In case you couldn’t tell, I’ve used my leave to watch all the movies I always wanted to watch and never got around to. And also all the movies I never knew I needed to know about. Sunset Blvd., of course, falls into the first of these categories.
I watched Sunset Blvd., Mommie Dearest, and Grey Gardens all in the same week, which is…um, a lot to take at once. I recommend them all but, you know….maybe spread them out a bit.
Movies about making movies are simply the best. So are movies about complicated women who have won and lost everything. I can’t believe I’d never seen this one before.
The beginning, when William Holden is hustling for work, dodging the repo men and pitching stories to studios, all with a noir-style “this is how it happened” voiceover..it’s just fantastic. I meant to just have this on while I puttered around–feeding the babe, making dinner, whatever, but five minutes in I was rapt, just staring at the screen, elbows on my knees.
And then he stumbles into Norma Desmond’s decrepit Gothic mansion on the very day she’s holding a funeral for her dead chimpanzee (yes!), and things just escalate from there. The pipe organ! The parties and non-parties! Her eyes! Her obsession with playing Salome! Whole movie studios keeping up an elaborate charade to avoid upsetting her!
It’s all the more poignant, of course, because Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma Desmond, basically lived the character’s experience: a silent film star who worked closely with Cecil B. DeMille, Swanson made 28 movies in the 1920s (not to mention 28 credited roles before 1920!)…and 4 in the 1930s. That hard turn also indicates where she herself hit her 30s, so this might be as much about women aging in Hollywood as it is about changing taste and technology. Not that that makes it better.
Other than the utterly iconic last scene, I will say this is one that fell apart for me a bit as it trudged on. I just wasn’t that interested in William Holden’s love connection with young writer Betty Schaefer, though I guess it gave him some motivation to try to escape Gloria Swanson’s clutches. And once we were deep into the drama, the first-person narration started to feel less like noir-y stylishness (stylish noir-iness?) and more like lazy storytelling. Meh. It’s also possible that I just started getting distracted by chores, by baby, by a tempting nap, etc., and didn’t give some of the middle bit my full attention. Or maybe it’s just the genre…I found that the same thing happened when I watched Double Indemnity.
Still, now that I’ve seen it, it feels like an important hole has been filled in. This is one of those movies that is referenced so much, and that everyone knows enough about to get by: the main plot, the ending, a couple of key scenes or lines (“I am big! It’s pictures that got small”).
I think the reason I was so drawn in right from the start is that there was just so much more to it than I knew or expected: it was cleverer, weirder, funnier, darker, sadder, scarier, bigger, just MORE than I’d counted on. It’s a pretty weird thing for a classic this classic to exceed your expectations, but this one did.
If you’ve always pretended that you’ve seen Sunset Blvd. but never really bothered (or assumed you didn’t need to), just do it already.
Next up, All About Eve?