Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The poor dope — he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool.
By Edward Copeland
Some may whine that the lead art that I've chosen for this post marking the 60th anniversary of Sunset Blvd. is a spoiler, but I beg to differ. First of all, that means you have not seen Sunset Blvd. and shame on you for that, no matter how old you are. Secondly, the shot comes from the film's opening minutes and if you can't recognize that it's William Holden floating dead in the pool, then I just plain give up on you. Stop reading now, go rent the movie, watch it and come back here when you are done. Then we can talk.
OK. I'm assuming that everyone still reading has seen Billy Wilder's 1950 masterpiece (or just finished watching it) and knows that it is narrated by struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) after he's died. Really, it's the next step from Wilder's Double Indemnity where Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff shares the story as he's dying, only Joe starts once his pulse has stopped. It's also probably the last time it worked in a movie where the narrator was a dead person (at least where that fact is supposed to be somewhat of a surprise and yes, I am looking at you The Sixth Sense). It's the same reason the "it was all a dream" ending stopped working after The Wizard of Oz (and if that just ruined that movie for anyone, I give up). Franz Waxman's magnificent score opens this darkest of satires with music more appropriate for a police thriller as we see a cadre of cop cars racing to that address at 10086 Sunset Blvd., to investigate that writer's body in the pool. Joe's voiceover decides not to give you much information upfront and instead takes the story back six months earlier, when he has to hide his car from debt collectors out to repossess it and he's behind on his apartment's rent.
Gillis has about given up on his screenwriting career, contemplating a return to the copy desk of his old newspaper in Dayton, Ohio. As his narration informs us, perhaps he's lost his writing touch and his pitches and scripts just aren't original enough. Then again, maybe they are too original. Watching Sunset Blvd. for the umpteenth time, the early, pre-Norma scenes play even more like outtakes from Robert Altman's The Player than I remember. When he goes to beg the Paramount exec Sheldrake (a name Wilder must really love since he used it again for Fred MacMurray's character in The Apartment 10 years later) you get the comedy of Sheldrake (Fred Clark) suggesting that Joe's idea for a movie about a struggling baseball player being pressured to throw the World Series be turned into a Betty Hutton vehicle after it's been dismissed by studio reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) who labels it as "a rehash of something that wasn’t very good in the first place." The Player even referenced Sunset when Tim Robbins' character got a note after he'd killed the writer he thought was threatening him and it was signed "Joe Gillis." The studio scenes though are rather standard comedy. The film takes its macabre turn when Joe's car seeks refuge in the garage of a run-down mansion. It's still funny, but not of the type of humor everyone recognizes.
Because even 60 years ago, Los Angeles was a place where a car was essential for survival, Gillis has been doing everything in his power to hide his jalopy from its creditors (Let's face it: Today, it practically takes an automobile and 30 minutes to travel three doors down in L.A. I've never liked that city. I've never lived in either city, but I'm a New Yorker in my heart and soul). Joe's desire to stay a step ahead of the repo men hits a snag when trying to outdrive them on Sunset Boulevard, the car suffers a flat and he's forced to glide it into the garage of that seemingly abandoned mansion. That simple twist of fate brings Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) into the writer's life. His first glimpse of the former silent screen star is behind the shades of a second story window, her head wrapped in some sort of turban, eyes hidden behind sunglasses as she beckons him, accusing him of being late, obviously mistaking him for someone else. "A neglected house gets an unhappy look," Gillis says in voiceover, comparing the decrepit look of the place to Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Voiceover narration goes wrong so often in film, it’s a pleasure to listen to it when it’s done as exquisitely as it’s done here in the script by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. The screenplay won an Oscar for best writing (story and screenplay). Two others went to Waxman's score and the team behind its black-and-white art and set direction. As Gillis approaches the mansion entrance, he meets the film's fourth major character, Norma's all-purpose manservant Max (Erich von Stroheim), well dressed down to his white gloves, who insists that Joe wipe his feet before entering the residence. In a way, Joe Gillis serves as a jaded Dorothy Gale stepping into a warped vision of Oz, only there isn't a Technicolor world he's about to escape to from some sepia-tone plains: it's still John F. Seitz's black-and-white cinematography, only the cynical and standard satire of Hollywood struggles that Joe Gillis lives with daily will meld with a form of Grand Guignol opera in a virtual gated community of the mind, where time stopped about 20 years earlier. That doesn't mean the movie's laughs will cease, just that the humor will be buried deeper, much like the deceased pet chimp Norma believes Joe has come to prepare for the primate's final resting place. Alas, it will be very close to where Gillis' end will come.
