Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #26: Sunset Boulevard

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. Studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Sunset Boulevard
(released August 1950)

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The screenwriters behind Sunset Boulevard -- Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshall, Jr. and Billy Wilder (who also directed) -- made an audacious choice: the narrator of their movie is a dead man. His name is Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), "just a movie writer with a couple of B pictures to his credit." We're introduced to him floating face down in the swimming pool of an old mansion located somewhere along that 22-mile stretch of asphalt known as Sunset Boulevard. The incorporeal voice of Joe Gillis has a story to tell. It's a winner, and he's not about to let a little thing like death stop him from sharing it. Flashback to six months earlier, the fateful day he met Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging, reclusive silent movie star with a couple of decades between her and her last picture.

No one's buying Joe's scripts, so he's broke and way behind on his rent and car payments. When a couple of repo men show up for the car, Joe flees, but a flat tire forces him to seek temporary refuge in the garage of Norma's mansion. Joe's narration describes it as "a great big white elephant of a place, the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy '20s." Her manservant Max -- played cryptically by Eric Von Stroheim, himself a one-time silent movie director -- lets Joe into the house, mistaking him for the funeral planner who's been summoned to make arrangements for Norma's recently deceased monkey. She wants a white coffin, lined in flaming red satin. "Let's make it gay," she declares. Joe attempts to explain his real reason for being there, Norma overreacts and orders him off the property. But she changes her mind when Joe suddenly realizes that this is the Norma Desmond.  "You used to be big," he acknowledges. "I am big, it's the pictures that got small," she retorts. When Norma finds out Joe's a screenwriter, she proposes that he turn the handwritten script she's labored over for years into something Hollywood will produce as a star vehicle for herself. "I didn't know you were planning a comeback," Joe says. "I hate that word! It's a return," Norma seethes.

Desperately needing an income, Joe agrees to work on Norma's script. She has one condition: Joe has to move into her deteriorating mansion, complete with Max the vaguely sinister manservant, a wheezing old pipe organ that's susceptible to drafts, and hundreds of old photographs of Norma in her prime (all actual stills of Gloria Swanson from her prolific silent pictures heyday). Joe's disembodied narration sums it up: "The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion." So, he stays, a willing hostage grinding out script pages for a picture he knows will never be made. Is he using Norma? Sure. She's wealthy and delusional and prone to buying him expensive gifts. His initial reluctance to being a "kept man" abates and Joe becomes comfortable enough with the arrangement, right up until the moment he realizes that Norma has developed a possessive love of operatic proportions for him. But is it love? Maybe. He's pretty darn handsome and nimble with the quips. Or, does he simply -- and finally -- fill the void in her pitiful life, one that a funereal manservant and that recently-deceased monkey could not? To give away much more of the story would be kind of spoilery.  

As morally ambivalent Joe Gillis, William Holden is fine. He's sardonic, raffish and looks awfully damn good in a pair of swim trunks. But this is Gloria Swanson's film all the way. An enormous star and fashion icon throughout the 1920s (she's been described as the screen's first clothes horse), Swanson made a successful transition from silent to sound pictures in 1929. Her career peaked by the early 1930s and she knew it, so she left Hollywood for a quieter life of radio and stage work in New York City. She made one film in 1941, but didn't return to the big screen again until Sunset Boulevard in 1950. Swanson is entirely credible as Norma Desmond, a woman who can't stop rhapsodizing about a career that was over twenty years ago. "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" And you get right away why her stardom is a thing of the past. Norma's facial expressions and gestures are frequently big, broad and overly-dramatic, as if the exaggerated movements and reactions she perfected for silent film acting are permanently embedded in her marrow. Worse, there's a strident, affected cadence in her voice that's fascinating only because of how unnatural it sounds.

Sunset Boulevard delves into some dark and juicy territory, even threatening to become a full-on gothic horror picture at times. John Landis, the director behind American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson's Thriller video, has even called Sunset Boulevard a monster movie. I tend to agree with that assessment in a way. Norma Desmond attained unimaginable fame, was roundly rejected by the film industry, then disappeared into obscurity. All this, plus her own inability to move on, made her more than a simple anachronism -- it created a monster. The frequently grotesque work Swanson does with her hands and eyes reminded me of early screen vampires like Max Schreck's Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Even Desmond's fate here has a bizarre parallel to that of Frankenstein's monster -- just switch out the torch-bearing villagers for merciless cops and relentless reporters. This glimpse of her life is wildly entertaining and perversely amusing, but the movie never lets you forget how profoundly sad it is to be Norma Desmond.

Sunset Boulevard deservedly earned eleven Academy Award nominations. It won three: writing, score and art/set direction. Nominees Holden and Swanson lost to Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday). The Academy has made some stupid choices in the acting categories over the years, but Swanson's loss to Holliday is particularly grievous. Swanson's performance is idiosyncratic, risky and so, so smart. It was, in fact, an astonishing return to feature films. She was robbed.

Stray Gay Observations: Sunset Boulevard left me with an immense desire to see Norma Desmond interacting with a monkey. I just need to own that. I can't be the only person, right?

Comeback -- we use that word far too liberally. Artists and musicians are allowed to go away and come back. Or not. I agree with Norma Desmond: "It's a return!"

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and legendary, Oscar-winning director Cecil B. DeMille (his career was so long that he actually made silent and sound versions of The Ten Commandments) play themselves in the film. DeMille is unexpectedly excellent.

"It was all very queer" says dead Joe Gillis at one point. He's right. Sunset Boulevard is so queer, I can't believe three heterosexual men wrote it.

In the scene where Norma shows Joe one of her silent films, director Billy Wilder chose a clip from Queen Kelly (1929). That's a real Gloria Swanson movie that was directed by Eric Von Stroheim, who plays manservant Max. It was a notoriously troubled production with lots of "creative differences." Swanson was so big a star at the time that she had Von Stroheim fired after he'd shot a third of the film. I don't know what Billy Wilder was thinking, but that must have been a weird day on the set.

My favorite William Holden film is Network (1976) -- a truly extraordinary film that's so prescient it's scary. He's also in one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, The Towering Inferno. He's the guy who thinks everyone's overreacting about that fire on the 81st floor that is never going to reach the 135th floor. Unpleasant deaths ensue.

In a film brimming with great dialogue, I think Holden has one of the best lines ever uttered in a movie: "Norma, you're a woman of 50, now grow up. There's nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25." That had to have been startling candor for an audience in 1950 to hear. I'll know that America has matured a wee bit when Jennifer Lawrence gets to say something like that to one of her male co-stars. Like Bradley Cooper, her co-star in Silver Linings Playbook... who's sixteen years older than her in real life, but apparently we're not supposed to be having a conversation about that.

Should You See It? Absolutely. It's one of the best movies ever made about the movies, and Swanson gives one of the all-time great performances.

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Next Week: Top Gun (1986)

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