Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Audience Left Twenty Years Ago.

Sixty years ago (almost to the day) Paramount released Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a scathing and withering look at Hollywood star culture, into a film world dominated by cheese, contract players and nothing with any great depth (speaking, obviously, broadly and directed towards the major studios and their dominant popular fare.)

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) was a huge silent film star but is now an old and lonely faded celebrity living in a mammoth, gaudy mansion on Sunset Boulevard. A struggling journalist, Joe (William Holden), on the run from a pair of thugs attempting to repossess his car, turns into the driveway of the house with a flat tyre and ends up being drawn into Gloria's deranged world. She is convinced she is still a star and entreats Joe to help her write the screenplay for her triumphant return to the thousands of people she is sure are waiting breathlessly for her reappearance. Joe, being in a dire financial position, is in no position to say no, and ends up being drawn into the lavish lifestyle Norma provides for him. He is intrigued by her frailty and her belief in herself at the same time as a large part of him is simply indulging her fantasy for as long as he is able.

Joe begins working on another screenplay at night, leaving the mansion to write with Betty (Nancy Olson), a girl he met at a party. This upsets Norma greatly, as she is not only deluded by her own popularity and power within the world of entertainment, but also fiercely protective. Joe does feel guilty for his deception, especially due to his financial dependency on Norma, but he gradually manages to prise himself loose. Norma is missing calls from Paramount, assuming that they wish to finance her completed script, but when it is revealed that the studio merely wants to rent her car for a shoot, her butler and ex-husband Max (Eric von Stroheim) insists on keeping the information from Norma, in much the same way as he keeps from her that he is writing the vast majority of her fanmail. 

Quickly deteriorating mentally, Norma finally loses it all, committing a crime and being arrested at home in front of an enormous number of the press, vultures intent on picking over the corpse of Norma Desmond's career and sanity. She is convinced that these people are here to support her return to the screen, and after descending the staircase closes the film with one of the most memorable lines in cinema history.

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett co-wrote the script, though only the first third was written when filming began, perhaps explaining how they got away with it. The film's narration (from Joe) does feel hack-ish, but this is totally accurate considering it is coming from the self-confessed hack himself. Norma has the best, most iconic lines, with Joe matching them with dry retorts and sarcasm. For a film put together as it went, the script is terrific, netting Wilder, Brackett and DM Marshman Jr an Oscar, to go with those handed to the art directors and composer Franz Waxman.

All of the lead actors deservedly received Oscar nominations for their terrific performances. Swanson, playing something close to herself, was superb, matched by Holden perfectly, who had to be forced into the role using his performance contract. Wilder draws them in and on, and brings the audience into the horror of the world of dead celebrity perfectly, capturing the fear, desperation and loneliness after the cameras have gone, brutally savaging the world of celebrity that has only become monumentally worse.

5 stars for this classic of cinema and tremendous achievement.

No comments:

Post a Comment