Very famously at the 1951 Oscars, Bette Davis for “All About Eve” and Gloria Swanson for “Sunset Boulevard” were pinned against each other and the newspapers couldn’t decide who would win. Both gave what were considered the best performances of their careers and gave cinema arguably two of the most iconic and influential female characters of the twentieth century in Margo Channing and Norma Desmond. Neither woman won the Best Actress Oscar that year, the trophy instead going to Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday” and it’s said that the two titans cancelled each other out and left it open for the relative newcomer.
This has happened a few times now, but its always exciting to me when I see an old film that has been the subject of parody (usually on The Simpsons). As soon as William Holden sauntered onto the screen as out of luck screenwriter Joe Gillis with his sardonic narration, it was pretty obvious where Matt Groening found the origins of Rex Banner from the episode where Homer becomes a bootlegger during Springfield’s prohibition. The film opens with a gaggle of press crowded around a dead body in the pool of an enormous mansion, and Joe explaining via voiceover that we need to go back a few months to understand what happened. Through this flashback, we see Joe being pursued by two repo guys after he’s fallen behind on his car payments, and hides his car in a seemingly abandoned old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. A woman’s voice calls out to him, mistaking him for the man she organised to bury her pet chimp, and Joe realises that he has stumbled upon the home of forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond.
Norma lives by herself with her devoted servant Max (Erich von Stroheim) in her opulent but now decrepit mansion surrounded by photographs and relics of her time as a star. Norma asks Joe to read over a script she’s written, and with some clever psychological trickery, she hires him as a script doctor. He lives with her in the house, indulges her fantasies, allows her to fawn over him and shower him with extravagant gifts until her insanity and jealousy reaches such a degree that she shoots him in the back. And that’s how Joe ends up in Norma Desmond’s pool.
It’s an incredible performance, Swanson teetering dangerously between the tragic and the absurd as she swans about her mansion with those enormous eyes and salubrious voice and gesticulations. She is proud and willingly blind to the cruel reality that the world that once adored and loved her has left her in the shadows. Its an eerie image, this formidable woman decked out in her furs and diamonds while her home is falling apart around her, vines and thickets creeping across the walls, the beautifully gilded halls dusty and unused. The film is filled with striking images, many with Norma Desmond in extraordinary silhouettes, head tilted back and her arms raised with her hands poised like talons. Her entire life is a delusion, and to convince herself that the world she has created for herself is indeed a reality, her behaviour is, in a strange way, understandable. Until of course, her insanity completely consumes her and she glides down her stairs to a house full of policemen and reporters thinking she’s filming on set, to deliver one of the most famous closing lines in cinema, “Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.
I often think the role women have played in film get a bad rap, again Gloria Swanson demonstrates the calibre of performances and the strong, individualistic and empowered characters which women have played in cinema since the Golden Age. While I think that her performance is absolutely on par with Bette Davis, arguably even more so, I don’t think “Sunset Boulevard” as a film is quite as compelling as “All About Eve”. When Swanson isn’t on screen, the story actually drags a little and the romance between Joe and his screenwriting assistant Betty (Nancy Olson) feels laboured and uninteresting, serving only really as a plot device to incense Norma’s jealousy. The film shines when Swanson is able to shine, and interestingly enough, is one of those rare cases of art imitating life. Having not grown up in the times when silent films were the norm, its fascinating to think about the actors and directors who were so big during the twenties and thirties all of a sudden being abandoned in the wake of the talkies. Swanson herself was a silent movie star, as was Erich von Stroheim, and the film is probably the first of its kind to highlight what a brutal transition it often was for those in the industry.
“Sunset Boulevard” is a unique and harrowing experience, with a deservedly acclaimed performance from the film’s lead. Gloria Swanson commands the audience’s complete attention, so much so that the scenes in which the camera diverts from her feel somewhat underwhelming. Even so, this is an important role, and one of those few performances which I think has potentially influenced the course of cinema ever since.
By Jock Lehman