During the second season of the television show Soap (1978), Chester Tate, played by Robert Mandan, surprises everyone by waking up after undergoing an experimental brain operation. To test his memory, Chester’s doctor asks him if can remember who he is, aided with a mirror that his wife puts in front of him. “Oh my god — I’m Gunga Din,” he blurts out, examining his turban-like bandaging. When the doctor tells his patient that he is, in fact, not Gunga Din, Chester turns his chin up to the mirror and confirms, “Then I’m Gloria Swanson.” Around the age of five or six years old, this was my first exposure to the madness that is the character of Norma Desmond and the masterpiece that is Sunset Boulevard.
While some films may take a few minutes to get off the runway, the opening of Sunset Boulevard — a title that I, for some reason, refuse to abbreviate with a “Blvd.” — had no trouble hooking me in the first two minutes. It’s in these couple of minutes that we see a dead body floating facedown in the pool of an old Hollywood mansion. But it wasn’t the body that strapped me to my chair; it was the angle of the magnificent shot. I’m guessing it was tricky and clever (a lovely combo) for the 1950s — the camera appears to be filming from the bottom of the pool, causing the audience to look up at the body and the blurred people standing around the pool’s edge. With William Holden’s voiceover to guide us, he takes us back about six months to let us in on how and why that body finally got the pool it always wanted.
If you’re sure that your knowledge of this remarkable film is limited to knowing only that it exists, there’s a good chance you know more than you think. Frequently called upon throughout my life to perform parts of movies for others, I grew increasingly frustrated when people misquoted movie lines. As I’ve aged (maybe not “matured,” but aged), I’ve come to realize that the frustration had more to do with my being asked to perform — let me quote the movie lines when I’m good and ready, would ya please? That said, if this blog does nothing else for the world, I hope it lends a hand with correcting an absolutely delicious line that’s been misquoted for 60 years. If you hear the words “close-up” and “Mr. DeMille,” hopefully some form of Norma Desmond’s famous words spring to mind. Without giving away the plot to those who have not experienced Sunset Boulevard, Miss Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma, ends the film with “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” And good gravy, she wasn’t kidding!
“I am big — it’s the pictures that got small.” So tells Norma Desmond to Joe Gillis (played by Mr. William Holden) when they first meet at the beginning of the film. Miss Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma, a silent film star whose career has all but faded away, is absolutely one of my all-time favorite performances. Determined to work again, Norma employs Joe to help her develop a script she has written, a script her delusional mind believes Cecil B. DeMille will jump at to direct. The first time I was old enough to understand the film (not just quote it), I remember spiraling into that universe of make-believe right along with Norma; one she creates for herself during a 30-year span of not knowing what to do with the remaining years. Escaping into a world in which Norma defines for herself what “classic film” should mean is an escape I can certainly understand! During a viewing of her own silent films, Norma rants about how the industry has changed with the addition of sound. “We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces,” she tells Joe before jumping up and swearing that she’ll be on that screen once again; that screen she was more than happy to criticize moments earlier.
Although Sunset Boulevard is told from Joe’s point of view, I never really find myself tagging along with him through the movie. I like Mr. William Holden, and I enjoy a number of his other films, but he was never really one of my favorite actors. My first exposure to him was on the episode of I Love Lucy (1955) when he gets a face full of pie moments after Lucy, Fred, and Ethel arrive at the Brown Derby (by the way, the Brown Derby restaurant chain was started by one of Gloria Swanson’s husbands — I love when my world comes full circle like that!). Rather than identify with Joe, I’m much more fascinated by the voice, mind, eyebrows, and wardrobe of Norma Desmond, who, in the capable hands of Miss Swanson, steals the entire movie. I always enjoy a little game of “what if” when it comes to film, so I find it amusing to hear that Mae West and Mary Pickford were considered for the role of Norma . . . wise choice, Paramount! The casting of Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s devoted butler is also an interesting part of the film’s history — 20 years before Sunset Boulevard, Mr. von Stroheim directed the film Queen Kelly (1929) which stared a then 30-year-old Miss Gloria Swanson. There’s that full circle again!
The wonderful problem I run into when writing about Sunset Boulevard is that there’s just too much to say. With all the cameos (Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton, to name a few), a bitter view of Hollywood (Louis B. Mayer supposedly asked Billy Wilder “How could you do this?”), and Edith Head’s costume design, I could go on for pages, just as many have! Schwab’s drug store makes a few appearances, with its wonderful old sign advertising “Breakfast, Luncheon, and Dinner” that never fails to tickle me. The always hardworking cigarette finds itself a new costume in the form of a holder that looks like a bent paperclip. Wound tightly around Miss Swanson’s finger, it’s one of the many accessories that positively made for Norma Desmond. As I venture deeper into the world of classic films, the names on the opening credits become more and more familiar. Aside from the credits themselves (my favorite is “Gowns by” so-and-so), the one name I really started to notice was Edith Head, who seemed to contribute to the costumes of every movie I watch. A woman I know little about (but will soon learn more), I always consider seeing Miss Head’s name to be a good sign, if my eye happens to catch it.
And then we come to the Academy Awards. If I were casting an Oscar ballot in 1951, I think I would have had a panic attack . . . and aside from the horrifying times I’m inside an IKEA, I don’t get panic attacks. A year that put the sensational Sunset Boulevard against the phenomenal All About Eve is a part of film history that makes my head explode. Norma Desmond and Miss Bette Davis’s aging theatre star Margo Channing are tied for second place on my list of all-time greatest performances by an actress. Just to keep you on your toes and hopefully faithful to my beloved blog, I’ll soon reveal who reigns supreme in the number-one spot. In addition to Best Actress in a Leading Role (which was awarded to Miss Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, a wonderful performance), the films competed in a number of categories, including Best Picture. As much as I love Sunset Boulevard, I’m happy that the Academy handed the Best Picture Oscar to All About Eve. Apples, oranges . . . it’s all wonderfully delicious dried fruit!
Academy Awards for Sunset Boulevard (1951): Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
My Oscar Time Machine: I would have called Best Actress in a Leading Role a tie between Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis for All About Eve. Miss Judy Holliday is hilarious in Born Yesterday, and any other year, I would have been thrilled to see her take home the gold. But in 1951, my apologies to the talented Miss Holliday, I’m going to need that Oscar back.
Add it to your queue.