What a thrill it was last night to see a pristine print of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” at the Cinematheque with an enthusiastic sold-out crowd. There’s no comparison between viewing these classic films on the silver screen and watching them on a TV set. Has there ever been a more dead-on incisive movie about the underbelly of Hollywood than this 1950 film? “The Bad and the Beautiful” comes close, as do “A Star Is Born” and “The Day of the Locust,” but for me nothing surpasses Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s impeccable script and the brilliant casting of Gloria Swanson as deluded silent screen star Norma Desmond.
In retrospect it’s hard to fathom that Swanson was not the first choice for the role. The producers first approached Mae West and Pola Negri who turned it down flat and then Mary Pickford who considered it but wanted too much control over the final film. I have a feeling that Pickford was probably a bit too Desmondesque in real life to have the sense of humor and perspective to satirize her own career. Swanson did this perfectly, drifting aimlessly through the deserted 1920s mansion, surrounded by endless portraits from her own past when she was one of the most successful actresses of the day.
When I was little and watched this film I thought Norma Desmond was as old as Methuselah, an ancient, crone-like relic from a distant world who was barely clinging on to life. Watching it last night, I realized with a start that when she made this movie Gloria Swanson was only six years older than I am now. Six years! How did that happen? At what point did I make my exit from the youthful world of Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer and join the ranks of has-been Norma Desmond? People always say that the obsession with youth that runs Hollywood today did not exist during the Golden Age of Movies. Is that really true? “Sunset Boulevard” seems like sure proof that a woman who had barely passed 50 was already seen as a kind of demented Miss Haversham, sitting alone in a decaying, cobwebbed room waiting for past glories to return. At the time “Sunset Boulevard” was made, Great Garbo was only 45 years old yet she hadn’t made a film in nine years and was considered finished. Joan Crawford was also in her mid-40s but her days as a bankable leading lady were well behind her. The only decent film she’d make after 1950 would be the freak show, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” where she teamed with Bette Davis as two over-the-hill actresses forgotten by the world. Bette Davis turned 42 in 1950 and gave what most would say is her best performance. Like Norma Desmond, “All About Eve’s” Margo Channing was constantly confronted by the specter of her advancing years. Could Margo continue to be successful as an actress when even the playwright she had made famous was longing for someone young and fresh (like conniving Eve Harrington) to take over as his leading lady? Channing also had to deal with the whispers and stares caused by her love affair with Bill Sampson, played by 34-year-old Gary Merrill because of the differences in their ages. Life imitated art when Davis and Merrill fell in love during the making of the film and married each other later that year. Margo Channing’s worst fears came true as Bette Davis had to endure the same tongue-wagging about the “huge” difference in their ages.
If anyone ever deserved an Oscar for Best Actress, it was Gloria Swanson for her over-the-top but pitch-perfect performance as Norma Desmond. But then again, it’s also insane that Bette Davis didn’t get one for her brilliant turn as Margo Channing. In the end, it was Judy Holliday who took the statue home for “Born Yesterday.” I would never begrudge wonderful Judy Holliday any accolade, but oy, what an embarrassment of riches that year! “Sunset Boulevard” was up for a record 11 Oscars and won three. It was one of the few films in history to get nominations in all four acting categories. While he later dismissed his role in the film, Erich von Stroheim was obviously the perfect choice to play Max von Mayerling, Norma Desmond’s fiercely loyal but slightly batty butler, whom we later learn was the first of Desmond’s five husbands. Gloria Swanson also had five husbands and, as in the story, had been by directed by von Stroheim years earlier when both of their careers were red-hot. It is that very film, “Queen Kelly,” that Norma Desmond screens for Joe Gillis in a creepy scene in the movie. Swanson was one of the first mega-superstars in the film industry, and one of highest paid people in the country in the 1920s. Erich von Stroheim might well have said about her what Max von Mayerling says about Norma Desmond in the film:
She was the greatest of them all. In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it!
