Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunset Boulevard

The Billy Wilder Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of one of Hollywood's greatest writer-directors, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken & Freckled. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Sunset Boulevard
from my VHS collection

I'm pretty sure it was the start of my junior year of college, so this would be September 1992. I was still in the process of arranging my course curriculum for the year, and as I recall, there was an African-American Studies class that I had my eye on taking. At least, I think that's what it was... but that sounds about right, so I'll go with it. I couldn't make it fit into my schedule, however, most of which was already filled up. Switching around other classes simply didn't work, and I was running out of time. I needed a humanities class of some sort to meet the minimum amount of credits necessary for the semester.

I flipped through the school catalog one more time, desperate to find something that I could make fit into my schedule, At this point I was willing to take anything. Then I saw it: a Film History class. I'm pretty sure I had considered taking it before, but there were other things that took priority. Now I reconsidered it. Watching a bunch of movies and talking about them? How hard can that be? Plus, it fit. So I took it.

At the time, I didn't think much, if at all, about film history. Of course, I loved watching movies, and I had seen some old movies growing up on TV, but I preferred modern stuff. I don't recall what exactly my expectations were for this class in terms of content, but "corny black & white films where everyone smokes cigarettes and talks really fast" would be my guess. I doubted I'd be required to think too much in this class, and so I felt confident I could easily pass it... and that was all that mattered.

I lucked out in that my pal Roberta was also in this class. Rob was one of my best friends in college. She was adorable - this tiny, sexy, funny geek girl who read EC Comics and worked in airbrush. I still think about her now and then. If only she didn't have a boyfriend at the time...

The school theater was the setting for the class. The teacher - and unfortunately, I've forgotten his name - was this huge, obese man who often times got around in one of those motor chairs. He tended to be quite formal in his approach to the class; not a stern disciplinarian, but no Mr. Warmth either. He'd talk about each movie before we watched it, providing a historical and cultural perspective for each one (which I may or may not have actually listened to), and for homework, we were required to write about each movie.

Rob and I would sit in the upper rows of the theater and trade quips during the movies. Sometimes we'd be joined by this European girl whose name might've been Una or something like that - and no, I don't remember what part of Europe she was from. I do remember that she'd often have these intricate designs painted around one eye. Most of the time, though, it was just Rob and me. I don't recall socializing with anyone else in the class.

Slowly but surely, I found some of these old movies pretty interesting. I don't remember everything I saw, though I do recall getting pissed off at the ending of Bicycle Thieves. (I didn't quite grok Italian Neorealism at the time.) Usually, whatever we wrote about the movie afterward was deemed acceptable by the teacher; the point was to have some kind of opinion backed up by what we saw in the movie - to write a review, basically. Though I liked what I saw, it still wasn't quite enough to want to learn more about movies on my own.

Then one day the teacher screened Sunset Boulevard.

My perception of Sunset Boulevard has gone through a number of filters over the subsequent years: film historians and their takes on it, other movie fans, the gay/camp interpretation, etc. Some of them have been harder to reconcile with my own take than others, but whatever; I try not to think about it. I remember how the movie made me feel and it had nothing to do with any of that.

In the simplest terms: I would not be writing these words today and you would not be reading them if not for Sunset. In fact, I imagine a fair amount of my life might be different. I may have still ended up in video retail, but not for seven and a half years, I don't think. Obviously WSW wouldn't exist - and I wouldn't have met the friends I've made through it. I'd probably still be writing about comic books, god help me. And I'd probably stick to watching mainstream Hollywood stuff. I've given this some serious thought, and I don't believe I'm exaggerating by much.

How to describe what seeing it the first time was like? I'd seen weirder movies before. Within the class, I'd seen older movies before. I'd seen more dramatic movies before. It wasn't any of that. Part of it may have been the classroom environment - being told that this was an Important Movie and why, but I was being told that about every movie, every week. It wasn't like this one was put that much higher over the others in terms of significance. It wasn't the acting or the writing or the cinematography alone. 

