Sunset Boulevard (1950)

It’s a Scene Right Down on Sunset Boulevard

Despite Louis B. Mayer’s comments to Billy Wilder that “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” – I feel Sunset Boulevard enhanced the Hollywood mythos. Who knows what Norma Desmonds may have existed; crazed celebrity lunatics living in their run down ghostly mansions in the Hollywood area, not just back then but in the decades which have followed. However the film also makes you feel sentimental for the silent era, that something really was lost when Hollywood made the transition to sound.

Gloria Swanson’s role as Norma Desmond is my favourite female performance of all time. Over blown, over the top, flamboyant, fantastic! A performance which could have been unintentionally comical (ala John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe) but her insanity can be taken completely seriously; same goes for her butler Maxilillian played by Erich von Stroheim. In many ways she is that character, as Gloria Swanson has even said so herself; just looks at her reactions to watching her own pictures. Desmond is a character whose relevance for the modern world has not been lost, in an age when people are obsessed with celebrity, youth and beauty more than ever. Likewise Cecil B. deMille’s performance feels entirely genuine, as if two old friends have just met for them first time in years.

I also find the dynamic shared between William Holden and Gloria Swanson to be of fascination; an older woman seducing a much younger man who eventually gives into her, when in classic Hollywood films it was often the other way around. It’s clear from their actions as the film progresses the two characters are likely sleeping with each other, such as Joe happily flaunting his shirtless body in front of Norma by the pool side and she even starts drying him with a towel. There is a bit of Mrs Robinson to her.

Sunset Boulevard is possibly the most quotable film of its genre, although none its lines have become as famous in the pop culture lexicon as a film like say Casablanca, in which everyone knows its famous quotes weather or not they’ve seen the film or are even interested in classic cinema. Yet among circles of classic Hollywood fans, Sunset Boulevard is one of the most widely quoted films in discussions. Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrates the film despite his character being dead but it still works in an other worldly way, like he’s narrating from the afterlife. Holden hold an ideal narration voice to showcase Billy Wilder’s ability to turn exposition into poetry. Likewise Buster Keaton’s appearance may be my favourite celebrity film cameo ever; there’s something about his reaction when playing poker (“pass!”).

For as cynical a film as Sunset Boulevard is, ultimately it is a movie for movie lovers. Particularly the scene in which Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis of how there is no shame working behind the camera, while walking through the empty back stages of Paramount Studios at night as she tells him about her childhood spending time on studio back lots, is very life affirming. It’s such a beautiful and romantic scene; it’s easy why these two were paired in several films together. Olson’s character is the opposite of Norma Desmond, humble and down to Earth, not concerned with her looks or fame and fortune; and unlike Norma she can actually write movie scripts.

Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.

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Sabrina (1954)

Isn’t It Romantic? ‘Fraid Not

Sabrina is a movie which has ‘me’ written all over it. A romantic comedy directed by Billy Wilder and starring Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. I should be writing a review right now proclaiming my love for it, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Despite my best efforts, I can’t get emotionally engaged with this film. That was disappointing enough, although the thing which drove me crazy is that I couldn’t figure out why Sabrina doesn’t engage me despite being my cup of tea; a giant mug of tea with a chocolate digestive on the side.

I know many people comment on the issue of a young girl being involved in a relationship with a man old enough to be her father, but once you’ve seen enough classic Hollywood movies in which this is the case, then you get used to it. Sabrina’s love interest David Larrabee (William Holden) didn’t strike me as an interesting character initially, but on closer examination I think he does have some personality in how superficial he is, but I’m not convinced you would want to kill yourself over this guy. Also is his hair bleached in this film, it looks terrible.

On closer inspection, I believe the major flaw in Sabrina is that the title character is simply not interesting. I never caught onto this previously due to Audrey Hepburn’s natural lovable charm, but when thinking to myself about what are this character’s personality traits, a tumbleweed went by in my mind. Her transition from ugly duckling to glamour goddess is unconvincing; I imagine making Audrey Hepburn appear unattractive is impossible, but her appearance when she returns from Paris compared to her earlier self is largely the same aside from her just wearing more classy attire. Due to this the scene in which David meets Sabrina for the first time after returning from Paris and he doesn’t recognise her is hard to digest. Compare this to the 1995 remake (which yes I think is a much better film), it gives the character of Sabrina an in depth personality, a character transition which is more substantial and stronger chemistry between the leading lady and her two male co stars, but that is for another review.