Once it becomes clear that Joe is not a mortician for monkeys, he could have made a hasty exit and perhaps he would have returned to Ohio to a different life, but a life nonetheless. However, Gillis recognizes Norma and engages her in conversation and mentions that he's a writer. He informs her that his last screenplay was about Okies in the Dust Bowl but she probably didn't recognize it because by the time it reached the screen, it took place on a torpedo boat. Norma, it seems, has a screenplay she'd like him to look at, a gargantuan, jumbled silent mess about the life of Salome that she expects Cecil B. DeMille to direct. Joe, sensing an easy mark, decides to give it a look and maybe bilk a loon thinking that "sometimes it’s interesting to see how bad bad writing can be." Gillis thinks he's the con artist in this scenario, but is that really true? Norma just lost her chimp companion. Perhaps she wants one who can talk, write and do other things now. It's in that first meeting when Norma delivers one of the film's most famous lines as Joe says that she's used to be big and she protests that "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." What isn't repeated as much are some of the gems that follow in her continued rambling as she laments the state of motion pictures since the advent of sound. "They had the eyes of the world, but they had to have the ears too." At another time, she mentions how they didn't need dialogue, because they had faces and all they had now was nobodies, except maybe for Garbo. Joe does tell her (in the classic screenwriter's complaint) that the audience doesn't know there is a writer: They think the actors make it up as they go along. Swanson's performance sometimes does not get the acting praise it's truly due because Norma is so larger than life. Too many assume that she's playing herself, but in real life while Swanson might not have been making movies, she adjusted her life rather well after sound with smart business ventures. She's giving a silent performance with dialogue, but she's also giving a realistic one at the times when it's called for. Really, von Stroheim's real life more closely parallels Norma's than Swanson's when his directing career was basically destroyed in the silent era and he had to scrape by, turning to acting to make ends meet, not only here but with Wilder as Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo and for Jean Renoir in the remarkable Grand Illusion. When Norma screens one of her old films for Joe, it's one of the last films that von Stroheim got to direct and it actually starred Swanson, 1929's Queen Kelly.
Back to praising Swanson. Many years ago, when I was first playing around on this Internet of ours and was a member of AOL, I used to frequent the Playbill chat room for theater nuts. Around that time, it was frequently debated, because of Andrew Lloyd Webber's travesty of a musical version of Sunset Blvd., who made the best Norma? There was the Glenn Close contingent, the Patti LuPone stalwarts, the Betty Buckley boosters, the Karen Mason fans and even the occasional Faye Dunaway iconoclast. I made a point of pissing them all off by insisting that the best Norma always had been Gloria Swanson and always would be (It was embarrassing how many didn't even know who Swanson was). Swanson may never had the chance to sing the musical's horrid score (for which she must be eternally grateful) and I only saw Buckley's stage version, but I imagine my claim is true. Just take one scene from the film and it's almost as if you're watching Swanson give a master class in acting. Norma is "entertaining" Joe with the Norma Desmond Follies and then she disappears and comes back costumed and does a spot-on impersonation of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. That would be impressive enough for such a frequently imitated character, but then she goes further. Max interrupts with the news that Paramount is on the phone. First, she registers excitement, assuming it is DeMille calling about her script, but it quickly turns to indignation as she realizes it's someone else from Paramount named Gordon Cole. She switches that quickly from Chaplin to excited Norma to miffed Norma, all while dressed as the Little Tramp with the tiny mustache still perched above her lips. (One bit of Twin Peaks trivia I'd never noticed before. Is this where David Lynch picked up the name for the FBI agent he personally played in Twin Peaks?) I would have given Swanson the best actress Oscar that year, but 1950 was one of the toughest fields ever. The only nominee you could easily toss is Eleanor Parker in Caged. Swanson's other three competitors were Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve and Judy Holliday (who won) in Born Yesterday. As I said, Swanson was my choice, but if she didn't get it, it should have gone to Davis next. Tough year.
