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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Movie of the Week... Sunset Boulevard

Any movie that starts with a scene of the narrator floating face down in a pool, quickly followed by another of the same young man mistaken for an undertaker called to help with the burial of a fading movie star's deceased pet monkey, is bound to demand, and receive, the audience's rapt attention.  These are the kinds of scenes that make Sunset Boulevard one of the most famous Hollywood films of all time.  People can recite several of its most memorable lines...  Norma Desmond's especially...  "I am big...  It's the pictures that got small."  And, of course, "Alright Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."  But how many have really seen the film all the way through?  If you haven't, you're missing out.

Sunset Boulevard isn't my favorite movie, but it's one the I get caught up in each time I see it.  William Holden is a perennial favorite - he's great in almost everything he's in.  But it's Gloria Swanson that really captures the viewer's attention.  At times elegant, funny or tragic, she's also very, very strange.  The facial expressions, the voice, the spiderlike fingers holding the ever-present cigarette are either eerily creepy or simply captivating.  While I understand that Gloria Swanson the person was quite unlike Norma Desmond the faded-star, one would never guess it while watching this film.  The two seem inseparable. 

But back to Bill Holden for a moment...  Whether in Sabrina, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, or The World of Suzy Wong, Holden always seems like a very relatable, regular guy.  Likable, not too serious and eminently suited to just about any leading lady.  Every one of his movies is better for having William Holden in the lead.  He is especially important in Sunset Boulevard because his presence takes an otherwise unbelievable story and makes it seem possible and somewhat grounded in reality, albeit a very strange one.  He also counters Swanson's perfectly overwrought performance with ease and confidence.

Sunset Boulevard isn't just great for the script or the actors.  In fact, two of its greatest stars aren't people at all.  Hollywood itself looms large in this picture, literally and figuratively.  Filmed at the actual locations, the movie gives us a glimpse of Tinseltown during the heyday of the Golden Age.  Here is Schwab's Pharmacy, Paramount Studios and, of course, Sunset Boulevard itself.  I've driven Sunset several times, unfortunately not in anything as stylish as Norma Desmond's 1929 Isotta Fraschini, and it still seems glamourous to me.  Whether it's simply the name that inspires thoughts of movie stars and Los Angeles noir, or the glitter of the Sunset Strip and the mansions that line the Beverly Hills section, it's an exciting place to be.

The music of Sunset Boulevard is the other non-human star.  Brooding, bold and emotional, it adds an extra depth to the lows and even greater impact to the highs.  Listening to the score alone would tell you a great deal about the movie.

In the end, Sunset Boulevard is just great fun to watch.  For Gloria Swanson's campy, over the top performance and for a peak at old Hollywood, it just can't be beat.

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