Wednesday, 18 August 2010

They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who've we got now? Some nobodies!

No 63 - Sunset Boulevard
Director - Billy Wilder

Man, I just love Billy Wilder. This film challenge has taught me that he is a really impressive talent, as yet again here he has written and directed a bloody wonderful little film. The other thing that is dawning me is quite how much the advent of sound shook up cinema and quite how much it upset the old school.
The transition is sort of explored in Singing in the Rain (another amazing film) but is played there more as a comedy (well, as a musical - though it's still very funny). Here we get to a more frank look at the terribly bleak after-effects of the transition to 'talkies'. Thematically, this film could be something of a sequel to Singing in the Rain (although a psychic sequel - as it was released two years earlier), perhaps looking at Lina Lamont 20 years later...

In order to discuss this transition, the film does something really quite brilliant. Now, I'm not very well versed on films from the 50's and earlier (so I may be wrong), but I think that sunset Boulevard's idea of having actors and directors cameoing as themselves was pretty new.
Certainly nowadays we have lots of shows in which people play themselves, but this film is 60 years old... which means that we get glimpses of legends like Buster Keaton, and although he only appears for about 4 seconds, he manages to look excellently resentful and bitter during his game of cards.
However the real surprise (after all, actors are actors and you shouldn't be too surprised to see them in films) is the appearance of Cecille B DeMille in an acting part, playing himself. After all, the man is a giant of early cinema, and it is brilliant to see him performing, and holding his own within the performances.
All these cameos flutter sporadically across the film's storyline. For whilst we follow the character of Joe Gillis (William Holden brilliantly playing an initially unlikeable selfish bugger who softens throughout the film) - and whilst he may be our main protagonist, it is Gloria Swanson's terrifying and heartbreaking Norma Desmond who is the film's true star.

Indeed, she steals so much of the film that the plot lines that don't include her (like the little love triangle Gillis gets mixed up in) seem dull and unnecessary. You just want to go back to her creepy old house.

So why is Norma Desmond such a great character? It's mostly attributable to the many layers Gloria Swanson gives her. In almost every scene we learn something new about her; something which casts her in a new light, something which changes how we feel about her. She begins as a wonderful Morticia Addams-type character - in her strange dilapidated house with her strange Germanic butler and her dead chimp. Her movements and facial tics are all over-dramatic, her expressions are frozen masks. She is the stereotypical over-exaggerated silent movie actress. She is proud. She is arrogant. And she has the potential to be dangerous.
However - as we learn more about her, you realise that she is really very tragic. Her pride and her arrogance stem from her naivety and her self-delusion, and whilst that begins as sad (the butler Max's speech about Norma's decline is particularly moving), it ends up more terrifying than her unusual performance at the beginning of the film.

So when we come to that final scene, and Norma's final iconic line - All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up - Norma has become much more than a funny deluded fool, much more than an insane woman. She is horrific because we don't know how to categorise her - we don't know how to react to her.

At one point, earlier in the film, she explains why the silent movie actors were better than their talking counterparts. Her explanation is thus: We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!
In the film's final moments, it is Norma's face that we remember. And it is the chilling face of madness.

1 comment:

Doug said...

When I first saw it, I really had no idea what it was about, only that it was supposed to be "good". I learned the meaning of the word "understatement" that day, my friend. I was floored, and went on to seek out more of Wilder's stuff (I'd only seen "One, Two, Three", which itself is pretty damn good).
Incidentally, the butler is played by Erich von Stroheim, who was also a giant in the silent era as an actor and director.