In a way, the film marked Holden's emergence as a true star. He'd toiled in films since his breakthrough in 1939's Golden Boy, but none of the movies really launched him into the Hollywood hierarchy until Sunset. In a way, the film served as Holden's coming-out party and he remained a fixture from 1950 on. Joe serves as an interesting protagonist for the audience. Should we really respect him or feel sorry for him for the situation he's become embroiled in? After all, he chose to use Norma as much as she's using him and that's not particularly a noble trait. He does exhibit standards by purposely pushing Betty away despite their mutual attraction because of his friendship with and her engagement to Artie Green (a non-staccato Jack Webb). Still, Gillis certainly doesn't deserve the fate he ends up with, no matter what his initial motives were or how far his relationship with Norma went. (The film drops hints that Joe might have slept with the silent star, but never says so explicitly. He's definitely her boy toy, so much so that she inscribes a gold cigarette case she gives him "Mad about the boy") Still, even Joe can only take so much of that "peculiar prison" of his as when he storms out on New Year's Eve in a driving rain, which he describes as "oversized, like everything in California" and ends up at a party at Artie's. Joe is having a relaxed, good time when Betty talks him into getting out of his situation (though she's unaware of its details) and Joe decides she's right and is ready to get his stuff and leave Norma's strange world once and for all. When Gillis calls Max to make arrangements to pick up his stuff, he learns that Norma found his razor blade and slit her wrists (though the party seems to be proceeding without her and no one noticed the hostess' suicide attempt). Her melodramatic action works and Joe rushes back, though once he arrives, Max urges him to go calmly upstairs so that the musicians won't notice that anything's amiss.
It would be difficult to find more disparate acting styles between the leads of a motion picture than William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. (or their interactions with Nancy Olson or Erich von Stroheim, for that matter). As widely and justifiably revered as Billy Wilder is, most of his acclaim tends to fall largely on his skills as a writer, but his directing prowess shouldn't be given short shrift. His ability to get such great performances out of so many performers in so many films and especially to make such different ones mesh as he so successfully did here, is no easy feat. Sunset also marks some of his most daring work behind the camera. Throughout most of his filmography, as good or great as much of it is, there aren't a lot of what you might label "showy directorial touches," but there are quite a few present in Sunset Blvd., from the simple but odd choice of beginning an entry to the mansion from the point-of-view of Max's gloved hands playing the organ to many overhead shots and lots more movement than you see in most of the Wilder film canon. What's more, none of these touches look as if he's showing off; they all feel as if they were exactly the right way to film that moment of the movie.
Earlier, I mentioned some allusions to Sunset Blvd. that were made in The Player, but one other trademark of Altman's film could have been even more prominent in Sunset than it ended up being: the use of cameos by real-life Hollywood figures. Now, even if Wilder had used all the ones he filmed or succeeded in getting all the ones he sought, he wouldn't have come close to topping Altman in terms of numbers. Of course, Wilder did have such a good reputation with his studio (Paramount) that they actually allowed him to use it as the studio in the movie, with the real lot and the real gates, despite the darkness and any possible negatives it might inadvertently toss its way. The one cameo that got filmed but ended up on the cutting room floor was that of noted columnist Sidney Skolsky at Schwab's when Joe mentions the place as a pseudo-headquarters for people circulating in the business. The other thing that differed in how Wilder used his cameos and Altman used his was that Wilder actually put all of his in the credits. There was the famous bridge game Norma plays with fellow silent stars Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson, who is hysterical with the angle at which her cigarette perpetually dangles from her lips. In the climax, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper shows up to grab the phone from police who have come to apprehend Norma after Joe's slaying because, as far as Hedda is concerned, her work takes precedence. Given that it's Hollywood, she's probably right. In real life, Wilder had a better relationship with Hopper's rival Louella Parsons but since Hopper began her career as an actress, he thought she'd come off better.
