Friday, January 13, 2012

Film #89: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Give me some sugar baby.
Then pour some on my rent bill, and toss a handful over your shoulder to those loan sharks on my heels. We both know there is plenty more where that came from, and besides, if the debt collectors come take me away they’ll be taking me away from you.
And you want me, don’t you sugar momma. And you get what you want. Why else would you keep fiddling my favorite tune and filling my pockets with those sweet sweet green cookies?

The idea of a sugar daddy/momma is enticing at first. Someone to lavish you with gifts, cash, world oysters. 
The free-loading life without a care, or bill, in the world. 

Enticing that is until one clutches a spade and starts putting their back into its business end. Below the $100 mark-encrusted surface lays the stench of a rotten core.

A man or woman who is given everything actually owns nothing. Not even self-worth, let alone self-respect. That, and the fact there is no such thing as a free lunch in this world. 
Though sometimes invisible, there is always a price paid. For gold-digger Joe Gillis, that price was paid with his life.

This is a melodramatic opening fit for a melodramatic film, 1950’s critical darling “Sunset Boulevard.” The opening sequence shows poor Joe Gillis floating face down in a pool, so we didn’t give anything away there. No, the true horror and fun of this film takes place before the murder of Joe, chronicling how his involvement with psychotic, neurotic and vain faded star Norma Desmond lead to his eventual lead lunch with a chlorine chaser.

See Joe is a hack writer who came to Hollyweird from a Dayton, Ohio newspaper copy desk with dreams of making it big as a screenwriter. Instead of collecting credits, Joe collected creditors, and when the film catches up with the sap he is on the brink of having his car repossessed and his ass thrown out of his apartment.
During a high speed chase trying to outrun the repo-men, Joe blows a tire and swerves into what appears to be the abandoned garage of a hulking mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

But this run-down former shrine to the roaring Hollywood Silent Era is far from abandoned. As Joe proceeds up the walkway, he is called in by the home’s two occupants, Norma Desmond and her doting butler Max von Mayerling. Norma has mistaken Joe as the mortician who has come with a child coffin for her beloved chimp companion.
This is odd. Very odd. But it won’t even touch what Joe will experience at the hands of Norma Desmond.

Once a worshiped star of the silent silver screen, Norma is as delusional as she is wealthy. Rotting away alone and forgotten in her decrepit “Miss Havisham-like” house, Norma longs for the day she can return to making films. 
In her day, she was the biggest actress in the world, worshiped by men, the toast of the town. 

After Norma tells Joe about a 1,000-page screenplay she has written as her “return” vehicle to the screen, he gets an idea. Norma has a horrid screenplay that needs adapting, and he is a screenwriter that needs a free meal ticket to settle his debts. And so the gold-digger/sugar momma relationship is born.

But it isn’t that simple. As Norma continues her descent into full-blown crazies, Joe is sucked down into her resulting black hole of despair. The needier Norma gets for Joe’s attention, the most desperate and irrational she gets. After all, there are no locks on any of the doors in the huge mansion since Norma is prone to, em, fits of melancholy that usually result in slit wrists or a gun in the mouth. Let the horrifying psychological games begin.

How bonkers will Norma get?
How many people will she bring down in her wake?
Can a horror movie be a horror movie while being a horrific drama?
Find out in this week’s film, the winner of Best Picture for 1950, Sunset Boulevard.

RDHP Ratings and Reviews

C-Rating: 4.8
Chris Dimick’s closeup:
“Truth is more horrific than fiction. Think of the most absurdly disturbing horror plot line, and likely it has occurred in real life somewhere throughout the course of history. Human beings are disgusting like that. If a writer could dream it up for a film, a madman could likely act it out for reality.

Therefore, the more true a film seems and feels, the more horrific it becomes. The large lot of horror goes the over the top route to get scares. 
Larger than life villains and bizarre situations are employed to rattle the nerves and show evil in its more sexy and terrible forms.
But sometimes there are horror films, like Sunset Boulevard, that take a different route to our spines. These films use skill of style to make common horrors – vanity, loneliness, despair, greed – actually bleed through the screen and soak through our heart.

