Sunset Boulevard (1950) is perhaps Hollywood's most successful attempt ever to make serious art out of its own materials. Though chronologically it falls right smack in the middle of the "Noir" period, faithful to its genre in every respect, it's a far better piece of cinema than that categorical distinction would describe.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Sunset Boulevard - Cinema as Seduction
It functions on at least three levels: As a straight '40's murder mystery; as a symbolic miracle play about the philosophical implications of glamour, fame and wealth in Hollywood; and as a classical Greek drama with Oedipal undertones. It has in addition elements of fantasy, horror, camp, romance, surrealism, nostalgia, and sex. And to top it off, the female lead, Gloria Swanson, is playing a version of herself as the aging Silent Era femme fatale. Who could ask for anything more?
The screenwriters employ the unusual, but by no means novel, narrative technique of having the story told by a deadman. In fact, in the beginning of the movie we see Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), a hack screenwriter, floating face down in a luxury swimming pool, fully clothed, talking to us in voice-over. Since Gillis is himself a screenwriter, his flash-back narration is intertextual, functioning both as imaginary "author" of his own story, as well as the main character. It's almost as if we're seeing the plot through three frames, the outermost being the real actor William Holden (as the real screenwriters' stand-in). Kind of like a guy writing a movie about a guy who writes movies getting drawn into a fantasy caper taking place in the mind of an imaginary character playing a version of her real life self. It's weird.
Joe gets caught up in a classic gigolo relationship with an aging has-been screen-star who's living in her own glamorous past (re-living it over and over again). It's a spooky world of opulent furnishings (her mansion) peopled only by a mysterious major domo (played by Erich von Stroheim, himself a notable actual early movie director--talk about ironies!), and a pet monkey! Joe lets himself be "seduced" by this lonely, slightly mad, archly pretentious but emotionally fragile woman, because he needs the dough (she hires him to co-write her new comeback vehicle). He soon becomes an impatient captive of her clinging affections. Eventually she kills him rather than allow him to leave her.
Swanson (as Norma Desmond) is perfect as the softly alluring late-middle-aged star (she was only 50 when this movie was made--though she might seem ancient by current-day leading lady standards). Crucially, Swanson was herself a Silent Era bombshell, so even though she's playing in character, she's also playing through it, as the real life version of her role. She vamps and teases and pirouettes through this part, it's all rollicking good fun, except that she has a fiery temper and an ego the size of an elephant. In real life, Swanson was just as big as the character she plays here: She was married seven times, made and lost millions during her run of box-office successes during the Twenties, was nominated three times for an Oscar as Best Actress. She had a famous fling with Joseph Kennedy (scion of the Kennedy clan) who bankrolled her a film (Queen Kelly 1929), directed by (who else?) Erich von Stroheim! (It was von Stroheim's copy of this film that Swanson [Norma Desmond] watches in this film, when she leaps into the projection beam shouting "Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I'll be up there again, so help me!" Another instance of framing: A movie about a star who makes a movie about herself which features a screening of a real movie the real actress had made 22 years before, directed by the man who plays her butler in the "real" movie we're watching!
Holden is never better as the casual, drop-dead hunk, cynical and slick. Swanson is gorgeous, with her nature-cosmetic, carrot-juice diet-enhanced, miraculously preserved skin and face. Hollywood has always been shy of June-September romances, and that ambiguity is right at the heart of this film. In the end, it isn't Swanson's beauty or grace that turns sour, but her refusal to live in the present, trying to stop time in a failed Gothic doom worthy of Dorian Gray. Too, it's a surrealist's playground of submerged archetypes, symbols of decadence and decay.
Looking at the film today--it's as relevant and fresh as it was the year it was released almost 60 years ago. But it could never be remade, because the fantasy world that made Hollywood Hollywood disappeared so long ago that no one's left. Yet the theme of the film is timeless. That sense of gloomy evocation is played to the hilt in the closing scene, where Norma interrupts a present-day de Mille set in progress, commanding the Klieg light and descending a portable stairway, gliding dramatically down, sinuously seducing the camera in an eerie sequence, like a Medusa in a Mucha poster, the writhing tentacles and vines of mortality invading the mirror of art!