A few days ago, I watched Charles Chaplin’s “Limelight for the first time.
For years, I’ve been reluctant to watch silent cinema’s greatest comedian talk; fearing it would distort my image of the Tramp – one of my favorite cinematic characters.
In one of the forgotten pivotal moments of film history, Chaplin’s character teams up with the other great silent comedian, Buster Keaton, for a hilarious act which hits close to reality. By the late 40s, when “Limelight came out, Chaplin was considered a relic. Keaton, on the other hand, was a washed-up alcoholic divorcee, playing secondary roles for one tenth of the salary he received at the peak of his career.
The transition from silent films to talkies was cruel, relentless, and too sudden for the silent actors and filmmakers to cope with.
As the sun eclipsed on one of cinema’s richest chapters, the stars of the silent era soon faded into oblivion. The sudden downfall of matinee idols like Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and starlets Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish was hardly documented by American media, in part so as not to shatter the magic and assurance brought by the Hollywood kingdom.
In 1950, Billy Wilder – Oscar winning director of “The Lost Weekend and “Double Indemnity – returned to the dark abyss of “Weekend with a film that would demystify the Hollywood myth for good.
The film was called “Sunset Boulevard, starring a group of actors who were well past their prime. “Boulevard was star Gloria Swanson’s first movie in nine years, while William Holden, the other main protagonist of the movie, was battling alcoholism after failing to secure a sizable hit for nearly 10 years. Along with silent film director Erich von Stroheim, the three leading actors of the film, to a considerable extent, were playing variations of their real characters.
The film opens with a voiceover of a man announcing a murder that had taken place in one of Hollywood’s ultra posh Sunset Boulevard area. The murder involves a famous movie star while the victim is a second-rate scriptwriter with some B-pictures to his name.
The voiceover actually belongs to Joe Gillis (Holden), the murdered writer who tells his story from the grave.
Gillis is a mediocre writer, uninterested in creating a lofty work of art with true merit. On the contrary, Gillis is too realistic and cynical to craft a story that doesn’t have concrete potential to sell. He knows the rules of the Hollywood game, and he’s in for the quick cash, not the glory.
Gillis’ latest shot in selling another average script of his is thwarted by Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a small studio employee who directly informs him that his story is too insipid and standard.
When this ill-fated meeting ends, Gillis heads back home only to find his creditors chasing after him, trying to take away his car. He dodges the bunch by holing up in the garage of an ancient mansion that looks deserted.
Gillis shortly finds out that the gigantic palace is inhabited by Norma Desmond, the silent film siren who lives in complete seclusion with her faithful butler Max von Mayerling (von Stroheim).
Max is a former film director with an impeccable body of work that’s been utterly forgotten as well. “There were three young directors who showed promise in those days: D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max Von Mayerling, Max reveals to Gillis who remains baffled throughout the film with Max’s unquestionable devotion and degradation.
Desmond offers to edit Gillis’ adaptation of “Salome. Gillis knows that her script is appalling, far beyond any possible repair. Yet he accepts Desmond’s lucrative proposal as she gradually weaves her web around him, transforming him into her new toy.
“Sunset Boulevard is a flawless film, one of the greatest film noirs in history and easily the best film made about Hollywood and American cinema. The entire picture though lies on the wide shoulders of Swanson who gave one of the greatest of all screen performances with the monstrous Desmond.
She is a woman who continues to live in her past glories, back in the days when actors and actresses were regarded as gods and goddesses; back before they tumbled down from film heaven with method acting and Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame; back before they became flawed and imperfect like us and before our admiration changed into derision.
In one of the several classic lines of the film, Gillis tells her, “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big. Desmond quickly dismisses his remarks. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got smaller.
Swanson’s flamboyant theatrical excess perfectly fits her character.
Desmond never stopped acting; she, like many of her contemporaries and successors, became the character the studios invented for her. “The dream she had clung to so desperately, Gillis explains “had enfolded her.
All three characters are trapped in their own desires. Desmond refuses to carry on with a life devoid of all the glamour, constant recognition and camera lights. Gillis is no different. He’s a gigolo who sells his soul and body for a platinum watch, a golden cigarette case, and designer suits. Max, perhaps the purest and most sympathetic character in the film, is also trapped in his love for Desmond.
What gives Wilder’s film its undying authenticity is the daring approach he used in employing real film figures and real names. In one scene Desmond screens to Gillis “Queen Kelly, a film known to be the last collaboration between Swanson and von Stroheim.
In another scene, Wilder shows Desmond playing bridge with her fellow silent films greats Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton who Gillis maliciously refers to as “the waxworkers. In another scene, Desmond visits DeMille in the Paramount studios where he was shooting “Samson and Delilah.
“Sunset Boulevard was released during the post-war years when Americans were driven to entertainment dreamscapes. The tone, texture, and Wilder’s pessimistic worldview is darker than the darkest of all film noirs that flourished between the mid-40s and mid-50s.
It is confrontational and more callous than the backstage backstabbing of “All About Eve that scooped the Oscars the following year.
Fifty-seven years later, the film remains as haunting and alluring as ever.
There’s something fascinating with the gothic world of Wilder, of John F.
Seitz’s morbid cinematography, and Franz Waxman’s subtle score that suggests that Gillis might be caught in a dream he’s not aware of.
Most importantly though, “Sunset Boulevard marked one of the earliest efforts to dismantle the American dream (John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath came close 10 years earlier before choosing to adopt the slightly hopeful open end). By taking a stab at sacred Hollywood, the epitome of the American dream, the effect had far more impact than the dozens of socially conscious films produced in the 30s.
Without “Sunset Boulevard, there wouldn’t be “The Player, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? “Woman in the Dune, or “Mullholland Drive.
With the iconic last line of the film, cinema would never be the same again.
Desmond descends the stairs to face the camera and, in all her damaged splendor, declares “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.
“Sunset Boulevard is screening tonight at Villa Grey.
For more information, please check the culture agenda.