There are no atomic-spawned monsters, or serial killers, or demons or ghosts in Sunset Boulevard, not in the classic sense. But there are monsters, killers, demons and ghosts.

Norma Desmond is a fame monster, created not by the atom but by attention. She is also a killer, both of her own humanity as well as a true murderer. The demons in Sunset Boulevard are those common horrors described above – vanity, loneness, despair, and greed – and they are shown in spades by nearly every character in the film.

And there are ghosts; Norma’s home are filled with them. The ghost of her past silent films float by on her personal home movie screen. The ghosts of her many baubles and experiences through now obsolete objects fill her crumbling mansion – the 1920s outdated car, the empty swimming pool, the unused dance floor.
Worse of all, the ghosts of delusion fill her mind and heart as she believes she is still adored, attractive, and sane.

These elements make Sunset Boulevard a horror movie, and perhaps one of the best ever filmed.
Director Billy Wilder said that SB was his abstract attempt at making a gothic American horror picture. 
But not all of the scares in SB’s come through metaphor. 

You have the monkey coffin and funeral, as well as the creepy organ that whistles an unsettling dark hum every time the wind blows through Norma’s drafty mansion. You have the frequent attempts at suicide and the lack of door handles and locks to prevent Norma’s success. 
And then you have Norma’s behavior – the Misery-like full blown New Years Eve party for just her and Joe, the endless torture-like beauty treatments she endures to peel back 30 years of age. There is the narration of the film by the ghost of a murdered man. And best of all, there are Norma’s manic crazed eyes. Horror!

The actress that plays Norma is Gloria Swanson, herself a former silent movie actress that peaked when the films were quiet, collected husbands, and by many accounts was a raging pre-Madonna – just like her character. The movie was perfect for Swanson, and it shows. While her life was much different from Norma’s in many ways, it was also similar in others.

And the fact that they got real Hollywood fixtures like legendary director Cecil B. DeMille and comedic silent actor Buster Keaton to play themselves just added to the “autobiographical” feel of the movie. (Keaton played a nameless "washed-up silent hasbeen.")

Another fun fact: Erich von Stroheim plays Norma’s (Swanson’s) devoted butler who we find out directed Norma in the silent era and then married and divorced her only to become her servant just to be near her. Well, in real life Erich von Sroheim also directed Swanson in the silent era, and then married and divorced her (though it’s unclear if he acted as her servant)!
Swanson throughout the film plays Norma as if Norma’s everyday mannerisms are based on silent movie acting: overly dramatic, swinging, and almost manic facial and bodily movements. It was a brilliant physical as well as emotional performance for Swanson.

Sunset Boulevard is fiction, but man does it feel real. Swanson’s acting is some of the best I have ever seen, and also some of the scariest. 

Her “look” at the end of the film as she scream-whispers her now famous final line (see the below RDHP Presents...) has, I’m sure, led to many a dry-cleaning bill. 
Though I was spared secretions, it did give me chills.

Horror grounded in fiction is the most horrific of them all. At the end of Sunset Boulevard you’ll feel like you’ve watched people behave in the most awful and depressing manner possible. But the film is so well done, you’ll be entertained, not enraged, over witnessing the train wreck in progress.
The world is a horrific place. But at least we can escape into the absurdity of the movies right! Right?

N-Rating: 4.5
Nick Rich’s closeup:
“Wowee! Was this ever a memorable RDHP viewing! As Chris has has already covered the insightful 'bases' for Sunset Boulevard (per usual), I will cover the unusual 'bases' and just talk about things that made the viewing memorable for me (per kinda usual).

Memorable Moment #1: I watched this week's film on my shiny new portable projection screen!

Yes sir! Hot of the heels of a terrific birthday present (thanks wife!) I decided to give my new toy a spin with this week's film. Watching a film on a monitor versus blown up on a screen is immeasurably different and makes me a bit remorseful that I didn't do this more often throughout the project! The feel of being enveloped by watching a film on a big screen, especially in the comfort of your own home it, is truly a wonderful experience - and what a film to screen! 

