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Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

1950. Paramount. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman, Jr. With Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Cecil B. DeMille

I second Norman Taylor's observation that Gloria Swanson (not her performance; herself) turns Sunset Boulevard from a thriller-set-in- Hollywood to something complex and moving.

I haven't seen the musical, and I'm willing to concede that Glenn Close and Patti LuPone are very accomplished, but how can the story be much more than ho-hum bizarre without the incredible mythic presence of Swanson, von Stroheim, and De Mille? As Norman says, Swanson brings with her the entire early history of Hollywood. She embodies the extravagant stardom and sleazy extravagance of the twenties, and she has a way of moving and using her eyes that no contemporary performer could do more than mimic. When she raises her eyebrows, widens her eyes, looks to the side and turns her head, it's choreography on a small scale.

Reuniting Swanson with von Stroheim, and using footage from Queen Kelly is a stroke of genius. That brief detail about Max ironing Norma's underwear teases out little myth-memories of von Stroheim in his prime—his fetishism, his insistence that even extras wear silk underwear, his characters' interest in lingerie—that give that relationship a much sicker cast than it would seem to have on the surface. The impact is all the more powerful because we're providing so much of the information ourselves, from our own associations and memories. In a non-verbal, almost pre- conscious, way, we know things about these people, as though they were old acquaintances.

Great stars almost embody self-referentiality—they are always themselves—but certain roles stand out because they incorporate unarticulable associations that a star has acquired over time. This may be why the examples that come to mind seem to all be the rueful use of great stars toward the end of their careers: William Holden in The Wild Bunch and Fedora; John Wayne in True Grit; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. I've seen many actresses play Blanche duBois, and several of them were "better" than Vivien Leigh is in the movie, but what level of acting can compare with seeing Scarlett O'Hara fallen on hard times? In each case, the film becomes, in addition to a western, thriller or whatever, a reflection on movies, stardom, and the passing of youth.


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein