31. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
I chose this poster cos it’s all po-mo, and if you don’t know what that means then it’s T.S.(tethered swimming) for you (2 Simpsons references in one sentence).
Gloria Swanson gives one of the greatest performances ever in terms of watching someone deconstruct their public persona, and leaving themselves exposed.
A bit of backstory on Gloria Swanson: she was a massive star(she was big…Gabby Hayes big, Simpsons reference #3) during the silent era of the 1920’s. Her stardom faded with advent of the talkie. From 1934-1950 she appeared in 1 film. “Sunset Boulevard” would mark her comeback and her first film in 9 years.
So the premise of the story is this: a hack screenwriter named Joe Gillis(played awesomely by William Holden), shacks up with a delusional ex-movie queen named Norma Desmond(played by Swanson) and mayhem ensues(well not mayhem, more like well-supervised craziness: Simpsons reference #4). Desmond has visions of a big-screen comeback, and Gillis is helping her write a script.
The film also stars ex-director turned character actor Eric von Stroheim as Max, Norma’s chaffeur/butler and one time director. This is where art even further imitates life. One of Swanson’s last starring roles was in the Eric von Stroheim directed “Queen Kelly” which ran way over budget, was never officially completed, and bombed when released. It’s actually pretty awesome, but that film’s failure killed von Stroheim’s directorial career, as well helping to kill Swanson’s film career. So what you have in this film is von Stroheim, and Swanson playing versions of themselves.
It’s common nowadays for stars to parody themselves and poke fun at their celebrity, but in 1950 it wasn’t especially common, and what makes Swanson’s portrayal so incredible is that it’s not played for laughs. It’s actually pretty fucking uncomfortable. There is one scene that is as awkward as anything ever shown on “Curb Your Enthusiam“, where Norma, Max, and Joe show up to the set of Cecil B. DeMille‘s latest film. DeMille was one of Hollywood’s biggest directors from the 10’s to the 60’s. Norma thinks DeMille wants her to star in a film(he actually just wants to use her old-timey limousine for a scene) and shows up demanding the full star treatment. Everyone kind of humors her, but no one has the heart to tell her what’s going on. It’s depressing man. It’s the kind of thing you could imagine someone doing in real life.
Swanson’s willingness to completely embrace the role is what makes it so great. It takes a a hell of a lot of guts to look so pathetic on screen.
On filmaffinity.com I gave the film a 9/10, but that could easily turn in to a 10(I try and be judicious and not give 10’s until I have watched a film more than once). Just a great film in every facet. I recommend the shit out of this film.