Memorable Moment #2: What we actually viewed!

It’s a rare treat to watch an Oscar winning picture here at the RDHP, let alone a winner of Best Picture! I don’t know about Chris, but I sure felt all classy-fied – like a government document! Sunset Boulevard certainly lived up to the hype and infamy so closely associated with it as it danced across the screen in stark black and white (which also felt classy).

Memorable Moment #3: Daddy’s little girl had her first horror viewing!

Not that viewing the full gamut of horror films will be a regular occurrence with my little one (think more Frankenstein ala Boris and less Friday The 13th ala Jason), but it was certified awesome sauce to have Noel gently nuzzling me during portions of this viewing. I won’t soon forget the feeling of having her sitting up, nestled between my chest and arm, and watching her tiny dark eyes dart back and forth with wonder as the silver shimmers danced across the screen. 
I repeat: awesome sauce.

Memorable Moment #4: Geiger got arrested!

Some of you may recall that my step father is in town with my mother. During the climatic final scene of SB I received a call from my mother (who had gone downtown to see a play) saying that Geiger had been arrested! 
The conversation went something like this:

Nick: Hey mom, what’s up?
Mom: I need you to come get me, Geiger got arrested!
Nick: Are you kidding? [Thinks: mom has our only car and she wants me to get her?]
Mom: There are protestors everywhere, the 99% . There are police everywhere... the Mayor’s giving some speech…
Nick: Are you kidding? [Thinks: well, maybe Geiger broke some traffic law.]  
Mom: Geiger started yelling ‘I’m the 1%’ and punched a protestor.
Nick: Are you kidding? I'm in the middle of my film viewing so I need to know if you are kidding…
Mom: Oh, I forgot about that! Geiger’s not in jail – enjoy your movie. [Hangs up.]
Nick: [To Mel and Chris who were confused by what I had been saying] The 99 are protesting downtown, mom said Geiger got arrested but he didn’t – let’s rewind and finish the last scene!

After the viewing I proceeded to watch three more films on the screen with Noel (I was on night duty) - a truly memorable night indeed!

The Skinny: Check this flick out if you've ever wanted to feel classy or you're having one of those days where you start to think life would be better if you had a sugar momma/daddy.”

Things We Learned from Sunset Boulevard:
-A neglected house gets an unhappy look.
-The finest stories in the world are written on empty stomachs.
-1950s men say the cutest things.
-Smart producers have ulcers to prove it.
-Yes men can say no.
-Baby Noel Rich’s first horror movie is Sunset Boulevard.
-Sometimes it is interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be.
-Joe Gillis is the Black Dahlia’s husband.
-Valentino thinks there is nothing like tile for a tango.

RDHP Presents:
Quotes of the Viewing… from Sunset Boulevard
Movies from the 1940s and 50s had exceptionally snappy dialog. But Sunset Boulevard takes that trend to a whole new level. Seems just about every line in the film is worth remembering and repeating. 
The dialog was so intriguing that Nick and I were so quiet we didn’t speak a quote of the viewing of our own! Ironic that the dialog is so vital to the film, seeing as this picture is about a silent era actress who loathes talkies and finds them pointless. 
Below, we present the best quotes from Sunset Boulevard, along with some graphical representation to help the words go down smoother. After all, who needs to read when pictures can talk!

Joe Gillis (William Holden): You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson): I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

Joe Gillis [voice-over]: You don't yell at a sleepwalker - he may fall and break his neck. That's it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career.

Joe Gillis: I'm not an executive, just a writer.
Norma Desmond: You are, are you? Writing words, words, more words! 
Well, you'll make a rope of words and strangle this business! 
With a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!

Joe Gillis: Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.

Norma Desmond: We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!

Norma Desmond: The stars are ageless, aren't they?

Joe Gillis: Norma, you're a woman of 50, now grow up. There's nothing tragic about being 50, unless you’re trying to be 25.

Norma Desmond: All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up!

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