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SUNSET BLVD. (1950) ****

Sunset Blvd. is one of those movies that I have seen clips of on award shows, but had never actually sat down and watched. I knew all the big moments in the film (“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”, “I am big… It’s the pictures that got small”, the famous opening scene), and yet for one reason or another, I just never got around to seeing it. When our local theatre, The Clayton played the film the other night as part of their “Classic Movie Mondays”, I jumped at the chance to check it out.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is a washed-up silent movie star who sits alone in her decrepit mansion on the titular street writing a screenplay she thinks will lead to her big comeback. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who winds up at Norma’s mansion, seeking refuge from credit collectors. Norma asks Joe to work on her script and since he is in desperate need of money, he grudgingly agrees. Eventually, Norma falls for Joe and begins heaping lavish gifts on him. Feeling awkward about the whole situation, Joe flees the mansion and hangs out with a pretty script reader named Betty (Nancy Olson). Norma, who is already mentally unstable as it is, tries to commit suicide. Joe rushes back to her side and continues their love affair, but things get rocky once Joe starts collaborating with Betty on a new movie script.

You know, whenever I saw Gloria Swanson in the most famous snippets of Sunset Blvd., I kinda thought she was over the top. And to some degree, she is. However, now that I’ve seen those scenes in their proper context, her overly theatrical performance fits the material perfectly. Norma Desmond is a relic who is trapped in her own little bubble. Time has moved on, but she hasn’t. In many ways, she’s a tragic figure; especially when her butler is fueling her ego by writing fake fan letters to her. In some ways, she’s a monster; but a wholly sympathetic one.

Equally fascinating is the character of Joe. He uses Norma’s affections for his benefit, but he isn’t necessarily a bad man. He feels bad when she tries to take her life and even feels guilty about leading Betty on. What makes both characters work is that director Billy (Some Like It Hot) Wilder allows us to see what makes each character tick. Both of them are sort of stuck with each other and so caught up by their own desires that they fail to realize the inevitable.

What makes Sunset Blvd. so much fun is that it takes place in Hollywood. And I’m not talking about a phony movie version of Hollywood, but the real thing. There are a lot of celebrity cameos and subtle name-dropping to let you know that what is happening is happening in the here and now (or 1950 at least). Nowadays, this sort of thing is commonplace, but it really was novel when the film was released.

In short, Sunset Blvd. is a classic. It’s a near-perfect film full of heart, laughs, and heartbreak. I can’t believe it took me this long to see it.

Next week at the Clayton: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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