Friday, March 20, 2015

Examining the Greats: Noir Classic Sunset Boulevard Offers a Critique of Fame That Holds Up Today

Author's Note: Hey guys, so, I wrote this post because a friend specifically requested a review of this movie (and because, you know, it's a really good film). There are so many movies and so many TV shows out there which I have a lot of opinions on, and when there's all that stuff to write about, I end up getting overwhelmed and not writing about them at all. So, when someone specifically says "Hey, write a post about this," then it makes it really easy for me to do so. So, please enjoy this discussion of Sunset Boulevard, an absolute classic that is currently on Netflix for those who haven't seen it. And be sure to let me know if you have any requests and want to know my thoughts about either films or television or theater or what have you. It could be great, it could be terrible, it could be anything. Maybe you want me to do a top ten list on a certain subject. If you have an idea for a post, definitely let me know!

TLDR: I not only welcome suggestions, I encourage them. And now, enjoy this discussion of
Sunset Boulevard. -Miles

Hey, that's the name of the movie!
One of the most fascinating genres out there is that of Film Noir. Defined as "a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace," Film Noir is equal parts vague and distinct. It's vague in that something like "mood" is really not quantifiable and can be difficult to indentify. But it's also distinct in that, like pornography, you know it when you see it. While writing this post, I tried to think of a more precise definition of Film Noir, but failed to do so. Really, it is all about the mood. And it's a mood that's going somewhat out of style. Recent crime films like Brick or last year's underrated A Walk Among the Tombstones, or even The Big Lebowski often have allusions to film noir, but are never quite able to mimic the style. It's a filmmaking style that is so identifiable with a certain era that recent films are unable to truly capture it. The Film Noir style at once dates a film and preserves it as a classic. Even as these films are no longer getting made, Film Noir remains a recognizable and popular genre, and it always will be.

Sunset Boulevard epitomizes Film Noir. Even more so than films like The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard has the feel of timelessness. Watching it now, it still feels innovative, new, and exciting, at once showcasing the qualities and techniques of the era and advancing them further into unknown and groundbreaking territory. Director Billy Wilder is masterful, balancing several plates in the air at once. Let's go back to that definition: "marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace." All three are present in Sunset Boulevard, but its forte is definitely "menace." From its camera work to its pacing to its fantastic Oscar-winning score, everything is designed to keep its audience on the edge of their seats, even in the more lighthearted moments of comedy and romance. This menace is present from the very first scene, where a voiceover narration tells us about a man who we see floating in a swimming pool, dead. If that opening image wasn't striking enough, we then find out that our narrator IS in fact our drowned victim, and the film is a flashback told from his perspective. The story being, of course, how he ends up where he is. If you know a better way to lay the groundwork for suspense then I'd like to hear it. As the film goes on that opening image of our narrator (a Hollywood screenwriter named Joe, played by William Holden) is always fresh in our minds, and the underlying threat of his inevitable death is an impossible menace to shake.

He dead.
But even with such a great opening shot, the film would have no menace without a great villain. And this film's villain comes from a fairly unlikely source: Norma Desmond, an aging actress played by Gloria Swanson. Desmond is a brilliant character. Even if you have not seen the film, you know the character by two of her most recognizable quotes. A former silent film star who has not worked in years, in her very first scene, she rejects the notion that she's no longer famous. "I am big! It's the pictures that got small," she famously exclaims. This tells you everything you need to know about the character: her inflated sense of self-worth, yes, but also her denial, and her inability to accept her own obscurity.