Of course it wasn’t just her age that made Hollywood turn on Norma Desmond. She also had the misfortune of reaching the height of her fame just as talkies were radically changing the whole industry. Desmond committed the fatal error of believing her own publicity and her massive salary and over-the-top coddling left her ill prepared to make the transition to the New Hollywood. The so-called superstars of our own generation would do well to screen “Sunset Boulevard” as a cautionary tale before their egos careen out of control and they find a corpse floating in their swimming pool.
The cameos in “Sunset Boulevard” are a hoot. We see Norma visiting Cecil B. DeMille on the actual set of the film he was shooting at the time, 1949’s “Samson and Delilah” starring Hedy LaMarr and Victor Mature. DeMille had directed Swanson in many of her biggest hits and in his scenes he comes off far more sympathetically than I’m sure he would in real life. He calls Norma “Young Fella,” his actual nickname for Gloria Swanson back in the day. Swanson also got her old pals, silent movie greats Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner to play themselves in the wonderful bridge game scene where William Holden refers to them as “the waxworks.” To us silent movies practically seem as old as daguerrotypes. How strange to think that when “Sunset Boulevard” was made it had only been a little more than 20 years since the end of that era. That would be like us looking back at films made in 1980 as relics from a lost world. Well, maybe they are. Remember how big the “Brat Pack” was back then? Where are they today? Is Molly Ringwald our generation's Norma Desmond?
Are there any screenwriters alive today who can touch Wilder and Brackett? Many of the lines from this film have become so iconic that the audience last night continually broke out in applause. I drive by Paramount on an almost daily basis but to this day I am unable to pass the main gate without screaming out in my best Norma Desmond voice (as Kendall and Leah put their hands over their ears):
Teach your friend some manners. Tell him that without me he wouldn’t have a job. WITHOUT ME THERE WOULDN’T BE ANY PARAMOUNT STUDIOS!
Here’s another tiny sampling of dialogue that gets me every time:
Norma Desmond: We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!
Norma Desmond: What's the matter with you?
Joe Gillis: What right do you have to take me for granted?
Norma Desmond: What right? Do you want me to tell you?
Joe Gillis: Oh, wake up, Norma, you'd be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left twenty years ago.
Norma Desmond: My astrologist has read my horoscope, he's read DeMille's horoscope.
Joe Gillis: Has he read the script?
Tailor [whispering in Joe's ear]: As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?
Norma Desmond: This woman is doing wonders with the line in my neck!
Hedda Hopper: Times City Desk? Hedda Hopper speaking. I'm talking from the bedroom of Norma Desmond. Don't bother with a rewrite man. Take it direct. Ready? As day breaks over the murder house, Norma Desmond, famous star of yesteryear, is in a state of complete mental shock. A curtain of silence seems to have fallen around her...
Norma Desmond [to newsreel camera]: And I promise you I'll never desert you again…You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark! All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
Unlike Norma Desmond, I didn’t feel particularly ready for my close-up yesterday when the HGTV crew appeared at our door to shoot more of our house for an upcoming episode of “If Walls Could Talk.” Kendall and I had to put on the same clothes we were wearing at the original shoot we did months ago so that we could interact with the new host of the show. These segments will then be intercut with the old footage. The only problem is that I think I’ve gained around 15 lbs. since then and I’m worried that HGTV viewers will be frantically running to adjust their sets as they see my wildly fluctuating weight from scene to scene. It’s like that old Judy Garland movie “Summer Stock” in reverse. Most of that film was shot when Garland was quite overweight. After a few slimming months off, the producers decided they needed one more big number so they shot Garland’s “Get Happy” routine and inserted it in the middle of the picture. So as plump Judy walks out to do the number she suddenly morphs into bone-thin Judy, then back to plump Judy for the rest of the film.
I just realized that the list of the actresses I've mentioned on this post reads like the program for a West Hollywood drag show. Maybe I should start hiring female impersonators to act out my blog for people who don't want to read it for themselves. I think I’ve come up with yet another new title possibility for this site: Straight Man/Gay Blog.