Thursday, May 22, 2014

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) - COUGAR TOWN!

This is my contribution to the CMBA Fabulous 50s blogathon and also serves as an entry into my 2014 series, Hooray for Hollywood.

Joe Gillis makes a fateful turn

Billy Wilder, that old softy, he's like a cynical hard-as- nails brass ring on the outside and all sentimental and gooey on the inside. Sunset Boulevard: hard, unforgiving, ghoulish black comedy, right? I used to think so, but now I see it differently. I used to see Norma Desmond as a grotesque old relic who lost touch with reality. Now, older than Norma was at the time of the story (50), she seems perfectly normal (well, except for that monkey....).

Norma invested wisely in oil, real estate, jewels and cigarette holders.
 If she really was nuts, she would have been broke.
Norma normal? Let's examine the facts:

1. Norma is 50 years old. Dead to Hollywood, but hardly finished. She still has passion and when hunky Joe Gillis happens by, well, can you blame the girl? Cougar spotted on Sunset Boulevard!
So, in the 1950s this was considered grotesque......
but THIS was okay? All I can say is  - Norma - you go, girl!
2. Norma says:
 "we didn't need dialogue. We had faces." 
You bet they did, Norma. They had Garbo, Fairbanks, Valentino, Pickford, Pola Negri, Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson.
the great face of La Swanson
 "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."
And so they did. The gritty films of the depression married with sound and the true magic of film was lost.

 "They took the idols of the world and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who've we got now? Some nobodies!"
Yes, once they opened their mouth,  out came words, words - and suddenly, stars were just like real folks.

The woman was a prophet! But like so many prophets, she is deemed to be a nut case.

Wilder's affection and sadness over the passing of an era is evident (Kevin Browlow's great book about the silent era, "The Parade's Gone By," drew it's title from Joe's observation that Norma was "still waving proudly at a parade that had long since passed her by"). The beauty of Swanson in a clip from Queen Kelly stops the heart. Seeing the face of Buster Keaton melts the heart. They are both beautiful and they evoke not ridicule from the viewer, but awakening of a forgotten longing.




By 1950, the silent screen seemed as old as the Rosetta Stone. The silent stars were ancient relics, either dead,  playing small parts or living in obscurity - or even worse, appearing on television.  The glamour, the mystery, the size of Hollywood stardom had all shrunk to merely lifesize. Wilder, who grew up on the Hollywood glamour of the silent films, never forgot the sheer magical fantasy of the era, even though film had moved so far from it by 1950. We never forget that which first enchants us, do we?

And so, what once seemed to me to be a story about a crazy old bat living in a crumbling mansion is now anything but that. The greatness of this film lies in the push of the realism and the pull of the past. The casting of Swanson, Erich Von Stroheim and those Waxworks (Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner) was true inspiration and a bouquet of roses to the past just to show the audience what they might not realize they still missed.

All right, maybe Norma was nutty, but there is real cause for her pain. She lived the dream, but it was only a dream (and a big nightmare for poor Joe Gillis).And as one of the wonderful people in the dark, I appreciate the effort, Madam and Max.

In 1950, Valentino would have been 55, Clara Bow was 45 , Mary Pickford was 58 and Greta Garbo was 45. Too old to be seen. Too old be idolized, thus, too old to be useful. Hollywood is a cruel town.Wilder makes that clear in this greatest of films. And if you think its funny, you're not yet 50.
a cougar's instinct is to hunt







32 comments:

Citizen Screen said...

Well, you did my favorite film of all time great justice, Marsha. I've always been/felt protective of Norma Desmond and have never liked it when people call her crazy, as if that's all she is IF she is crazy at all. I prefer eccentric - with the exception of the chimp.

Anyway - really enjoyed this. Had I not already posted a tribute to this movie I woulda had to wrestle you for it. ;-)

Aurora

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Aurora. I'm so glad you see Norma in the correct light! I am off to your place right now...

KimWilson said...

Well,I'm not 50 just yet, but it is funny but not because the story is so absurd. It's a campy film, but an expertly done one. Everyone time I watch I catch something new that Wilder infused into it. You're right, he was a fan of the silent stars and his affection shines throughout the film.

BTW, I enjoyed your asides--they were hilarious. I especially loved your comparison to Sabrina.

Inge Gregusch said...