It's a great performance, but not exactly a subtle one.
After Joe stumbles upon her estate, he begins assisting Norma as she attempts to write a screenplay for what she feels will be her big comeback movie. Provided with a rent-free room and extravagant gifts and all the amenities he could ask for, Joe stays with Norma despite her lack of writing talent and her clear obsession with him. Through Joe's eyes, we get a glimpse at Norma's post-stardom life, and it is an incredible depiction of the morbid fascination we have with the concept of fame, and the difficulty some have to live up to the scrutiny of the limelight. Everything about the film is well done, but it is this examination of fame that most contributes to Sunset Boulevard's sense of timelessness. As long as there are celebrities, this movie will have relevance. It is always devastating to consider the cruelty with which we sometimes treat those who have achieved success in the arts, and it covers a wide range. When people find stardom in their youth, their tendency to "crash and burn" is reported on by the news circuit with an undeniably malicious relish. Consider how every action made by Britney Spears was torn apart only a few years ago--her notoriously troubled divorce after only 55 hours of marriage was reported on with glee. Consider how once promising actresses like Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes are now better known for their behavior than for their talent (there was actually a really great letter written by, of all people, Nick Cannon addressing this--it's definitely worth a read). Looking at the current celebrity landscape, it feels like the person most ripe for a fall is Miley Cyrus, with eye-grabbing titles painting her as a "bad girl," in a desperate attempt to rob her of her Disney image. I will admit that I'm not a fan of Miley Cyrus--I don't think she's a good singer and there are things she's done and said that I don't agree with. But it is clear that the tabloid reports of her are way out of control. Whenever she and a boyfriend break up (like her well-reported relationship with Liam Hemsworth) it's treated as scandal when, in fact, I know many 22 year olds who go in and out of relationships all the time. There has been a lot of discussion on her alleged use of marijuana with pictures of Cyrus and a bong causing massive uproar across the pages of TMZ. Even if you don't feel marijuana should be this really the worst offense? Considering there are celebrities battling much stronger demons, pot seems to be not as big of a deal as so many make it out to be. And, besides, there are plenty of celebrities who freely talk about their marijuana use. But when Seth Rogen talks about how much pot he smokes (hint: much more than Miley Cyrus does) it's not a scandal. Only when it's someone like Miley Cyrus.

Pictured: Miley Cyrus.

You may notice that all of the tabloid names I've mentioned are women. Specifically young, attractive women who are painted as sex symbols at an incredibly young age. And this sexism is not lost on Sunset Boulevard (which hey, remember, that's what this post is about!) Norma Desmond was a young Hollywood star who was cast aside after silent films go out of fashion. Norma is not only not working, but she is no longer beloved as she once was. As Joe tells her, "There's nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25." But she denies her aging, and pushes herself on Joe with an air of desperation. She wants to feel young again, she wants to feel important again, and she wants to feel attractive again. Swanson is brilliant here. She captures Norma's pleading sadness with tragic aplomb. As a villain, nothing she does is out of malice, it is all out of the basic need to regain her former glory. She manipulates Joe, cunningly, and brilliantly, offering him gifts and money and lodging and everything he dreams of. "I always wanted a pool," he dryly says in narration. All so that he'll stay and shower her with adoration. But her manipulation comes out of self-imposed delusion. Because of this, it is never clear just how aware she is. Does she know Joe does not love her, and only stays for the money? Possibly. Probably, even. But does she care? This time, the answer is "probably not." The character is hard to feel bad for--she has the wealth, after all, to be able to put up a pretty convincing facade for herself, and she literally murders the one person who gets in her way of maintaining that facade. But Swanson finds Norma's crucial humanity. She is pitiful. You do feel sorry for her. It becomes clear immediately that she will be responsible for Joe's eventual death, so I don't think I'm really giving anything away by saying that at the end of the film, she is led away by the police. This final scene is at once heartbreaking and creepy. As she is led away, she becomes convinced that the reporters are there because she's in a film again. The police, in her eyes, are simply her fans. This is not real, this is just part of another film, and she's in the starring role. Even those who haven't seen the film knows her famous line "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," but I don't think everyone realizes that she speaks the line as she is being carted off to jail. She's just happy to be in front of the camera again.

It's fucking heartbreaking.

What's brilliant about Swanson's performance is the respectability she gives the character. She's pathetic in so many way, but we understand why she was once a star. There is a grandness to her as well as a menace. Remember, this entire film is narrated by Joe, who is now dead because of her. And yet, he does not consider her with anger, he considers her with sympathy and awe. And Wilder does the same with his direction.

