Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: Sunset Boulevard

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: Sunset Boulevard

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

And at the end of our darkening odyssey, which began at a cheerful silent-era movie premiere, we emerge at a decaying, gothic Sunset Blvd. mansion. Our attention is not only on the gothic household, with its dancefloors, screening rooms, and gilded bedrooms (no locks on the doors in case of suicide attempt). There's also the tumbling, dessicated lawn, overgrown with weeds and decorated with mounds which denote the monkeys buried beneath (in pristine white coffins). Its tennis court is scattered with dried leaves and marked by a delipidated net, over which Latin lovers and bejeweled flappers once lobbed volleys (or so we presume). And of course, the swimming pool. Until recently, it was drained, bare, sparse, abandoned long ago by vain swimmers who were succeeded by vermin of a different sort: rats that crawled up and down the walls of the barren ditch. Now the rats are gone and the water has risen again, albeit carrying some peculiar flotsam. A man is floating face-down in that swimming pool, dead as the buried apes or the dried-up autumn foliage that blows across the courtyard. As the police poke and prod at the corpse, a voice emerges from the heavens, though as he speaks, his tone sarcastic, language at once baroque and terse, there's little heavenly about the impression. Had we any doubt, that man in the pool is dead. Our narrator should know...that's him, after all.


What better way to conclude a series devoted to hating Hollywood (and secretly loving it at the same time) than on this secluded, narcissistic address on Sunset Boulevard? Funny, I can't remember the number on the gate (do we ever hear or see it?) but it doesn't seem to matter. When screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) pulls into the hidden driveway, to elude debt collectors and nurse a flat tire, he might as well be stepping through a portal into another universe, an alternate dimension. On this planet, there's a stifling airless quality to the atmosphere, and the world isn't quite dead, but it isn't quite living either. As Joe says, "The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis - out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion."

At the center of this cobweb sits a languid spider, a black widow and former silent star named Norma Desmond (she used to be big - it's the pictures that got small). She seems too slow-moving and distracted to weave a very effective web, yet Joe gets caught in it anyway. On the pretense that he will help her revise an atrocious screenplay (her "comeback") he sticks around, living off her good graces and soon more than that. What is he doing? If he really wants to go back to the boring newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio, why not just pack up and leave? His excuses ring hollow and one is left with the impression that his writer's curiosity is piqued by Norma's demimonde, cultivated by the aging actress and curated by Max Von Mayerling, an ex-husband and once-great director who has converted himself into a grotesque yet dignified toady.

Given the hackery that Joe indulges in to earn his daily bread (and it isn't doing much of that lately either) it's no wonder he plays with fire and stays on the wrong side of the portal. Oh sure, he gets out every now and then, sometimes fleeing out of desperation - visiting a New Years party, flirting with his best friend's girl (a script reader and aspiring writer), walking around town in a tuxedo and half-heartedly trying to cover up that he's a kept man. And yeah, after a while he can use compassion as an excuse for sticking around, and maybe he even believes it too. After all, a successful escape from Norma's clutches receives its response when Norma slashes her wrists with a razor.

But something tells me Joe prefers this madhouse to the outside world. He is, and has been for a long time, a Hollywood man, however he may try to frame himself. He lives and breathes deadlines and artifice, wit and sentiment, the chutzpah of the striver and the bitterness of the veteran. At film's beginning we see him engaged in the seedy side of the industry: he's broke, can't get meetings, and confronts his agent on the golf course only to have the agent gladly fire himself. Joe appears entirely familiar with the dirty business of the industry, but where's the dream in the dream factory? For all his cynicism and all her denial, Norma puts Joe back in touch with that dreaminess. In her warped, twisted way she is the confirmation of what Joe has been working towards all these failed years: she totally believes in the myth of Hollywood, the dream as a waking nightmare.

Joe's relationship to Norma forms a dialectic: he is the postwar Hollywood, she pre-Depression; he's from the talkies, lewd, plain, vulgar, but with a semblence of honesty - she's from the silents, graceful, larger than life, decadent, totally dishonest and just as vulgar in their own way (yet it's a vulgarity you can believe in). He is the inglorious but professional toiler behind the dreams, she the glamorous but helpless star who floats on their surface. The relationship between writer and star is played out here, away from the silver screen or the office on the lot, with roles queerly reversed: Norma tries to design their lives together, with Joe clothed by her and supplied with the desired actions.

