Sunset Blvd. is remembered, among other things, for Gloria Swanson’s performance as an almost ghoulish washed-up silent movie star. I know when I thought of the movie, Norma Desmond was always the first thing to cross my mind. I remembered Norma as ancient and creepy, and Swanson’s acting as over the top. It was fascinating to watch the film again, because most of my memories were contradicted by what I saw on the screen.
There is a tension between the way the film’s narrator, Joe Gillis (William Holden), sees Norma and the way Norma sees herself. When I was younger, I imagine I identified more with the young screenwriter. Now that I’m older than all of these characters, I’m not as frightened by Swanson’s portrayal of old age. Of course, one of the primary reasons for this is that Norma is only around 50 years old (about the same age as Swanson). My fears of getting old got in the way of my seeing what was actually in front of me. In real life, Swanson was dedicated to good health, and she barely looked older than Holden, who was just past 30. Wilder wanted to use makeup to age Swanson, but she convinced him that Norma would have kept good care of herself, so, in order to emphasize the age difference, Holden was made to look younger.
So some of the scariness I perceived in Norma was due to the ageist bias of my youth. Which is not to say that Norma is no longer scary. The movie is called a film noir, but her mansion is straight out of horror movies, and she is the monster of the house.
Whatever sympathy we feel for Norma comes from Swanson’s performance, which rarely relies on self-pity. When she rants about modern movies, she blames the movies, not herself ... it’s the pictures that got small, not her. But she is too secluded, living with her ex-husband/ex-director, watching her old movies ... when she goes out to the studio, she’s fine as long as she sees faces from the olden days, but otherwise a bit lost. In those times, she reverts to her fantasy life.
A comparison can be made to Bette Davis’ Margo Channing in All About Eve, which came out the same year (Davis and Swanson were both up for a Best Actress Oscar ... they lost to Judy Holliday). Margo, a stage actress, is being passed over in favor of the younger Eve. Davis was a decade younger at the time than Swanson, and Margo isn’t played as an old woman. In fact, Margo is still a vital member of the theatre world. Norma Desmond, on the other hand, dropped out of pictures when sound came in, so she is no longer fighting against younger actresses, she is fighting against advances in her art form, a fight she lost long ago. She may not have self-pity, but we in the audience pity her, when we’re not hating her.
William Holden is fine among all of this. He is required to play the more stereotypical role of the noir patsy, but he manages to suggest his own form of self-pity ... Norma may be bringing him down by treating him like a gigolo, but at least he knows it’s happening, which adds a touch of tragedy to his character.
Meanwhile, Sunset Blvd. features lots of off-the-wall scenes, like a chimpanzee funeral, and a bridge game played by other silent film stars (as themselves? hard to say). The subplot with the nice girl next door isn’t as good as the rest of the movie, not through any fault of Nancy Olson, but her part seems to exist solely to piss off Norma. And something must be made of the way Cecil B. DeMille, playing himself, is offered to us as the greatest of directors, while Erich von Stroheim, who actually was one of the greatest, plays Norma’s butler. Granted, it’s a much meatier role than DeMille’s, but it adds to the way the New Hollywood forgets its past, not just Norma Desmond’s, but the great Stroheim as well. (Apparently, Stroheim didn’t think much of his part ... just another butler.)
I think All About Eve is a better movie ... the good dialogue is spread around a lot more actors than in Sunset Blvd., and Margo isn’t insane. But these things are relative. #39 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.