Mar 07 2014

The Classics on Netflix: Sunset Boulevard

Published by at 11:00 am under Columns,Movies

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Sometimes you can get into a Netflix rut of binge watching House of Cards and an endless stream of depressing documentaries.  Last Sunday I perused the Netflix catalogue in search of something that would get me in the mood for the Oscars – I thought perhaps another look at Good Will Hunting (that I’ve already watched 50 times).  I made my way over to the classics – a list that I’m sure we’ve all browsed at but never quite found a day to click start.  Given that I was in for a night of Hollywood pomp and circumstance, I thought this might just be the time to watch Sunset Boulevard which provides a scathing view into what Hollywood does to its stars.

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Does the movie hold up?

With any movie created before you were born (and even for some after) it’s hard to tell if it’s going to pass the test of time.  Sunset Boulevard was created in 1950 and is quaintly in black and white.  Despite the pacing, which is a little slow for this day and age, the themes of the movie hold up quite well.  In the movie, a young screen writer (Joe Gillis) struggles to stay afloat in the movie industry.  He crashes his car near a former silent movie star’s home, Norma Desmond.  The movie explores the kind of movie star ego that spins out after years of being propped up by the public and quickly discarded after she’s no longer en vogue.  Later that night while I was watching the Oscars, I watched as Kim Novak looked ridiculously uncomfortable on screen and the press later ridiculed her plastic surgery.  Have we progressed at all since the 50’s in terms of our expectations of aging Hollywood starlets?

How tame are the romances?

Pretty tame.  Screenwriter Joe Gillis is persuaded by Norma to move into the guest room above the garage near her mansion.  She plies him with fancy clothes and champagne.  It’s apparent that Norma is in love with him, despite being quite senior to him.  Most of the movie centers on Joe trying to escape the life that Norma has provided him but also growing more comfortable with it.  Joe is seen kissing Norma after an argument and it’s implied that there might be more going on but it’s never seen on camera.  If this were remade today I assume we’d get the dirty naked details of just how Joe is working off his rent.  Joe also falls in love with a young script reader, Betty Schaefer.  He’s torn in a love triangle where true feelings exist at one spectrum and money at the other.  Despite the PG context, Joe’s struggles to understand himself and what he has become feel quite real and I don’t miss the tawdry scenes you’d expect today.

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Any 1950’s surprises?

One thing that struck me while watching Sunset Boulevard was the pristine dialogue.  In the current era of cinema verite we’re quite comfortable watching movies with uncomfortable pauses and urban dictionary type slang.  Sunset Boulevard is like listening to poetry in motion.  Also, Norma Desmond is the queen of overacting.  This is partially forgiven because she is playing an out of touch actress who had to convey emotions on films without sound.  But part of me kept shouting “THE THEATER” every time she came on stage, because she is precisely what you think you’d find in any monologue class in Hollywood.  Norma clearly never got to the round of acting instruction on subtlety.  Norma also undergoes a round of horrific beauty treatments in the second half of the movie in order to prepare herself for returning to film.  It’s horrifying to watch Norma undergo these medieval experiments to look younger but then I think about how actresses inject botulism in their skin and I’m not sure we’re really that far off.

Quotable quotes

This movie is mostly known for the line “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”  But my favorite quip in the movie is “I am big, it’s the pictures that are small.”

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Overall impression

This movie is pretty dark and unrelenting in its critique of Hollywood.  Sunset Boulevard adeptly explores the underbelly of what happens after the movie wraps up and everyone is sent home.  I’m shocked that it walked away with 3 Academy Awards because it ripped apart the illusion that the movie institution was holy.  I recommend this movie to film noir fans, movie industry skeptics and those film goers who don’t mind learning about the dark sides of humanity.

 

Jennifer Wright lives in Los Angeles, far enough away from Hollywood.  





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