Monday, April 26, 2010

They Loved It In Pomona

I've written before about the curious experience of seeing a film you've watched dozens of times and suddenly coming away with a different impression. Last night Turner Classic Movies ran Sunset Boulevard, and though it's one of those films every movie lover knows by heart -- it would have been easy to title this blog entry something like "It's the Pictures That Got Small" -- I watched most of it again and was impressed by Gloria Swanson's performance as the faded film legend Norma Desmond, and by the structure of the film itself, which really is one of the first to attempt to provide a commentary on Hollywood's own history, which really, at that point, was not very long.

It must have been difficult for Swanson to play a role that so closely mirrored her own life as a once-beloved silent film actress, but by all reports she had a great sense of humor and a keen intelligence; she knew by embracing the role of a Hollywood icon who would never manage a comeback she was ensuring her own. Older actresses like Mae West and Pola Negri were approached for the part but their vanity about portraying a delusional recluse like Desmond ended up handing the role to Swanson. Mary Pickford was considered as well, but by that time she was Norma Desmond, and the script hit a bit too close to home. It's also important to remember that in 1950, when the film was released, a fifty-year-old woman was old; now actresses that age bare their bikini bodies on magazine covers (hello, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) but sixty years ago it was nearly impossible for a star to maintain the illusion of eternal youth.

What came across so clearly in this viewing is how trapped the protagonist of this film is -- even after his demise, since he's narrating it from his prone position face-down in a swimming pool. Broke, unemployed, and behind on his rent and car payments, William Holden's character agrees to rewrite Desmond's treatment of Salome -- a part she's decades too old for -- because he needs the money. Any writer can identify with that, and I can think of dozens of odious projects I took on for exactly that reason. But he's a virtual prisoner in Desmond's creaky old mansion, and the film makes it obvious, without being too indelicate, that sexually servicing the aging actress is part of the arrangement. Holden was about 31 when the movie was filmed, a little mature to be playing the part of the boy toy, but the casting is still far more appropriate than the role of the handsome drifter he would play five years later in William Inge's Picnic. In one scene following Desmond's suicide attempt his distaste is palpable as she enfolds him in her embrace like a very theatrical vampire. Anyone who has ever slept with someone they didn't really want to, because the relationship was over or for social, financial, or survival reasons, will relate to Holden's predicament. There's a great moment in a clothing boutique, when Desmond is selecting an entire wardrobe of suits and formal wear her lover can only don for her in the seclusion of her mansion. Holden is asked to choose between camel hair (pronounced "camel's hair" in this era for some reason) and another fiber. He says the camel hair will be fine, but the oily salesman, recognizing a gigolo when he sees one, whispers, "Why not get the better material if the old broad is paying for it?"

Director William Wilder also understood that to underscore the suffocating entrapment of the mansion he had to contrast it with dips into the real world. That's why it's so jarring when Holden's Joe Gillis escapes to the sock-hop antics of his young friends, who seem so fresh and innocent in comparison to the sordid shadow world of Norma Desmond's bridge games attended by a wax works of former silent screen stars. It's also always a jolt to see a young Jack Webb cavorting among all the others -- I seem to remember him even playing a saxophone, or am I projecting? For most people he's inseparable from the humorless detective Joe Friday, delivering his flat little wrap-ups on Dragnet to show the criminal element how stupid it is to tangle with the law.

The real question is why Swanson never took advantage of the momentum Sunset Boulevard provided her career. Apparently the roles she was offered after that were pale imitations of the Desmond character, and she'd already hit that mark. Perhaps she was smart enough to leave well enough alone, and be remembered best for that one defining part.


  1. Here's another way to find out if you know Jack...Webb that is

  2. Thanks Norman. I actually got ten out of ten!