Sunset Boulevard brings together two strains that have emerged over the course of the Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood series: that of the cynical, bruised, hard-working writer who knows the score and sacrifices his own happiness for emotional purity (see In a Lonely Place and parts of The Bad and the Beautiful), and that of the fragile, beautiful, movie star whose place in the firmament is delicate (see A Star is Born, The Barefoot Contessa, also parts of The Bad and the Beautiful). Left out is that other figure, the mogul (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Barefoot Contessa), the often vulgar but dynamic figure who controls all the other players. In Sunset Boulevard the nastiness, the overwhelming crush of the system is bigger than any one man. Hollywood becomes a metaphor for a dark vision of life itself, careening between slow-burning discontent and complete, depressive denial, culminating in madness.

Billy Wilder was known as a cynic, though usually a funny one. Sunset Boulevard, despite its quotable witticisms, and archly black tone, is seldom classified as a comedy. Somehow its vision of Hollywood devouring itself is too dark and hits too close to home. Much has been made of the film's resemblence to reality: Gloria Swanson, a once-great, nearly-forgotten middle-aged actress, plays Norma Desmond. Erich von Stroheim, in maybe the best, most underrated performance of the movie, also plays a version of himself (though of course he found success as an actor in France following his fall from grace as a Hollywood director). Sunset Boulevard holds up today because it's a great movie; every shot is sure of itself, every line of dialogue crackles with confidence, every gesture and lighting arrangement and story development is impressive. But how relevant is it now?

Obviously, issues of aging, denial, and professional frustration are still with us. But now Hollywood's past seems less escapable, less distant than it must have in 1950. There was no video then, no cable TV, no blogosphere devoted to resurrecting and worshipping the classics. There is a personal element to Sunset Boulevard which will never age, but also a historical aspect which has changed. The sense of the silent era as a disposed era, a ghost haunting the modern, shabbier Hollywood doesn't register with the same poignance, in part (perhaps) because Wilder exposed this forgotten past so boldly here. In our retro-obsessed epoch, the past pops up in too many incarnations to ever really be put to rest, and it's harder to segregate the history from the present.

When Norma Desmond announces, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille," and steps out of focus and into the harsh lights, she may as well be walking into the Pop Art world of the near future. Old stars don't die, nor do they fade away...they end up in Warhol portraits, scrapbooks, TV reruns, and eventually with their pictures atop blog entries written in the middle of the night. Screenwriters, on the other hand, can still consider themselves lucky if they end up with their photo in the morning newspaper, floating face-down in some movie star's swimming pool. Some things never change...

This concludes Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood. Links to the beginning of the series are below; I hope you enjoyed it or, if you're just getting started, that you will.

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.

Previous: The Barefoot Contessa

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood starts here.

6 comments:

cinexcellence.com said...

What a film; easily one of my favorites. The Buster Keaton cameo is perfect, both for recognition and to emphasize what the story is about.

FilmDr said...

I would say Sunset Boulevard is more relevant than ever in part because Wilder's bleak take on Hollywood seems more accurate than ever, at least in tone. I found your point about the shifting relationship that Hollywood has with its past interesting. Nowadays, any movie star has all of his or her prime moments on film easily summoned on Youtube for anyone to watch. How can stars compete with their younger selves endlessly replicated on little screens? Talk about the "pictures" getting "small."

Also, I think Holden embodies one of the best cinematic versions of a self-hating kept man who allows a bogus financial security to corrupt his pride and independence.

Tony D'Ambra said...

A very erudite and entertaining essay. Though others have taken view that Joe is a hack and Norma his moral superior.

MovieMan0283 said...

cinexcellence,

True, but sad in a way to see him reduced to a cameo poking fun at his own decline. Yet that deadpan's somehow always triumphant, isn't it?

filmdr,

If Norma Desmond were alive today, she would undoubtedly have her own reality show. Her ego would perhaps be sated, but somehow it would be even sadder.

Tony,

Thanks - as for Norma & Joe it's an interesting dilemma. I couldn't call Norma his moral superior - if anything she's morally vacant whereas he's amoral leaning immoral but she certainly cuts a more poignant figure than he does.

Shubhajit said...

A towering masterpiece & Wilder's magnum opus. Period.

By the way, great that you featured this wonderful write-up of yours - thanks for that!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks! Not sure what my favorite Wilder is. Probably this or The Apartment. Though maybe Double Indemnity after another viewing (I read the screenplay last spring when I was on a Raymond Chandler kick and had just moved to L.A.).