My reaction to Sunset was different. It was like - I didn't realize old movies could be like this. It spoke to me the way the other movies in the class didn't, and I just knew it. When I did enter video retail a few years later, I binge-watched old films in order to maintain my standing among a staff of film experts, but I wanted to learn more - and Sunset was the reason why.

Joe Gillis was a character that confounded me - in a good way. He was no dummy, but he seemed perfectly willing to be taken in by Norma Desmond, knowing her real intentions, knowing her state of mind. He struck me as a contradiction: on the surface, he was the very image of the square-jawed, upright he-man that embodied Hollywood movies of this time period, or so I always imagined, and yet he was letting himself be manipulated by an old woman to the point where he almost seemed to enjoy it. I remember not knowing what to make of him - but I couldn't turn away from his story...

...and of course, it was impossible to turn away from Norma herself. I've since learned much more about Gloria Swanson, how her previous life as a silent film queen helped inform and shape the character of Norma, but I knew none of that at the time. I used to think all classic movie characters were like her, all fire and thunder, but her melodramatic nature was a sharp contrast to everyone else in the movie, and it was that contrast which caught and held my attention.

Billy Wilder. When I think of him now, I find it remarkable that he, a foreigner, was able to make films that spoke so directly to the American experience: Hollywood, the jazz age, corporate culture, journalism, etc. I know now how great an influence the earlier director Ernst Lubitsch was on him, and I've seen movies of his too, but that doesn't diminish my admiration for what Wilder accomplished - especially now, in a time when spectacle is given heavy priority over dialogue. (I will say that I do wish Wilder had attempted science fiction or fantasy at least once. He probably would've made it a comedy, perhaps with someone other than his usual collaborators, IAL Diamond or Charles Brackett, and preferably with either Jack Lemmon or Fred MacMurray.)

Sunset came at just the right time in my life, too, when I was becoming more open to more complex, more morally ambiguous kinds of storytelling, in different media. This confluence of mature storytelling would eventually leave its mark on me, when a year later, I began self-publishing comics featuring shades-of-grey-type characters (as best as I could at the time, anyway). Not that I think this is the best, or even only way to tell stories - it's just where my head was at then.

I feel like the films of Billy Wilder in general and Sunset in particular are a part of me now. Wilder is the kind of writer I aspire to - one who can balance comedy and tragedy in equal measure, regardless of genre expectations; who has a keen understanding of human behavior and of how far you can push people in certain situations; and who has a few things to say about the world. In Norma Desmond he created a character larger than life yet impossibly frail - and Gloria Swanson knew just what to do with her. As much as I love Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Swanson should've gotten the Oscar for this once-in-a-lifetime performance... but ultimately, it doesn't matter. Roles like this, and movies like this, stand the test of time - and always will.

Other Billy Wilder films:
Double Indemnity
Some Like it Hot
A Foreign Affair
One Two Three


  1. I really believe that some books or movies come to you when they are supposed to and their mark will be indelible.

    Many ago a Toronto newspaper fired my favourite from among their movie writers. He wrote a Sunday column highlighting classic films and players which included recommendations on TV for the week. His replacement was a young woman who wrote in an off-hand manner about the subject. "Sunset Boulevard" was going to be on some night and she had heart it was "okay" and probably "should get around to seeing it". I haven't read that paper in a very long time.

  2. You could be right. Time, obviously, plays a big factor. A film may look different in three months or three yearsthan it does in the present, and that has been my experience from timeto time. An open mind helps, too.

  3. This moved me to pieces, Rich. I often find it difficult to choose one absolute best in anything related to classic film. But if pressed I'd have to say SUNSET BLVD is my favorite movie of all time. Norma, like your write-up, moves me to pieces so the fact she in essence changed your life is absolute perfection. I don't know you well, but I'm happy I know you at all. Another thing I (myself) owe Norma Desmond for.

    Really loved reading your trip back and am very happy you took part in our blogathon.


    1. Gee, thanks. The feeling is completely mutual.

  4. It's really incredible how a film (or a book or a poem, etc.) can change your life. Then you think of all the micro events and decisions you make as a result, and the mind reels with how different things would have been. I echo the others--I'm really glad that you started this blog and that I found it!

