Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunset Blvd

I saw this movie recently and thought it was amazing. I had heard a lot about it; ironically, it was not what I had been led to expect. It's often described as a "classic" -- I agree with that. Two other labels that get applied to it are "camp" and "film noir" -- those are two things I didn't see in the film.

It's very much an homage to bygone days: it harks back to the early Hollywood era, and even to earlier times than that. Norma Desmond, the aging silent-film star, has written a script for a movie version of Salome. For me, it's impossible to hear "Salome" and not think of Oscar Wilde, especially since he and Norma have quite a bit in common (including, but not limited to, a ravenous hunger for the limelight, a certain disconnection from reality, and a predilection for dangerous young men.) But the name of Norma's butler (and former director), Max von Mayerling, carries its own resonance of the tragic romantic. "Mayerling" is the place where, in 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria killed his lover, Marie Vetsera, and himself. Several movies have been made about this -- the first one known to IMDB was in 1936.

As many people know, in Sunset Blvd the actors who portray Norma and Max were in real life a former film star and a former director. Gloria Swanson, fortunately, was much more successful than her character. When this film came out, in 1950, she had been absent from Hollywood for almost twenty years (aside from one appearance in a 1941 film), but she had plenty of stage work and entrepreneurship to keep her busy.

The appearance of Erich von Stroheim in this film is perhaps more amazing, since his career really could not be described as successful. He and Swanson only made one film together, but it was the film that destroyed his Hollywood career. It's also the film that Norma Desmond watches while recalling her past glory, and apparently Stroheim suggested that this particular film be used, and even provided the footage. Was that painful -- or could it perhaps have been gratifying? It is arguable that this movie is not merely an homage to the silent film era, but specifically to Stroheim. (For example, the character played by William Holden bears a certain resemblance to some of Stroheim's protagonists -- an unscruplous seducer of rich women.)

Is it camp? Is it noir? Not in my opinion -- because of the character of Norma Desmond. People who imitate her may well be doing camp, but she is not. She has no notion that anybody might find her mannerisms amusing -- in her own mind, she is behaving the way stars behave. (The interesting question is, is Gloria Swanson doing camp? There are some brief, key moments when she acts "normal" and you realize that she, at least, knows what naturalistic acting is. But because her character takes herself absolutely seriously, I can't help but think that Swanson takes it seriously too. She's not trying to give us the slightest opportunity to laugh, whereas, as far as I can tell, spectators of camp are always at least on the verge of laughter.)

Neither is it noir, because from what I've seen, in film noir the woman (there only ever seems to be one woman per film) is always evil. She has ulterior motives for seducing the hero; she's deceiving him. Norma is not deceiving anyone except herself; and she has no ulterior motives. She seduces Joe Gillis because she wants love, admiration and (quite possibly) sex with a handsome, virile young man. That's not evil . . . and yet Norma has a bad rep, because she's sexually active and somewhat grotesque (but nowhere near as much as I was led to believe.) She lives in a fantasy world -- but that's what Hollywood is all about.

Shortly before watching Sunset Blvd, I watched another film by the same director, Double Indemnity. Unmistakable, classic film noir. I hated it. It was too slow, too talky, and, without wishing to spoil the ending, I thought it was completely implausible. But the two films do have a very similar structure. They're both told in flashback, with a voiceover by the hero*. In Double Indemnity I thought that guy would never shut up. In Sunset Blvd he does have to stop talking occasionally, partly because Norma demands her share of attention and also because he's not really allowed to be explicit about his relationship with her.

He's a gigolo; that's bad enough. If he actually cared for her that would be even worse, and I personally think he does care, at least a little. She's fifty years old; his age is not specified but the actor himself was about thirty at the time. Pairings of older actors and younger actresses were, and still are, routine. For a man to get together with a woman old enough to be his mother was, and still is, highly unusual. In fact, I was so caught up in the film that when he leans over her for their first kiss, I thought, "They're not really gonna, are they? They can't!" (and the fadeout does actually finish before their lips touch.)

Anyway, great film. A film for lovers of film.

* I think he does count as the hero, although a flawed one. Another difference between Sunset Blvd and film noir, in my view, is that Norma Desmond is definitely the heroine of her film -- even though William Holden gets top billing -- but the women in noir don't ever seem to be heroines.