Tag Archives: Sunset Boulevard

A Return to Sunset Boulevard

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. 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 have come to think 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.

Her chimp!
What’s that?
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?

Day for Night

Movie Night!

I watched one of my favorite films, Day for Night, with a small group of folks who are devoted to cinema. I have a special fondness for films about films. Cinema Paradiso, The Stuntman, Sunset Boulevard, Singing in the Rain, and their ilk always bring my remote to a delighted halt when I happen upon them.

Day for Night holds other charms for me as well. The film crew portrayed in the movie is a tight-knit one. They’ve worked together before and are familiar with and tolerant of their teammates’ peccadillos. Their chosen location for shooting is a sunny and warm one (even when they make it snow). The film has a summer camp feel about it. I’m from the Spin & Marty generation – summer camp usually works for me unless there’s a slasher wandering about.

The film features a tour de force performance by Valentina Cortese and a “tour de WOW” appearance by Jacqueline Bisset.

When the film concluded for tonight’s viewing, one of the group commented; “I can see why people love this film, but it’s not a great work of art.”

After we mopped up the blood and I pleaded justifiable homicide and made bail, I got to thinkin’…

He’s right. It’s not a “great” work of art, but if you generally cherish the films of Francois Truffault (and I do) it is a “great” work of Truffault. Now…what does that mean? This is one of our most-revered directors! How can his films not be great?

Well.

They’re not.

“Greatness” is not the story Truffault cares to tell.

For me, the charm and the wonder of Truffault resides in the tight slice of humanity in which he chooses to tell his stories. His are not the stories of saints or demons. His characters do wicked things and heartbreakingly kind things to each other and are not predictable in their choice between the two. They do good things, but not great, and they do them when it’s convenient, and or when it happens to occur to them. Ditto for the not-so-good things they do. Truffault’s characters tell the truth when they know what the truth is or when it’s not inconvenient to do so.

Truffault’s stories tell us about cats that can’t follow instructions, persistent human creativity in the face of American insurance companies, fidelity unless Jacqueline Bisset or Delphine Seyrig or Catherine Deneuve or Jeanne Moreau is involved…and of course, when fidelity is convenient. He tells us of dalliances that turn into life-destroying obsessions or deserted island fantasies or small-scale, but convoluted revenge/murder schemes (that may or may not work) – no great tragedies, merely intriguing human ones.

I find that precious, and usually convenient.