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.”
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
At No. 22 on the AFI top 100, Some Like it Hot is the highest ranking comedy on the list. This means a couple of things. One, I should not expect to laugh as I complete the remaining 21 films on the list. Two, the sense of humor of the AFI voters leaves something to be desired. This film is the classic case of a film that has a funny premise but does not deliver on the promise. Sure, it’s funny to see Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dressed like women. Yes, Marilyn Monroe plays her ditzy blonde for a few laughs. And sure, the funniest line in the film is saved for the end as goofy Osgood Fielding delivers a deadpan “nobody’s perfect” upon finding out that the “woman” of his dreams is in fact a man in drag. But over all the film isn’t that funny. In fact, it’s rather ridiculous.
In 2000 the AFI put out its list of the 100 funniest films of all time and Some Like it Hot was number one. But just a quick look through the top 10 provides nine films that are much funnier than Some Like It Hot, including the likes of Tootsie, MASH, Annie Hall, Dr. Strangelove, Airplane, Blazing Saddles and Duck Soup to name a few. Some Like it Hot would barely crack the top 100 of my list. I’d say the AFI has a blind spot for modern comedies, but their top 100 included newer films like Groundhog Day, Big, Diner, Bull Durham and Caddyshack. All, by the way, much funnier than Some Like it Hot.
Look, don’t get me wrong. It’s a nice little film with some great performances by Lemmon and Curtis — especially Lemmon who was nominated for an Oscar. But it’s just not that funny. You want funny? Watch American Pie, The Wedding Crashers or Borat!
Well, after a month off I’m back to the countdown and No. 29 on the AFI list is 1944’s Double Indemnity starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. It’s the story of an insurance salesman who together with the unhappy wife of one of his clients plots to kill the husband to collect the insurance money. The film, directed by the great Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard), this film tried too hard to be a Raymond Chandler novel (Chandler wrote the screenplay from a novel by James Cain). It’s noir, but for me it is bad noir — I even laughed a few times at the faux drama. I know it was 1944, but there are so many great noir films from that period that this one pales in comparison.
Double Indemnity did get nominated for Best Picture, probably because it was a crappy year for films (Bing Crosby’s Going My Way won the honor). Stanwyck was nominated for Best Actress (she also lost) and in fact the film lost all seven of the Oscars for which it was nominated. I found Stanwyck to be quite good as the icy cool murderous wife and Edward G. Robinson was great as the insurance agency’s skeptical leader. And then there was MacMurray. I was really impressed with his performance in another AFI film, The Apartment, but he was clunky and over-the-top in this performance. I know it is interesting to see the dad from Father Knows Best and the Absent Minded Professor as a killer, but it wasn’t enough for me to say this was a great performance.
I’m going to chalk this one up to AFI voters who think Billy Wilder can do know wrong (he certainly is one of our greatest directors) but this is not one of his best. Overrated!
Next Up: All About Eve
If you’re like me and you love Mad Men you really owe it to yourself to see The Apartment, the 1961 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. The film has to be the inspiration for the popular TV series, either that or Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is the reincarnation of director Billy Wilder. The comparisons are numerous.
The Apartment is about a low-level employee at a big insurance company (played by Jack Lemmon) who has found an interesting way to get ahead — he loans out his apartment to company executives to use for their extramarital trysts. Everything seems to be going fine until one of the executives messes with the gal he has a little crush on. It’s a romantic dramedy set in 1960s Manhattan.
The film is classic Billy Wilder, who also directed such great films as Some Like it Hot and Sunset Boulevard (both of which rank high on the AFI list). What sets The Apartment apart for me is the wonderful and quick-witted dialogue and the spot-on performance by Lemmon. While Lemmon did not win the Oscar for his role (he lost to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry) he was superb and was recognized with a Golden Globe. Lemmon was brilliant in so many roles, and for me he’ll always be The Odd Couple’s Felix Unger, but I’ll now add his portrayal of bachelor C.C. Baxter to the list of his memorable characters.
Shirley MacLaine was also nominated for an Oscar for her work in The Apartment (she lost out to Elizabeth Taylor), and her adorable elevator operator Fran Kubelik was nicely done. Fred MacMurray plays the awful head of “personnel” who is the Don Draper of the film. I have always equated MacMurray to his role as the perfect dad on My Three Sons so it was weird for me to see him as a womanizing ass.
The office scenes in The Apartment were pure Mad Men. The women were all secretaries and sleeping with the executives. The executives were always smoking and drinking and cheating on their wives. One secretary is even fired after spilling the beans on MacMurray’s affair (apparently sexual harassment wasn’t a legal issue in 1960). It’s a very enjoyable film and a real throwback to a time that seems like generations ago but wasn’t really all that long ago. Definitely worth seeing.
Next up: The Wild Bunch