Bogart’s role is the only character in the triangle who I find has any character development, playing against type as a sympathetic businessman. I find Sabrina isn’t without its moments, such as William Holden getting glass up his…you know. Was this word commonly known in 1954? Did 1950’s movie goers get the joke? Sabrina is more ordinary than Wilder’s other movies, and I feel it could have been directed by anyone. I assume Wilder wanting to directed something lighter for a change, not that there’s anything wrong with that, however this is his only movie from the 1950’s which I don’t like. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

Fedora (1978)

When the Pictures Became Small

Fedora is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen to say the least. At points I’m almost laughing at the movie’s plot twist yet the more bizarre and highly improbable the movie became the more I found myself getting engaged in the story, waiting in eager anticipation to find out what will happen next with those oh so joyous “I did not see that coming” moments. The film’s highly implausible plot manages to draw the thin line between being completely absurd but never feeling like a parody.

The character of Fedora herself is a reclusive movie star who goes to extreme lengths in order to stay “on top” and retain her eternal youth to the point which even Norma Desmond would consider crazy. Early during the film I suspected Greta Garbo to be the likely source of inspiration for the character of Fedora (whom Wilder always had great admiration for) but as the plot progressed I thought to myself “ok even Garbo was never this nuts”.

One of Fedora’s other intriguing aspects is the film’s critique of New Hollywood and how times have changed since Hollywood’s golden era came to pass. Fedora is the only film I’ve seen which displays a harsh attitude towards New Hollywood with lines referring to Hollywood being taken over by kids with beards who don’t need a script, just a handheld camera with a zoom lens as well as the demise of glamorous movie stars of the past. This is one of several aspects of Fedora which makes it similar to what you could call its spiritual cousin Sunset Boulevard; which itself commented upon what was lost when the silent era came to an end. I could go on making comparisons between the two films from William Holden playing a Hollywood hack in both films to Michael York’s role the in film being similar to the role Cecil B. Millie played in Sunset Boulevard.

I imagined by 1978 Wilder was far past his directing prime, not to mention after the 1950’s he seemed to become content with only directing comedies; thus I’m surprised to consider Fedora as one of his greatest films and a return to the roots of his earlier work as a director. As soon as William Holden’s narration begins you can instantly tell this is classic, old school Billy Wilder.

The Country Girl (1954)

Bing on a Binge

It’s good enough when a movie can impress me with an excellent performance delivered from an actor whom I didn’t think had the chops to do so, now multiply that by three and you’ve got The Country Girl.

I had only previously seen Bing Crosby in several musicals and comedies. He’s never struck me as an enigmatic screen presence but serviceable none the less. Thus surprise performance # 1 in The Country Girl. Why didn’t Crosby do more dramatic roles in his career? This is one of most powerful performances I’ve ever seen as a washed up alcoholic performer who has hit rock bottom. Like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend and Jack Lemon in Days of Wine and Roses, Crosby’s performance has helped convince me never to start drinking (or at least that would be the case since I’ve never had any intention of starting).

Yet I would still say he’s outdone by William Holden, surprise performance #2. I’ve found Holden to be very hit or miss as an actor, possibly relying on great directors to get a good performance out of him otherwise he comes off to me as forgettable. The jury is still out on his abilities as an actor but never less  after watching The Country Girl again I can say this is my favourite performance I’ve seen him deliver giving so much raw energy as a driven stage producer.

Finally in the triangle of surprise is Grace Kelly. Prior to watching The Country Girl I was becoming increasingly anti-Grace Kelly, questioning if she was even a very good actress. Here in this dowdy, playing against type role, my opinion of her changed. I have a rule when it comes to reviewing not to talk about Oscars as I see complaining about awards to be futile and cliché. Yet this is one exception in which I’m forced to break it due to the controversy surrounding her win. Judy Garland’s role in A Star Is Born is one of my favourite film performances of all time and should have won her the Oscar that year however if The Country Girl had been released most other years I would have been more than happy to see Grace Kelly get the Oscar.

Without delving into a mindless praise fest I really was left flabbergasted by this trio of performers aided with the help of the film’s unforgettable sense of atmosphere as Grace Kelly puts best herself: “There’s nothing quite so mysterious and silent as a dark theatre, a night without a star.”