SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950 United States)

tumblr_lsx24srsMH1qacnpio1_1280Oh the heart-ache, the love, the tragedy, the ambition! Sunset Boulevard is one of the most interesting tales to have ever been on-screen. The seamy, unclean underside of “Hollywood” is given flesh and blood by William Holden in his calculating manipulation, and Gloria Swanson, by her cold, grasping desperation.

The technique of telling the story from the viewpoint of William Holden’s character, who has already paid the price of his cynicism and greed, was so effective as to be priceless. What was best, for me however, was the sympathy that both the lead characters managed to evoke in spite of their obvious and outrageous flaws. The fact that Sunset Boulevard was filmed in black and white adds to the power of the acting and the effectiveness of the narrative in the sense that it lends a grimy aspect to what was truly a sordid story of personal failure.

I also believe that because it was in black and white, I was never distracted by the scenery or the sets, and I was able to concentrate on the acting of William Holden and Gloria Swanson. This plot is about desires and wants. There is the desire of the penniless writer to make it big and then there is the desire of the actress to know that she is still beautiful and wanted. Norma Desmond, (Gloria Swanson) is a glamorous film star whose career abruptly ends with the introduction of talking pictures. Now she is a has-been in the eyes of the film world and public. She is caught in her memories of a time when she was viewed as beautiful and glamorous, not realizing that the world has moved on. In Norma’s prime there was no sound to tell if an actress was any good or not. The camera would make or break a person.

She knew what made her popular and that was being under the constant scrutiny of the camera, of having it always on her. Sadly, when that phase of her life ended, she didn’t know what to do with herself. Most people are objectified on film by the camera, the director, the audience, etc. and most would try to distance themselves from that, but oddly enough Norma wants to be surveyed. She wants to be scrutinized or praised or whatever else, as long as she is getting the attention she craves. Norma feels this attention is what she needs to be happy. Attention and approval from others is what kept her going and without it she became a pitiful woman. And the smallest bit of approval she gets makes her feel that much more important.

Overall I think this motion picture has aged well because of the extreme psychological dynamics. Some of the acting is too melodramatic though. The cinematography creates an amazing setting and atmosphere.  The film shows the worst sides of what some view as the most glamorous lifestyle possible. William Holden’s attention and approval from others is what kept her going and without it she became a pitiful woman. And the smallest bit of approval she gets makes her feel that much more important.

William Holden’s witty quip to servant Erich Von Stroheim: “I sure drove into an interesting driveway” (after realizing Swanson intends to hold a funeral for her pet monkey). It’s the kind of remark that stays with you through the entire story. Swanson plays the demented star like a more glamorous version of Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’, the woman who lived among the cobwebs because of a bitter disappointment when a lover jilted her on her wedding day. And like Miss Havisham, she refuses to deal with the reality of her situation when the going gets rough–as it does when it turns out nobody wants her at the studios any more, they were only interested in her antique car.

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