I too, have always felt Norma Desmond got a bad rap. Thank you for a brave, bold but still funny piece of writing. Thanks especially for the 'double standard' comparison to 'Love in the Afternoon', which has always annoyed this movie lover. Terrific work!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I love this post. Beautifully written, and a great perspective on the cruelty of the media and the irony of life.

Caftan Woman said...

I'm sad and have to resist the urge to toss all my talkies in the garbage. Thanks a lot!

Your article on Norma will live with me as long as my reverence for the film.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Jacqueline. I find this movie more and more poignant with each viewing.

FlickChick said...

CW - I am blushing. But, I loved this film so much - I wanted to do Norma some justice!

Vintage Cameo said...

One of my very, very favorite films, and Norma one of my favorite characters!

I'm always stunned to remember that Gloria/Norma is only 50 here—Wilder does a great job of exaggerating her "old age" in a way that really highlights the hypocrisy in how Hollywood treats the aging woman... as though life ends at 40!

said...

Wonderful post about the movie I consider to be the best ever made.
I always pitied Norma, exactly for her "waving at a parade gone by". Hollywood was hard with its stars. I once read and article about Two Faced-Woman and it said "Garbo couldn't hide her old age". OLD? she was 35!
Again, congratulations on your great post.
Kisses!

The Metzinger Sisters said...

This was a very entertaining post, and how true! Mary Pickford only 45 and "washed up" in Hollywood. It sure is funny ( yes, I'm under 50 ). The way they talked about the silent era you'd think it was a hundred years ago. That's like referring to Schindlers List or Goldeneye as being OLD movies. Gosh! That already makes me feel old at 25.

grandoldmovies said...

Just a great post! So much you observe about Norma is true - she's a crazy old bat only in Joe Gillis' shallow eyes; when we see her, she's vibrant, energetic, smart, and still good-looking (if a trifle eccentric). One thing this movie always makes me wonder is why someone like Norma wouldn't have continued in talkies (she obviously has a good speaking voice). Seems she was just too big for the screen to contain her.

Silver Screenings said...

So beautifully written. This really captures the essence of the film, and the essence of the silent stars.

Well done!

DorianTB said...

Marsha, you've outdone yourself with your witty and poignant post about SUNSET BOULEVARD. Age always seems to change over time, becoming malleable, thanks to the likes of Botox, plastic surgery and such. I'm 50 and so are most of my friends loved ones", so there isn't as much of a stigma; we're all "women of a certain age" nowadays! :-D Norma might find her fate very different these days, happy as she is instead of being a nigh-grotesque, but I guess that wouldn't be as dramatic! :-) It really makes one think as this crazy old world evolves! In any case, Marsha, you did a superb job, Marsha! Hope you're having a fine Memorial Day Weekend, my friend!

Aubyn Eli said...

If somebody hadn't written up this movie for the blogathon, I'm sure I would have started throwing a Norma Desmond-style tantrum so I'm so glad that someone did--and that person was you! I love how you work your way into a sympathetic study of Norma. Isn't it interesting how your perspective on her can change after multiple viewings of the film. When I saw it as a teenager, Norma seemed more like a cartoon witch. Now, I feel rather outraged on her behalf. Great write-up!

Page said...

Marsha,
I purposely avoided reading your review until I was finished with mine. It's hilarious that we have some of the same screen shots. And similar thoughts. ha ha This is a riot.

Laughed at Cougar Town! Perfect description of this Wilder masterpiece.

Very entertaining.
See ya soon!
Page

FlickChick said...

Vintage Cameo - many thanks. And I sure hope life doesn't end at 40!

FlickChick said...

Le - really? Garbo's old age? Boy, the mean girls never go away, do they?

FlickChick said...

Aubyn - thank you. I think changing perspectives is the mark of a great film - and this one has it in spades!

FlickChick said...

Page, you naughty wench! I saw what you did to my poor Norma! Better watch out -Max still has the gun!

FlickChick said...

Fritzi- thank you for appreciating my poor Norma. She always gets such a bad rap.

FlickChick said...

Grandoldmovies - sadly, so many talented personalities were thrown o the trash heap with the coming of sound. I guess Norma's pride couldn't take it!

FlickChick said...

Silver Screenings - thanks so much. Go Team Norma!

FlickChick said...

Hi Dorian - thanks for the very kind words!

The Lady Eve said...

