Wednesday, December 15, 2010

#131. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

DVD Synopsis: Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, an aging silent film queen, and William Holden as the struggling writer who is held in thrall by her madness, created two of the screen's most memorable characters in Sunset Boulevard. Winner of three Academy Awards, director Billy Wilder's orchestration of the bizarre tale is a true cinematic classic. From the unforgettable opening sequence through the inevitable unfolding of tragic destiny, the film is the definitive statement on the dark and desperate side of Hollywood. Erich von Stroheim as Desmond's discoverer, ex-husband and butler, and Nancy Olson as the bright spot in unrelenting ominousness, are equally celebrated for their masterful performances.

Sunset Boulevard is a tremendous film noir, crisply directed by Billy Wilder, with memorable dialogue and a stellar performance by star William Holden. Yet all of these impressive strengths must be content to rest comfortably in the background, because Sunset Boulevard is also the movie that introduced Norma Desmond to the world.

A big star in the days of silent films, Norma (played by Gloria Swanson) has since faded into obscurity. Deep within the walls of her once-mighty Sunset Boulevard mansion, sheltered from a world that has forgotten her, Norma still considers herself a star, and cannot - or perhaps I should say will not - accept that life outside goes on without her. When he first meets Norma, Holden's character, Joe, is certain he’s heard her name before. “You used to be big”, Joe says. “I am big”, Norma replies, “It’s the pictures that got small

Swanson, who had not appeared in a feature film for nearly two decades prior to Sunset Boulevard, delivers a stellar performance as Norma. With her over-the-top ego and delusions of grandeur, Norma Desmond could have easily been little more than a caricature, a cliché. But Swanson occasionally allows a little personality to seep through the artifice, bringing life and depth to a very difficult character. In what may be the film’s most poignant scene, Norma finds herself back at Paramount studios for the first time in years, paying a visit to her old friend and director, Cecil B. DeMille (appearing as himself). As Norma sits waiting for DeMille, who is hard at work shooting his next film, a few members of the crew recognize her, and word quickly spreads that Norma Desmond has finally come home. Dozens of admirers gather around her, and at this sudden outburst of unexpected affection, Norma begins to cry. 

Now, we’ve seen Norma cry before, usually when she’s trying to emotionally manipulate Joe. This time, though, the tears are genuine. It had been years since Norma truly felt the admiration of her fans, and to experience it once again has moved her deeply. Through much of the film, Norma Desmond is tyrannical, manipulative, and downright mean. Yet I couldn’t help but smile for her during these brief minutes of adoration. For the first time, we're clued in on just how popular, how big a star, Norma really was.

Of course, we know this moment won’t last forever. The true tragedy of Sunset Boulevard is that, in Norma's world, moments like this have never stopped. She is now, and always has been, a shining star, and it's high time the rest of the world figured that out.

And heaven help those who don't!


Robert M. Lindsey said...

Wow, nobody has commented on Sunset Blvd? Good grief, I love this movie! I'm currently working (VERY slowly) on my own top 50 and this film will be there, for sure.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Robert: I'm with you...this is a classic through and through.

I'll be keeping an eye on your list as it grows. Thanks for posting the link so others can check it out as well.