I revisited Sunset Boulevard.
Not the whole street – 10086 Sunset Boulevard, the home of Norma Desmond to be precise.
Before my viewing revisit, it had been almost 40 years since I’d been there and it has changed…or probably, I have.
I remember seeing it before with a sensitivity short on life experience and fresh from a recent viewing of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, a callow and totally incorrect approach on my part. Hollywood madness played large and deadly.
I accepted the criticisms of many that Gloria Swanson’s “campy” performance to be accurate. (Cue the loud buzzer and the announcer’s voice; “Thank you for playing!”)
I believe the two most difficult things for an actor to play are;
1. Not pretty, and
2. Not smart.
It’s not so hard to play ugly, and it’s not so hard to play stupid. It’s actually quite comfortable and safe. After all, audiences will surely know you’re merely acting and it’s not really you. Ditto with playing smart and pretty. But “not smart” and “not pretty”…that’s a little close to home. People MIGHT think you’re not having to act too much…maybe it’s what you are…not smart and not pretty. That’s not so comfortable and safe, eh?
I watched Sunset Boulevard with a group of movie lovers and one of them suggested that Ms. Swanson’s performance wasn’t campy at all. “This was how Norma Desmond and her colleagues acted in their silent roles, it only makes sense that this is how they act in life when they’re ‘on’.” That sounds right to me and Ms. Swanson’s performance seems perfectly plausible today. Now, keep in mind, I’m not averse to chewing my own share of scenery when the opportunity presents itself…or even when it doesn’t. Who am I to begrudge an actor their dose of over-the-top?
I think this is a brave performance by a 50-year-old actress in 1951 when there weren’t many roles for 50-year-old actresses. The character was exotic and glamorous…but not pretty. She was certainly not smart. And while she was not old, she was “not young”. Today, this performance could have unleashed subsequent movie offers galore. In 1951, Ms. Swanson was rewarded with few scripts and they, according to her, were merely re-channelings of Norma Desmond. Perhaps people were thinking she was not having to act too much? William Holden sprang from this film to box-office stardom. Ms. Swanson drifted into retirement…in her 50’s!
Speaking of William Holden, he is just fine in the flick, and he completely rocks the clothes…even the vicuna overcoat (“…since the lady’s buying…”).
But what about Joe Gillis, the character he’s playing?
I will admit to some relief when he was killed in the film. I was beginning to be teased by the outré possibility that Dobie Gillis might have been the bizarre offspring of Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis – not a good place to go.
Seriously, there is little to admire about Joe Gillis. The show opens with him in his bathrobe, in a maelstrom-designed apartment, three months behind on his rent and car payments, lying to his car repossessors, and accepting the hospitality of a deluded older woman preparing for the funeral of her chimp.
There’s opening for a chimp in this household? What is Joe Gillis thinking?
Joe has some of the best lines in the movie but they’re usually preceded by something amazing said by Norma. Thus, we miss his comments. For example;
Norma; “I am big! The movies got small!”
Joe (under his breath); “I knew something was wrong with them.”
It’s another of these mutterings that makes you completely write Joe off as an admirable human being. As Norma and Joe are out one evening in Norma’s remarkable car, Joe’s narration remarks; “By then, she had taught me to play bridge.” It’s a complete capitulation to comfort, clothes, chimp-dom, and the ultimately fatal swimming pool.
At least he has his moment of redemption. He finally jettisons the jewels, the clothes, the girl, the house, the car and the pool. BUT a Faustian bargain is made up front and there’s no going back. The terms are made early and the price of the transaction is not altered by buyer’s remorse. We have rooted for Joe in spite of his unworthiness of our sympathy, we resonate with his redemption, and we are saddened but unsurprised by his demise. Forget that $35-a-week editing job in Dayton – you bought the pool, mister.
Have I mentioned that I love this film?