Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Classic Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

* * * * *

(Dir. Billy Wilder, 1950)

Billy Wilder, director and resident in Los Angeles, was inspired to co-write and direct this picture by the bizarre paradox of retired and forgotten Hollywood stars who live in unyielding luxury (like Gloria Swanson herself). In 2003, BBC's Adrian Hennigan wrote of Sunset Boulevard, "it wasn't the first movie to hold a mirror up to Hollywood. But it was the first to show it warts'n'all". The film begins with a shot of a corpse in a swimming pool being photographed by journalists, and a voice over promising to tell a true story apart from tabloid superstition. This introduces an important theme, mused later by Cecil B. DeMille (as himself) at the Paramount Pictures studio: "You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit" - a quotation incontrovertibly applicable to some of the bedraggled figures in our own celebrity culture. The voice over is William Holden as Joe Gillis, a screenwriter who is so desperate to earn the cash to keep up his car that he will write a film for a rich, former silent-film luminary, whose property he has accidentally trespassed while attempting to hide the automobile. This is Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, almost immediately compared by Gillis's narration to Miss Havisham of Great Expectations. Even her mansion, extravagant but antiquated, is a Hollywood parody of Satis House. Desmond has finally found the man she believes can take her back to the top. However Gillis has met a younger, more appetising floozy in Betty (Nancy Olson), his friend's fiancee, with whom he embarks upon a literary affair, sneaking out to go and write with her behind Desmond's back. The physical tension between Gillis and Betty builds until it is realised with disastrous consequences.

After watching Sunset Boulevard, academic feminists will spin their broken records until the cows come home. Billy Wilder's agenda remains gloriously ambiguous: Joe Gillis can be viewed as perpetrator, victim or both. On the one hand Gillis is a screenwriter who can be viewed as Wilder's misogynistic window, giving leverage to his social politics. On the other, a satirical pin-up. The very decision that sets the plot in motion and takes Holden to Sunset Boulevard is, amusingly, made because of one man's love for his car. Despite Betty's honesty and her initiative on their writing project, it is Gillis who is depicted writing zealously while Betty looks on in awe, having fallen for him. She pursues Gillis throughout the film, unable to write or truly love without him. Meanwhile he, a man, is entirely responsible for both Betty's success and Norma Desmond's rediscovered charisma. Furthermore, Desmond's butler and ex-husband, Max, controls and maintains his madame's delusional lifestyle by hiding from her the truth; that she is an ageing nobody and has been for years. Ultimately who knows, or indeed cares for any fixed interpretation, when this movie and its characters are so much more powerful in isolation?

Desmond's fascination with the real audience behind the lens - not with all those beautiful, monochrome extras on screen, but with ourselves in the twenty first century - still evokes a power akin to the Homeric apostrophe. Narrative perspective in this film is subsequently fluid, unpredictable and exhilarating. In the final scene of Sunset Boulevard, Desmond gazes into the lens, high on self-grandeur, inverting tragedy with triumph. She is crazed but composed, surrounded by flash photography for all the wrong reasons, and is hence ironically convincing as the prancing it-girl (it-woman?): "I'm ready for my close-up". Norma Desmond's egoism is an utterly tragic remastering of that in Orson Welles's
Citizen Kane. Where Welles sought to chronicle Harry Kane's illustrious career, its lofty peak and lonesome trough, Wilder's focus is simply gloaming: we only know Norma Desmond as the melodramatic, constantly made-up, forgotten star in the twilight of her demise. Where it is easy to analogise Welles and Kane biographically, Wilder etched his film's nostalgia and neurosis into a female lead, allowing his male, screenwriter-protagonist to remain the object of affection, the observer, rather than become the hero. Furthermore, Joe Gillis and his narration's ring-composition are the forces of a workable karma in Sunset Boulevard. A once enigmatic and blithe writer, only perturbed by an empty and abandoned swimming pool in Norma Desmond's eerie mansion, will end up lifeless in this same pool which is now filled, metaphorically, by his reinvigoration of Desmond; an unforgettable image to beautify a violent fall, the silver screen frozen but for the gentle rippling of a corpse. By shooting Gillis in the back, Desmond not so much has the last laugh as commits the last infidelity in this astonishing motion picture.

Dazzling at every turn, Desmond is the deluded leftover in these fictional glimpses of Sunset Boulevard and Paramount Pictures. The delusion within the illusion is never quirky, but at once frightening and believable. Wilder's creation is testament to the imagination of cinema. In a 2008 interview by a humbled Mark Kermode, filmmaker Terence Davies talked about his recent autobiographical picture,
Of Time and the City. Davies described moviegoing, in a youth that just missed out on the release of Sunset Boulevard (1950), as a form of religious enlightenment to champion Catholicism. Davies still refers to the cinema itself as his "Church". In Sunset Boulevard, William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Nancy Olson are angels of every stock. They communicate the consequences of real love and broken promises on both sides of the creative process in a surreal industry. As an analogue for reckless romance and unavoidable tragedy, black-and-white Norma Desmond remains a seductively, comically and miserably relevant heroine. Just as Dickens's Miss Havisham still intrigues and repulses literature students, so too does Desmond for lovers of the big screen.

For want of a special moment, I see Desmond raising the masked cragginess of her neck upwards, lifting her eyes to the expensive chandelier in her regal bedchamber, and marvelling as if on some holiday balcony at nighttime:

"The stars are ageless aren't they?"

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