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Archive for the ‘Billy Wilder’ Category

** I have a habit of including spoilers in my reviews. This one is littered with them. **

"Sunset Boulevard" by Billy WilderBilly Wilder is the greatest of all 20th century American film directors because he created masterpieces in two genres: the sublimely silly “Some Like It Hot” in comedy and the wrenching “Sunset Boulevard” in tragedy.

Now “Sunset Boulevard” is more often described as a combination of film noir and black comedy than a tragedy, with characters that shade toward caricature instead of complexity, and this is also true.

Both the deluded, forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, and her creepy butler Max, played by Erich von Stroheim, sometimes behave as if they are in a horror movie. And the film’s main character, the thwarted writer turned boy-toy Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, narrates the story in a style that would make Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe smile with recognition.

But beneath the surface caricature of each of these characters are moving, complex human qualities that give “Sunset Boulevard” its force and its greatness. And the force of the movie begins with Norma Desmond.

Norma Desmond: A Woman Destroyed by Hollywood

Norma Desmond has been broken in that particular way Hollywood breaks people, by persuading them to trade their humanity for stardom. She was once worshipped by millions. As “Sunset Boulevard” opens, she has been forgotten for years and lives alone in a decaying mansion.

Norma Desmond has almost no identity left outside of her movies and the photographs of herself that are everywhere in her home. She is an example, as Cecile B. DeMille says in the film, of how “a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”

Norma seems incapable of forming a meaningful relationship with another human being, and almost hollowed out of humanity.

Almost, but not quite. Norma Desmond is imperious, deluded. She treats every interaction with another person as if it were a scene in a silent movie, with the grand exaggerated expressive gestures actresses used before sound came to film.

But Norma Desmond is still human enough to be desperately (even pathetically) lonely; still human enough in her despair to attempt suicide; still human enough to command the sympathy and devotion of the only two people who care about her at all: Joe Gillis and her butler, Max.

Max Von Mayerling: Sinister Servant, Selfless Friend

Max Von Mayerling may be the most intriguing character in “Sunset Boulevard” because, at first, he seems the most preposterous.

Wilder makes Max a horror movie sidekick, the “Igor” of “Sunset Boulevard” – going as far as to have him play Bach’s “Tocata and Fugue in D Minor” on the mansion’s organ . Wilder reinforces this idea by shooting Norma Desmond in a way that makes her look like the Bride of Frankenstein in several scenes.

Max becomes more preposterous when we learn his back story. He was the director who made Norma Desmond a star as a teenager and who became her first husband. He begged to return to her because life without her, as he tells Joe Gillis, was “unbearable”.

So by all the facts, we should see Max as a creepy stalker-ex-husband with twisted, selfish motives.

But I don’t think this true because I can’t answer one question: “What’s in it for Max?”

Max has turned himself into Norma Desmond’s servant and she treats him like one. He gets no affection or respect from her. Max works tirelessly to maintain Norma’s belief she is still a star. He delivers her every wish, including to help her trap Joe Gillis the way a spider traps a fly.

Max watches constantly over Norma to make sure she has neither the means nor opportunity to commit suicide. He has no visible life outside the mansion. If he is stealing Norma’s money, there isn’t a hint of it in the movie. If he gets pleasure from being mis-used, he never shows it.

The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Max Von Mayerling is in that empty mansion with Norma Desmond because he’s trying to help her, as best he can, and because there is no one else in the whole wide world who gives a two-cent damn about her. Until Joe Gillis comes along.

Joe Gillis is Not a Gigolo

This statement should be easy to refute. Norma Desmond is a rich once-beautiful woman of 50. Joe Gillis is a poor, handsome man of 27. Joe lives in Norma’s house, eats her food, drinks her champagne, wears the clothes she buys, and sports the jewelry she showers over him. And Joe has sex with Norma.

That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is proof Joe Gillis is a gigolo far beyond a reasonable doubt.

Except Joe Gillis is not a gigolo.

Joe Gillis is the main character in “Sunset Boulevard” and deserves to be because he is the movie’s most engaging and complicated person. Joe has been half-seduced by the promises of Hollywood – but only half.

He’s perfectly willing to sell his talent as a writer to earn a big paycheck. But Joe Gillis isn’t willing to sell his humanity, his essential decency, to live the Hollywood life. Joe is morally compromised. He isn’t, however, morally bankrupt.

This is demonstrated by all his interactions with Norma Desmond.

When Joe stumbles on Norma in her Hollywood palace, while trying to outrun the men who want to repossess his car, he doesn’t try to sweet-talk or seduce Norma. He makes fun of her.

It’s only when Norma mentions she’s written a movie about Salome that Joe sees an opportunity to take advantage of her. He offers to edit the screen play, for a fancy price, even though he doubts he can salvage anything good from Norma’s work.

Norma makes living in her mansion while he works a condition of the job, and with a few qualms, Joe makes himself comfortable, and manages (so he tells us) not to notice that Norma Desmond is trying to seduce him with fancy clothes, manly baubles, and a better room in her house.

Regardless, when Norma makes it clear that she wants Joe to be her lover – during a New Year’s Eve party at which he is the only guest – Joe rejects Norma and leaves. Then he calls Max from a friend’s apartment and asks him to pack up just his own old clothes and his typewriter.

Why would Joe Gillis leave with nothing, at the moment when he has snared Norma, at the moment of his triumph, if he were a gigolo? Why would he leave if what he wanted was to get Norma’s money?

During the phone call, Max tells Joe that Norma attempted suicide after he left the New Year’s Eve party. Joe rushes back to the house and refuses to leave until Norma promises not to try to kill herself again. Norma, distraught, says she will and Joe surrenders to her.

Like Max, Joe realizes Norma is alone and like Max, he can’t abandon her. Joe also sees the change in Norma his love causes. She becomes happy, even playful, and confident she can restart her career with her screenplay for Salome.

Everything slowly falls apart, of course. Joe can’t save Norma from the delusional and desperate belief that she’ll be a movie star again, and he can’t save Norma from her jealousy, and Joe can’t save Norma from his own unhappiness and self-disgust.

Again, he packs his old clothes and typewriter. He give her back her clothes and trinkets. He turns down her offer of money. And he leaves Norma’s mansion – or tries to leave, until Norma shoots him – with not a dollar more in his pocket than the day he meet her.

These are the human stories beneath the film noir and the black comedy, beneath the Hollywood stereotypes and the horror movie trappings. It is these human stories that make “Sunset Boulevard” superb. And it is the humanity beneath the caricatures that makes Norma’s madness, and Max’ failure to protect her, and Joe’s death, tragedies.

And I’ll go further and add an adjective to that noun: “Shakespearean”.

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