Your posts are never anything less than unique, well-written and entertaining, but this one is really something special.

I'd never given much thought to whether Norma deserved sympathy and protection or not, but you've got me thinking about it now. In my youth I viewed her as a crazy old bat- but I'm a 50++ year-old-woman now. Funny how one's perspective changes.

(Gary Cooper paired with Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon has always given me the creeps - now THAT's grotesque).

Wonderful piece, M.

Christian Esquevin said...

FlickChick - a fascinating look at the Queen of motion pictures, Sunset Blvd. L.B. Mayer considered Wilder heretical for making this film, and having von Stroheim playing a butler as well as Norma's former director says something about showing Hollywood's cruelty to its own as one of the legacies of the movie.

blondeatthefilm said...

Great review--you made me think of this movie in a different way! Love the comparison to Love in the Afternoon, too...

Ginny said...

I really enjoyed your unique take on this movie! It's one I've only seen once a long time ago, so I'd love to watch it again keeping your thoughts in mind, especially since I have a deeper appreciation for the silent film era now and could probably better relate to Norma. I just recently became familiar with Kevin Brownlow so I definitely want to read the book you mentioned. Thanks for the info!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Lady Eve. And really, how totally creepy was Love in the Afternoon?

FlickChick said...

Ginny - Brownlow is an absolute god - so please do find that book and enjoy! He was so lucky to be able to talk to them all before their parade passed by for good.

FlickChick said...

blondeatthefilm - that you for giving poor Norma the benefit of the doubt!

Tami Pandorica's box said...

Your site is wonderful.Good to know that I'm not the only living person(20) interested in Silver Age(as I call the early times of movie making,there is some resemblance between the silent pictures and the clear,sharp material of silver).I was always captivated by the complexity of Norma Desmond.Unlike the black and white movies,it's not the case with her character.She isn't just an antagonist,who lives in the past,is sexually pervert(I read it somewhere that she actually used that monkey as a sexual tool,and when she refers of Salome kissing the severed head of the holy man suggests that she is a necrofiliac too)all in all a lunatic wanna-be femme fatale.In this analyses of Billy Wilder's creation you get the incarnation of original greek female godess/beasts,and the reinforcement of the old saying "The devil is a woman".While I was reading that analyses I was shocked by the fact that how one sided it was written,total symphaty for the greedy,hypocrate Joe and hatred for the THD(Theatrical Hystorical Disorder)narcissistic Norma.
How I see Norma is completley different from that characterization.Norma in some ways doesn't live in the past,for her the past is her present,and she isn't a delusional completely(as Glenn Close portrayes her in the musical version of Sunset Boulevard),but the past/present reality is held together and is strengthened by Max.Who is in my wiew, more mentally disturbed(he sacrificed evrethyng for Norma and became totally obsessed with her,even strongly possessive)so, here's the thing,what if Max possessiveness held Norma back from facing and coping with reality,or at least had a big part in it? One might think that if Norma had so much money(because of her clever investments choices)why she never tried to make a movie of her script ?
Of course we know that she had several suicide attempts,but we weren't given the whole backstory to know the reasons as well.For instance what happened during her previous marriages,why she was abandoned by all of her friends(those card playing mates are like marionattes,paid and controlled by Norma)what was the journey that lead her so enstranged from the outside of her mansion? This wasn't just a matter of a night,when she woke up everything was gone,it was a complicated,slow process,kept on the right road by Max.Why I think this way? Max had many opportunities during those years spent with Norma,he could have shown her the reality,encouraged her to invest her talent in something else than acting,perhaps producing,directing or anything ,but instead he watched her isolation in silence,kept her alive for himself as his Madam,wrote her fan letters so the past slowly forged together with the present.
When Jo confronts Norma with these facts,the reality becomes impossible to deal with ,but before her surrender to total delusion ,she anreged by the lies that Joe and Max told her ,shoots him.Then comes the total mental shock,but somehow she still recognizes Max,although she is clearly out of touch with reality,now that is interesting.

I'm also curious about her faith after the close-up scene.Maybe she wasn't found guilty about the murder for reason of insanity,and was released under the care of Max,but who knows? But in the end it doesn't matter because when she surrenders Norma Desmond dies.

I'm sorry for my (with the voice and tone of Blanche Deveroux/Rue Maclanahan)many many many mistakes, but English isn't my native tounge.