved in nitrate amber, safe from the ravages of time. On film, she's an ageless star, forever shining brightly to be adored. In essence, her "celluloid self" is the most perfect version of herself. Norma Desmond will age and fade into obscurity, but "Norma Desmond"is eternal.

*Best Shot*

Here she is, surrounded by her old press photos and headshots. As long as her "celluloid self" is by her side, Norma will never need to despair. Her fever-dream-delusional passion project is not a comeback because, in her mind, she's never fallen. Her star is as bright as it has ever been. It's a return; the studios are to blame for her absence, not the millions of fans who are chomping at the bit to see her on the silver screen again. In Norma's mind, at least, the world has never forgotten her. They are as close to her "celluloid self" as she is. But the cruel fact of the matter is that those photographs form a distorted mirror; she is no longer "Norma Desmond," but a shell of her former glory.

The same is most certainly not true of Swanson. In a phenomenal self-reflexive twist, those photos are all actual press photos of Swanson from the peak of her popularity. She truly, completely becomes  the character, and delivers what is hands-down one of the greatest performances ever committed to film. It is, truly, free of vanity. Sadly, though, she became inseparable from Norma. In the subsequent years, Swanson was mostly offered variations of the aging star character, and turned most of them down. As a result, she worked very little in the years after this film; in fact, she only has three feature film credits between this film and her death in 1983, with the final being a cameo in Airport 1975. Yet, as with Norma, her "celluloid self" remains, a crucial reminder of her immense talent. Sunset Boulevard would likely have been a great film regardless. But it's thanks to Swanson that it ranks among the all-time classics.

PS Per the rules that Nathaniel put down, we couldn't use "THE shot" as our best shot. You know the one. It's this one.

Perhaps the best final image in the history of Hollywood filmmaking. 

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