I’ve been meaning to rewatch Sunset Boulevard for literally years. What with watching The Emperor’s New Groove recently (I’m convinced Yzma is based on Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard) and the beginning of Readers Imbibing Peril, now seemed like the time!
You see, Sunset Boulevard is very possibly the creepiest movie I’ve ever seen. Not the scariest, not the most horrifying, but the creepiest–with all the old subtlety and art of the 1940s classics. It’s not Hitchcock, but it feels like it could have been.
The movie opens with the main character, Joe (William Holden), floating dead in a swimming pool. And that’s not the creepy part! We immediately flash back in time, with Joe as the voice-over narrator. We learn about his life as a struggling Hollywood writer, dreaming of success but unable to make his car payments. By chance and circumstance, he meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), star of the silent film era–and she has never forgotten it. She’s obsessed with her own stardom, and adamantly refuses to believe that her time has passed. She lives in an insanely-over-the-top mausoleum of a mansion, alone except for her butler, Max, who is equally unbalanced. Norma draws Joe into her web, and try as he might, he cannot find his way out again…
To quote The Emperor’s New Groove, Norma is pretty much “scary beyond all reason.” Unlike Yzma, she’s not actually an unattractive woman–but she has these crazy eyes and dramatic hand movements and wildly creepy smile. And she is SO emotional and SO desperately clinging to her past–and, as the movie goes on, to Joe. It would be easy to write off Norma as simply insane, but the movie gives us little moments of sympathy and insight for her. It’s not a movie about a madwoman–it’s a movie about a woman driven mad by fame, and the need to always be the perfect star she was on the screen.
At one point Joe’s narration remarks, “You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” I don’t think he means that negative press destroyed Norma. I think he means the positive press. The legend, the star persona, simply became overwhelming. It’s a message that’s still immensely relevant; glance at the entertainment magazines some time for star after star self-destructing in magnificent ways.
Even though he narrates, I have less to say about Joe’s character. He strikes me as essentially an Everyman, one with enough insight to tell us about the far more complicated Norma. He does have his own story about failing to achieve Hollywood success, but I feel like the movie is really less about him than it is about how he gets caught by Norma.
I mentioned the subtlety of old movies–and the creepiness of this one. There are some, shall we say, less subtle creepy elements. Near the beginning, Norma is holding a funeral for her pet monkey, and Max the butler occasionally bangs away on an old pipe organ. However, I found that what really gives the movie its creepiness is the more subtle things. It’s Norma’s crazy eyes, or her huge empty house, overflowing with pictures of herself.
One of my favorite moments is so tiny and so quick that if you blink, you could miss it. At one point, Joe tries to leave Norma’s house and escape back into the larger world. As he goes out the front door, his watch chain catches on the handle, and he has to stop to untangle it. And sure enough, Norma draws him back again…
I mentioned that the movie opens with Joe floating dead in a pool, which certainly seems like the most spoilerific of openings. And yet, even though I know that’s how this ends–even when I’ve seen the movie before–somehow it draws me in so much moment by moment that I can’t really remember that that’s where it must be going. I know it intellectually, but I can’t feel it.
Believe it or not, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical version of Sunset Boulevard (but then, I don’t know how anyone would read Leroux’s Phantom and think of doing a musical). I’m desperately curious, mostly because of the song “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” It makes me suspect there’s an even more sympathetic portrayal of Norma, and I really wonder how it’s handled–but alas, no filmed version, and I don’t know of anywhere it’s playing…
Until I can track down the musical, I’ll just have to recommend the movie to you–for all its subtle underplays and clever creepiness. Norma, in her own cracked way, insists a few times that dialogue was unnecessary in the silent films because they expressed everything with their faces. The funny thing is, she’s kind of right–most of this movie is expressed in the eyes. Though there are some wonderful lines of dialogue too. For instance, when Joe remarks that she used to be big, she fires back, “I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Then, of course, there’s the famous last line… “All right, Mr. DeMille–I’m ready for my close-up.” And oh, how wonderfully terrifying it is, as she looks deep into the eyes of “those wonderful people out there in the dark.”
Buy it here: Sunset Boulevard