One thing that Wilder had to do with most of his cameos which Altman didn't was make deals of a monetary nature (hence the credits). One of the film's most touching sequences is when Norma returns to Paramount to see DeMille, assuming all those calls from Gordon Cole concerned her script, unaware that Cole merely sought to rent her classic car for a film. DeMille tries to treat her kindly on the set, realizing what a fragile sort she is. The sequence shows DeMille setting up for the actual filming of part of Samson and Delilah, so the extras were the real extras and actors from the film. One of them happens to be Henry Wilcoxon, who more recent filmgoers will recognize (if they spot him beneath the beard and biblical garb) as the reverend in Caddyshack. Wilder wanted Hedy Lamarr, but her demands were so steep, he said forget it. You get more of Swanson's great work here, as with the disdain she shows as she brushes off the boom mike that floats over her head. However, when some of the old-timers, both on the tech and acting side, recognize her and swarm her, she beams at being in the spotlight again. When DeMille finally clears them away and almost tells her the truth about the car, her tears convince him to lie to her, to preserve her illusions. While Norma is reliving her stardom, Joe is conferring with Betty, deciding to try to find time to work together on a screenplay. Max does learn of the real reason for the calls, but he keeps quiet as well. After Norma leaves, DeMille's assistant inquires about Norma's sanity on the set, but C.B. says she was only trouble toward the end. "A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit," DeMille tells him, also ordering him to tell Cole to leave her alone. He'd buy him five old cars first.
That visit to Paramount ends up being the pivotal scene setting the stage for the film's climax and wrapping up all the story strands. DeMille's efforts to be nice do nothing more than further Norma's delusions, as she undergoes a strenuous project of getting her body and face back in shape for the cameras in that era's version of Botox and plastic surgery. It's always worth remembering, especially in this sequence, that even though we are dealing with someone delusional, the older an actress gets, the harder it seems to be for her to get juicy lead roles (unless your name is Meryl Streep) and that Norma Desmond is only 50. Meanwhile, Joe is sneaking out each night to meet with Betty about re-forming an old script idea of his into something new that will get him work and her out of the readers' department. Max knows what he's up to, but he keeps quiet. Unfortunately, a careless Joe leaves some of the pages of the screenplay with the title page in his coat jacket and the jealous Norma starts calling and harassing Betty. Joe walks in on one of these calls and grabs the phone from Desmond and tells Betty to come on over. She should see how he lives. Norma tries to fall back on her usual tricks, but they've lost their ability to work on Joe now. "There’s nothing tragic about being 50," Joe tells Norma, "unless you are trying to be 25." Around then, Betty shows up, understandably confused, and Joe is purposely cruel but he makes no bones about how he's been making ends meet as Norma's gigolo. He tells her the script is hers and to go off and marry Artie, despite Betty's pleas to leave with her right then. Betty leaves solo and once she's gone, Joe starts packing and tossing Norma's gifts back at her. She goes apeshit. She shows Joe a gun and says she'll kill herself without him. "You’d be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left 20 years ago." He marches down that long staircase with his bag and she follows with the gun, bringing us back to the film's beginning, with the added touch of Norma finally getting her wish of being in front of the cameras again — and directed by Max no less, though in her delusional world, she thinks he's DeMille.