    I love Sunset. I need to watch it again--it's been a number of years now.

  5. It's something that didn't occur to me until I sat down and started thinking about what I wanted to say here. I always knew that SUNSET was the turning point in my cinematic education, but once I thought about what else it entailed, namely the rest of my life in general, that's when I realized its greater significance.

  6. The fact that Swanson didn't win an Oscar for this makes it all the more bittersweet. Awards are of the moment, and don't prove longevity or quality, and this film has both by the bucketload. Sunset was actually one of the first classic films I ever watched and, whilst I didn't really appreciate all of its subtle nuances, I understood that it was something special.
    Wonderful post - thank you!

  7. I loved reading of your experience. A story filled with unique personal touches, but not unique, I daresay, in the general moral of the story: that Sunset Blvd. is a life-changing film experience. I think many people who are film buffs, or in the film industry, would list this movie as one of their "turning points". And for very good reason. I am not quite the same. And perhaps, because the timing wasn't right. In high school I may have still been a little too young. I felt this was a good film, but still couldn't quite say I liked it. Over the years, though, I've learned not only to like this film, but to fall in love with it too. Great post! I love that you approach this film from a very personal level. Which always produces a unique result.

    1. I try to approach all my posts in a similar way. Poke around here a little and you'll see.

  8. I think Swanson losing the Oscar is also an indication of how much the Oscars have changed since then. If it were like it was today, Swanson would've had a massive campaign put together on her behalf, building her up as a Hollywood legend, emphasizing her years as a silent film queen, and spinning the movie as less an indictment of the studio system and more a celebration of the silent era in general and Swanson in particular. I could totally see that working too.

    But you're right; none of that really matters as much as we pretend it does.

  9. Rich, I feel like I know you better with this article -- you sound a lot like me in the love for classic film that hit you like lightning. I started earlier than you because of a wonderful Dad with great taste, but the feelings are the same. Swanson will never be forgotten as long as anyone remembers Sunset. Holden was perfect, and Otto Preminger just always brings tears to my eyes as the protective, loving Max.

    I have to tell you this -- when I turned 50, I was kind of depressed. Not horrible, just the usual. I happened to read a book by Erma Bombeck, the wonderful comic writer, and she talked about turning 50. She said she laid on the couch all day, depressed, with the TV on, and Sunset Boulevard was showing. There is a part where Joe says to Norma: "There's no shame being 50, Norma, unless you try to be 25." Erma said "50! 50! I thought Norma Desmond was 90 if she was a day! Oh my God!" Just a little funny for all the women out there who are getting older like Norma!

    This is a wonderful part of the blogathon, Rich. Great job!

  10. It was Erich von Stroheim that played Max, but otherwise, thanks. Good point about Norma; she does seem a lot older than she actually is... plus these days, 50 is no longer seen as over the hill, at least not like before. I just hope that I keep that in mind when I hit 50 - which isn't too far away anymore (yikes!).

  11. Oh brother -- I knew it was von Stroheim but Preminger fell out of my fingers as I typed!

  12. Maybe you were thinking about STALAG 17 by accident.

  13. Great post--you must've been excited to choose this film for that blogathon! This is why films are so important. They can truly change someone's life.

    I, too, love Sunset Boulevard, and the more I watch it the more amazed I am by it. Aside from the acting, of course, the casting was so pitch-perfect it's scary. Swanson really WAS a major actress in silent films, von Stroheim actually was a silent era director, DeMille really did direct Swanson in many of his films and Keaton, Ann Q. Nilsson and H.B.Warner were all from the silent era (Keaton being a giant of the era, as we can see now). I'm curious, has Sunset Boulevard ever inspired you to find out more about silent films? Learning about that era will definitely open up a whole new set of perspectives about this incredible film. (And yes, I write about silents, but I swear this is an honest question and not a plug!)

  14. Read my post about the book SILENT STARS - which just went up this week - and you'll have your answer.


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