Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Recommended!: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

I'm not generally a soft touch for the work of Billy Wilder. I recognize that he's beyond skilled as a filmmaker, and don't dispute his master-status. That said, comedies like Some Like It Hot simply don't land with me, and his meticulous craft makes things as disparate as Ace In The Hole (caustically cynical, with a distracting, overpowering lead performance by Kirk Douglas) and One, Two, Three (humorously cynical, with a distracting, overpowering lead performance by James Cagney) feel so same-y and ultimately even predictable that I can't really engage & get lost in the story.

Sunset Blvd. is quite another matter.

The tale of a struggling screenwriter (William Holden) trapped in the orbit of washed-up (and just barely this side of batpoop crazy) silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is widely regarded as one of the finest expressions of Hollywood's dark heart. As overpowering a presence as Swanson is (and as smart as she is about capturing Norma's nuances as well as her maniacal flourishes), she's balanced well throughout by Holden. We fully understand why he's financially strapped enough to stay with her, and why he cares enough for her that he earnestly tries to craft a comeback vehicle for her, and how he ultimately becomes utterly trapped. For all of the movie's nightmare flourishes, it captures better than most movies a particular kind of intensely co-dependent relationship dynamic that is all too real.

I used to call Sunset Blvd. my favorite non-horror horror movie but after seeing it last year at the Noir City festival, I've come to embrace it as straight-up horror. In addition to the vampiric relationship it portrays, it's chock full of little uncanny details (the narration by a corpse, the wind blowing through the busted organ, the dead chimpanzee, and other things packing Norma's downright Gothic mansion) that combine to push the thing into an otherworldly realm. It's as stylized as any noir, but its characters feel more tangibly human than most from that genre: there's real pain beneath Norma's madness, and she feeds desperately on all around her until she can't help but burst. And Holden's not the only one who just can't quit her: the reserve deployed by Erich von Stroheim's butler conceals his own feelings, and shrouds a long past with Norma.

Maybe aspects of the movie's central relationships hit too close to home for me (resonating with my own experiences, and those of people I know) that I can't not take it seriously. I know that Swanson's performance is so spectacular  and so entrenched in movie lore that Norma's become a camp icon. There's hardly a drag queen alive who hasn't uttered one of her many aphorisms from the movie; per RuPaul, Norma is indeed a glorious mess.

But she scares the living hell out of me.

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