AFI #16: Sunset Blvd.

Joe Gillis: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma Desmond: “I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.”

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I have mixed feelings about 1950’s Sunset Blvd. On the one hand, Gloria Swanson’s performance as aging silent film star Norma Desmond was brilliant. On the other hand, the story is far-fetched and a little trite. The writing is sophomoric, yet the screenplay won an Oscar. I sort of have mixed feelings about writer/director Billy Wilder as well. I loved The Apartment, but was lukewarm on Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot. I’d say Sunset Blvd. is somewhere in between. It certainly doesn’t belong at #16 on the list of best American films.

Sunset Blvd. is really a tour de force by Gloria Swanson. She was 50 when she played Norma Desmond, herself an aging silent film star. Given that, her over the top performance was one for the ages. The way she used her facial expressions as if she was in a silent film was wonderful, albeit really creepy. In fact, everything about Norma Desmond was creepy, which I guess was the point. She was lonely to be sure, but she was also certifiable and perhaps the only reason she wasn’t locked up in the loony bin was because she was being taken care of by her butler/ex-husband Max.

William Holden was also quite good as hack screenwriter Joe Gillis. As the narrator you initially relate to him and even feel a little sorry for him as he gets caught up in Norma’s craziness. But at some point you stop sympathizing with him because he starts to rely on Norma’s money and hospitality and whatever weird “relationship” they have. Had the film been made today we’d have surely seen some freaky sex scenes between Norma and Joe, but in 1950 it was okay for us to assume they were “lovers” without having to see the sex. In fact, perhaps they didn’t engage in a sexual relationship — maybe companionship was enough for Norma to feel like she was in a relationship. Still, it’s creepy.

Sunset Blvd. is also unique in that it’s one of the only films in history narrated by a dead person. The film starts with Joe floating in Norma’s pool having been shot and killed. I can think of only one other well-known film in which the narrator is dead — Kevin Spacey narrated American Beauty (Bruce Willis was in fact dead during the majority of The Sixth Sense but he didn’t narrate). Holden did a great job as the narrator, giving the film a noir quality (even though I found the script to be ridiculous).

Another cool thing about Sunset Blvd. is that several major silent film stars made cameos in it, including Buster Keaton. And of course, the film includes the famous line spoken by Norma as she’s about to be hauled off to jail or the loony bin, thinking the cameras are there for a movie when in fact they are there for the news of her arrest: “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille.”

Next on the list: 2001: A Space Odyssey

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