As is the case with all the films I routinely cite when asked to name my all-time Top 10, each time I watch Sunset Blvd., I see something new, discover a sequence, a line, a moment that excites me in a way my love for the film hasn't been aroused before. Since last year, as I knew this 60th anniversary would approach, countless ideas invaded my mind as to how to salute this favorite. I'm not a writer who frets about overriding themes when it comes time to salute a film's anniversary. For me, it's usually just a matter of watching the movie again, jotting down some notes and then writing a piece to reflect why it's a favorite of mine. However, with some films, that's simply not good enough and there are several of those coming this year (though you haven't seen the others yet). I could approach them in a myriad ways, but what's most important to me is that I write something that attempts to do that film justice. When I salute a Quick Change or a Men Don't Leave, I don't feel that pressure. When the film in question is a Sunset Blvd., the equation changes and while I seldom suffer writer's block, I can get so enraptured with the subject that my piece turns directionless. That's what I tried to avoid with films that were especially important to me such as The Rules of the Game and Marcel Carne's Children of Paradise. It even happened with the 20th anniversary of television's Twin Peaks. I'm going to do my best not to ramble on here much longer because this piece, essentially, is a 60th birthday present to the film and the gift I hope I'm giving it is a new generation of moviewatchers who might try it out for the first time and fall in love with it the way I did the first time I saw it as a seventh-grader lying on the floor of my living room on a Sunday afternoon.
Coming from the world of daily movie reviewing, these anniversary pieces are something I always wanted to do at newspapers but there neither was the space nor the interest for such things. I have to be grateful to blogs and the Internet for allowing me to fulfill my dream on that count, even if there isn't a paycheck involved, just personal satisfaction and the nice feedback I get from you, those wonderful people out there in the dark. (OK, you probably aren't in the dark, but I had to quote Sunset at least one more time.) The old journalism cliche is that reporting is the first draft of history and in a way, the same can be said about reviews of new releases. If you've had a run of so-so films, you might inflate how good a film is when you finally see one that doesn't suck. That's why I have my own personal rule of never considering a movie for my all-time list until it's at least 10 years old. In a way, it makes each year's 10 Best List a temporal thing. If we who make lists all had unlimited time, we should go back and revisit the films on old best lists to see how much we'd change them. I know that American Beauty certainly has sank in my estimation since I first saw it and watched it again. In contrast, Die Hard wasn't near my Top 10 for 1988 when I saw it at the time, but now it's in my All-Time Top 100 and I consider it my favorite for 1988. Of course, the films didn't change, perhaps it's just me, but it's still an interesting idea. Perhaps that's what the Academy Awards should do: redo past years with a more historical perspective. It's been 20 years, can't we correct that Dances With Wolves mistake and give the award to Goodfellas as it should have gone? The greatest films, such as Sunset Blvd., need to age so you can see if they were truly as great as you thought they were the first time. Even though I haven't been able to see it, that's why I find all this critical backbiting and gnashing of teeth over Christopher Nolan's Inception funny. I'd like a time machine to skip ahead to 2020 and see what all the critics who loved it or hated it or were part of backlashes against it or backlashes against the backlashes feel about it then.
I don't know what the answer will be about Inception, but I feel confident that Sunset Blvd. still will be as great on its 70th anniversary as it is today on its 60th.
Labels: 50s, Altman, Chaplin, Christopher Nolan, Dickens, Dunaway, Garbo, Glenn Close, Gloria Swanson, Holden, Jack Webb, Lynch, MacMurray, Movie Tributes, Renoir, Streep, Tim Robbins, Twin Peaks, Wilder
You're completely right about the "Inception" controversy and how we look at movies in general.
And L.A. isn't all bad. As a native, I love it. (Though if I'd been born in the middle of the country, I might well feel as you do.) One thing I love about it is the way everyone in it is so used to be insulted that most of them get in on it. The mistake that everyone makes is that L.A. isn't a single place, it's many.