Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Years Watch: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The movie neither begins nor ends on New Years.  Instead, it's the morbid spectacle of New Years Eve in the Desmond mansion that's the crucial turning point in the movie as screenwriter Joe Gillis decides to stop fighting the pull of Norma Desmond.

With a night out (a rarity of late) ahead of us for New Years, I figured whatever I put in at 9:30 PM on 12/30 would be the last movie I'd watch for the year.  Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a movie I am afraid I came to quite late, and one I wish I'd paid attention to years ago, though I am uncertain that - as a 20-something - if I would have seen it as much more than highly enjoyable melodrama and camp.  Certainly I'd understand it was loaded with enough real star power behind it to lend it an air of legitimacy, but it's in watching the movie as an older viewer that the movie resonates in a way that I'm unsure it would in quite the same way for a younger viewer.

Joe Gillis is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, a tarnished golden-boy, unable to produce the same kind of work that landed him some big gigs in Hollywood in recent memory.  Now, though, at 30-ish, he's yesterday's news, unable to sell a story, laden with debts at his heels, the finance company ready to take his car.

Avoiding those repo men, he turns into an overgrown driveway on Hollywood's famed Sunset Boulevard, finding himself on the grounds of a decaying mansion, an echo of the glory days of the silent era.  Inside he finds former silent star Norma Desmond, an actress who vanished - as so many did as the industry moved from silent to sound.  She's survived, wealthy enough to keep the world outside at bay, her manservant, Max, helping to protect and shield her from the world which has forgotten her and moved on.

Desmond has not given up on the fame she once had and has spent her years in solitude concocting a return to the limelight.  She's written a screenplay, something she's toiled over for 20 years since the studios abandoned her, a biblical epic of the story of Salome, and - finding Joe is a screenwriter, she offers him an outrageous amount of money to help her get the screenplay into shape for delivery to Cecil B. DeMille.

From the start, the job takes a strange turn as Max moves Joe out of his apartment and into the apartment above Desmond's garage.  He's a prisoner in a gilded cage, never quite alone with Desmond as Max watches over her, never controlling her life, but helping her maintain her fantasies.

The movie is underscored with the noirish voice over of Joe Gillis, a reliable narrator but a slanted one.  He's the voice of youth, of reality - sure - but the voice of the world that knows Desmond's time is over, she's a footnote at best and a punchline at worst.  There's a cruelty to the reality, certainly, but the choices before Desmond seem limited: Continue in her dream world, or believe that the millions who once loved her no longer have use for her, that the money can remain but the adulation which fired her can never return.  Nor will the times she once ruled over.

It's worth noting that movies were only fifty years old, and the film industry really less than 40 years old when this movie hit theaters, but already the patterns and rules of fame and fortune of the world of Hollywood were painfully well known and understood.  For every starry-eyed kid who wants to believe that the vision they have of themselves in their 20's will become immortalized on celluloid and it's all sexy cocktail parties til they simply turn into stardust should get issued a copy of this movie.  A bit of a fair warning.

As a viewer no longer able to consider himself a kid (I'm now eight or nine years older than William Holden in this movie),  the scenes where Norma is recognized and embraced by the crew members who remember her and the extras who once stood behind her have resonance.  After all, the business of these Comic Conventions has largely turned from the purchase of comics and doo-dads into the reflected glory of actors who now have enough time on their hands to spend a weekend in a booth signing photos at $25 (and up) a pop.  Or, as recent news stories have covered, poor Carrie Fisher having to put up with the chorus of voices pointing out she no longer seems as rosy-cheeked as she did in her twenties, three decades ago.  And Fisher is one of the lucky ones.  People remember her.  She gets work.

All's fair in love and war, sure.  And if it weren't for actresses and actors falling by the wayside, there'd be no room for the next generation of bright-eyed, blow-dryed future forgotten stars.

That the movie was made is shocking enough.  Hollywood does love to talk about itself, admit it's gloriously writ-large faults on the silver screen, but usually with a huge serving of self-deprecation and/ or making Hollywood the hero in the end (see:  Argo).  But the cast of the movie includes those for whom the story of faded glory surely resonated in a way that struck home.  Buster Keaton playing bridge.  Cecil B. DeMille having a conversation he'd most assuredly suffered through in real-life.  Even Max, the faithful butler, is played by Erich Von Stroheim, a very real director who became the Captain Ahab of the silent era.

The film's star, Gloria Swanson, plays the part to the hilt as few others could.  For herself, for so many others in the movie - she lived the part.  A star of the silent era, what wouldn't have resonated for her in the script?

Billy Wilder, a director who gets a lot of mentions but not nearly enough, is working at a level here that few directors can even dream of.  The camera-work, the performances, the sets, the blocking - it's phenomenal for not just 1950 but any year.  Of course, film buffs know this, but it's got to be stated.  What he, Holden, von Stroheim and especially the brave, lovely Gloria Swanson bring to the screen is astonishing.

The movie pits the exuberance of youth against the realities of time.  The pitfalls only outrageous success can know against the comfort of a life of unachieved dreams.  It's the insecurities of everyone, and the desire to be loved by everyone and a single person, and what happens when all that walks out of your life.

In some ways, Sunset Boulevard is the ideal movie for the mission statement I gave myself coming back to the blog.   Yeah, yeah.  I get to talk about whatever damn old thing I want, and I blab on about movies these days rather than comics or, specifically, Superman.  But the mission was to have a record of the older geek/ nerd/ fanboy/ what-have-you in a sea of voices from exhilarated young adults.  We're older now.  What do we see in the patterns?  What do we see now, with four decades of this stuff to work with?  Once we've done the research and work.

It was a good movie to finish the year, and one I recommend for any time.

Happy New Years.  I hope yours go better than Joe Gillis'.

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