Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In the Shadowland of Early Hollywood ... the Haunting Genius of "Sunset Boulevard"

Out of the past: From January 25, 2012

It's probably my favorite all time film. I'm a sucker, you see, for Hollywood mythology. If "humor" is a form of truth, so too are the epic portrayals of faded film stars abandoned by stale dreams who roam the back lots of shadowland.

Hollywood is hardly aberrational. Hollywood is an all-to-accurate exaggeration of American culture. You think they are not you? Maybe, not, but they are many of us.

Dreams of fame, harbored only on sound stages -- are you kidding? "Arranged" love a human equation exclusive to Mulholland Drive? Shall we kindly leave that one alone?

Norman Desmond stalks her memories up there in that great big ridiculously overstuffed mansion off Sunset Boulevard. And while she watches her old silent films night after night, she is hardly the only soul escaping into past glories. All things are relative. We all have memories, real or contrived, of past glories.

The intersection between Hollywood and American culture has always been a perverse act of mutual collaboration. Some would argue destruction. One side teases the other, and together they multiple the exaggerations, back and forth. I have news for you: Infidelity existed long before the first camera and two-man camera crew from Chicago arrived in the City of Angels, seeking adequate sunshine under which to finish a one-reeler.

Nor did the movies invent the other vices, be they drugs or garden variety betrayal, infidelity or extortion. Greed. Incest. Murder.

What draws me to this fascinating place is its genius to lift these sordid aspects of the human condition (along, too, with happy interludes) into cinematic rapture. Rarely does it happen, but when it does, I marvel at the souls so talented who together make it happen.

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard may be as close to a masterpiece as a film can be, it is so brilliantly and tautly organized, so masterfully wrought in escalating tension, in the impeccable acting and cinematography, all of it forming a weirdly dark comedy -- a bizarre two-faced valentine to the ghosts of a fickle town that treats them like sainted icons -- until the public (and not the studio chiefs) grows bored and turns to the fickle worship of younger icons.

Gloria Swanson delivered the performance of a lifetime. I can't imagine any other actress coming close.

I watched it again last week. And again, I was not let down. So profound is my respect, that I refused myself the risk of going behind the scenes by watching the "Specials features." No, no, not for this one. I wish to preserve my inviolate relationship to a very special movie.

I linked up Rotten Tomatoes to see how the flick fares: 98% positive. By another keystroke, maybe 100%. Sigh and gratitude, and relief. How great the honors from virtually every critic.

The mind is a fantastic instrument of self deception, and the mind is something we all live with. There is a little bit of Norman Desmond in all of us -- whenever we convert an exaggerated memory into total living reality. Beware the dangers that lurk went you can't let go, when you can't quite wake up. Beware your own Sunset Boulevards.



Harry Kingston said...

The great days of Hollywood when a film was something special.
A cartoon, a news reel and maybe a serial and a class A movie.
Something we looked foreward in going to see.
Great stars, Bogart, Flynn, Betty Davis, Gloria Swanson, etc.
And what I miss today is where are all the character actors that added to a movie back then.
Walter Brennan, Ned Sparks, Ward Bond, Allen Hale, and on and on.
Plus the great directors, Wilder, DeMille, John Ford.
John Ford painted the West with his camera like no other.
Yes Dave, Sunset Boulevard is an all time classic from Paramount.
And Billy Wilder did a great job to make it what it is today.
Harry in Texas

Showbiz David said...


Another great Wilder flick is Double Indemnity. Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favorites.

The cartoons put out, especially by Warner I think, were bloody works of art! Such brilliant animation and wry cynical wit. Perhaps they were even subversive for all I know.

Paul H. said...

Yup, "Sunset Blvd." is a classic all right. They just don't make 'em like that any more.

Wouldn't go so far as to make it an all-time favorite, but it captures the power of film and the film industry of days gone by.