Robert Ackroyd, guitarist with Florence And The Machine, watches Billy Wilder’s blackly comic satire
IT TAKES ABOUT 45 minutes every night to find a film you haven’t seen. Scrolling through the new dross, with a feeling you’ve already found the only hidden gem in Wind River. So you filter your search. Pop into genres; indie — scroll on… still don’t think you can handle Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur…
Twenty minutes later you’re in Classics and reconsidering TV altogether.
I must have pondered over watching Sunset Boulevard more than any other movie, or it feels that way. Maybe I just notice it more. It’s the legendary archetypal Hollywood ‘picture’, chapter one in every Film Studies text book.
Film writer and Wrath Of Khan director Nicholas Meyer proclaims it interesting that Billy Wilder, having “made the greatest movie in every genre, should have also made the greatest movie that is No-genre with Sunset Boulevard”. Hmm… Meyer goes on, “So you have the greatest POW escape movie, Stalag 17. You have the greatest comedy, Some Like It Hot.
You have the greatest film noir, Double Indemnity…”
First of all, the greatest comedy is Trading Places, and second, it’s dusty old rhetoric like this that has always turned me off. I rarely go in for olde Hollywood. On The Waterfront was a joyous surprise in how contemporary it felt, none of that Prohibition/gumshoe parlance or tap-dancing musical skits, seeee. I mostly attributed that to Marlon Brando, and decided on ’54 being about as old as I go — advice maybe Joe Gillis would have benefited from.
At face value Sunset Boulevard is about a screenwriter being run out of town by repo men, and a forgotten star of the silent screen suffering from clinical depression. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a classic man’s man in that he’s a middle-class, philandering, misogynist egoist with spurious talent. The studios aren’t interested in his scripts, so instead of getting a day job he decides to head back east. As chance would have it, he runs into reclusive and ageing former child star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), and figures he can con her into some quick cash by editing a script of hers.
You quickly realise, with the aid of a laborious narration, that this is of course the Hollywood cautionary tale of the fame machine. The opening shot is of a gutter strewn with dead leaves in Beverly Hills. As Franz Waxman’s famous orchestra shrieks bloody murder, we get the feeling it
is from this very gutter that all movie stars must emerge and where they are all certain to be returned (Film Studies degree kicking in!).
The sets are incredible, lavish and authentic. Some of the set-pieces, like the eerily caught wind in the broken pipe organ in Desmond’s palatial dining room, or the inexplicable chimpanzee funeral, are enchanting and sinister at the same time. The dialogue is razor-sharp, in an exhausting way. Every line is so slick, so meticulously composed, it just feels uncannily unnatural at the rate at which they are delivered. Or maybe that’s the design; after all, our two leads both live on either side of disillusion. Gillis speaks like a budget Oscar Wilde, which would perhaps explain his professional struggle.
Norma Desmond exists in the emotional red zone for the entirety of the movie. Screaming at her butler, reenacting her classic roles or pleading for love from a well of tears, it is this performance on which the whole movie hangs. A lot has been made about the unique suitability of Gloria Swanson to her role as Norma Desmond. Swanson was herself a star of silent cinema, and although she hadn’t quite Howard Hughes’d herself, her film career had cooled to a degree that playing such a washed-up character wasn’t as an offensive proposition as Pola Negri had felt it was when she was initially offered the role. Nevertheless, she is quite amazing. The performance is irrefutable in its craft — Norma Desmond is so utterly unbearable, this must be indicative of a compelling performance.
Sunset Boulevard is inarguably an all-star production equipped with a legendary cast and crew at the peak of their powers. It’s just so archaic, and predictable; I mean, the ending is given away in the first two minutes! It’s difficult to fairly judge a film like this: how am I expected to retrospectively appreciate how groundbreaking it was? Similar to when people recount how they swerved off the road in 1963 when they heard ‘Please Please Me’ on the radio for the first time. My brain seemed to love it, but in my heart of hearts I was unmoved. I’ll give it a few years and try it again.
Sunset Boulevard is out now on DVD, blu-ray and Download. Florence and the Machine’s new album, High as Hope, is out now