Joe reacting coolly to Norma's advances.

Joe is, of course, not the only one feeding into her delusion. While Norma Desmond is the breakout character of the picture, I was also fascinated by the character of Max von Mayerling, her butler, played by Erich von Stroheim. At first seen as simply a doting butler, once his background was revealed, it was a genuinely shocking moment (and, if you haven't seen the film, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph and avoid the spoiler). Max is not just a butler, but a former film director, one who directed Norma constantly. Joe is aghast that an artist of such prestige is now performing the duties of a servant, but Max has another surprise: not only did he used to be a director, he is Norma's ex-husband, and he continues to dote on her out of his love for her both as a person, and as a star. He does not want to see her get hurt, and tries his best to shield her from the reality of her own obscurity. He even writes her letters from imaginary friends. Max is an interesting one--I'm tempted to think that his actions are destructive and only contribute to Norma's own fragile state of denial. But, look what happens when Joe confronts her with the truth? She kills him and seems to revert into an even worse state. Max knows Norma better than anyone else. He knows that feeding her delusion is the best way to help her cope (and, as I already mentioned, she has the means to keep such a delusion going). He's a fascinating character: one part servant, one part lover, one part artist, one part fan.

Erich von Stroheim as the butler, Max

Max is, by the way, played by Erich von Stroheim who was himself a silent film star and who later had a successful directing career. And Gloria Swanson was herself a silent film star (which is what she was best known for until this film launched a bit of a comeback for her and became her most recognizable role). The casting choices throughout the film are pretty brilliant, and especially at the time of its release, would have been identifiable. At one point, Norma and Joe watch one of Norma's old films and the clip that they watch is actually from a film that Gloria Swanson was in, and which Erich von Stroheim directed. These little in-jokes were very intentional on Wilder's part, and he strives to make the film sound as realistic as possible. Although Norma Desmond is a fictional character, everything else about the film is real. The other films and other actors mentioned were all stars at the time, and plenty of silent film stars (most notably Buster Keaton) cameo as themselves. But the most impressive cameo is the director Cecil B. DeMille as himself, who actually plays a fairly prominent role. In talking about her glory days, Norma always bring up DeMille, and a turning point in the film is when DeMille meets with her. Once again, the casting here is pretty powerful. DeMille is authentic and believable because he IS this great director, not just an actor playing one. And, more than that, he had worked with Gloria Swanson and is credited with bringing Swanson to stardom. In the film, he refers to Norma by the affectionate pet name "young fella," which he reportedly used to call Swanson herself. The casting actually reminded me a lot of the recent Best Picture winner Birdman in how it used its casting choices so effectively to manipulate our impressions of the film.

Cecil B. DeMille fawns over Norma

But all of these observations could simply come down to being fun facts. Whether you know of DeMille's works or of Gloria Swanson's reputation, the film still works. And why? Because it's entertaining. It's a well-told story through the writing, directing, and acting (it's one of the few films to be nominated for an Oscar in all four acting categories). Looking through the catalog of old films, it's remarkable how many don't hold up despite critical acclaim at the time. But it's also remarkable how many still work today. Despite the difference in time and the difference in society, a good story just works. And that's what Sunset Boulevard is.

As the credits rolled on Sunset Boulevard I found myself thinking about the title. Sunset Boulevard is, of course, an actual street in Los Angeles, and it's where Norma Desmond lives in the film. But on the surface it seems like an odd choice for a title. After all, Norma could have lived on any street in L.A., so why was this one chosen as not only her home, but as the film's title. It made me think of what a sunset is really. When we watch a sunset, we are watching a giant star as it fades from our view. As the sun sets, some of its brilliant light lingers, and then eventually it is gone. In a short time, another identical star will rise. The day, like stardom, is fleeting. It is admired, and then forgotten. Norma Desmond is a sun who is setting. The film is her desperately giving off her last bursts of light, hoping to get one last "ooh and aah" from the spectators. It is a tragic story. But, like a sunset, it is a beautiful one to watch unfold on the screen.

Norma, ready for her close up at last, being taken away.

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