“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
American Film Institute Ranking: #12/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for eleven, won three including best original screenplay but none of the biggies.
I really enjoyed this movie. A lot.
There are a lot of different angles, and it’s all packed into a tight presentation: a critique of hollywood; an unintentional period piece; purposeful inside references; old vs. new. The end result is a poignant insight into a time long gone, showing the underbelly of show biz that has been there since the very beginning.
The film begins in the present, as we are introduced to the main protagonist of the story: Joe Gillis (played by William Holden who was nominated for Best Actor for this role). The only problem is he’s face down in a pool — dead. Thus begins the flashback to show us how we got here. Joe is a struggling script writer, and with debt collectors leaning on his car, he is trying to find anyone to accept his work. Trying to hide from those wanting to confiscate his car, he pulls into what he thinks is an abandoned drive way to hide but is really the home of Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson who was also nominated for her role).
Norma Desmond is part of the old Hollywood: a successful silent-movie star who hasn’t found her place in the new, talking-picture era. Norma learns that Joe is a script writer and wants to hire him to shape up her personal script, the big break that is going to get her back into show business. Joe knows the script is trash, but he takes on the job anyways needing the money.
Norma embodies the spirit of the silent movie era. She is theatrical and over the top; every scene oozes with her histrionics. She is also completely delusional thinking that she still has an important place within Hollywood. She is unaware of how much has changed and how the machine no longer needs her to function. Her butler, Max, writes fictional fan mail to try and buoy her self-esteem. Norma lives alone, isolated and fragile.
Joe is film noir personified. He’s cynical, a quick-wit, and melodramatic. He is the yin to Norma’s yang, not giving into emotional outbursts but instead has an aloof aura, going along with the sequence of events in-line with the fatalistic mood of film noir movies. He represents the new style of film that has taken over Hollywood and is the reminder to those watching that Norma is old news.
Thus begins the important relationship of the movie and the vehicle that drives all the different threads of the story.
The self-critique theme of this movie deals with how phony Hollywood is and how the show must go on no matter who it tears a part. I find it interesting whenever you see something like this taking place in the 50s as there is always a present-day narrative of how things have become more insincere. No one ever seems to want to admit that things were that way from the very beginning, but here we have a movie set smack dab in 1950 showing us the contrary.
The movie’s focus on the new and the old make it something of a period piece without meaning to be. The movie goes to great lengths to make the film as within the moment as possible and does so through breaking the fourth wall with an audience that would have known the references: it brings in an actual director to play himself (Cecil B. Demille), Norma Desmond is played by an actual star of silent films (Gloria Swanson), Max the butler was actually a silent movie director (Erich Von Stroheim). This gives a certain edge to the film even with me retrospectively watching it; everything seems so real as these are actual people who legitimately went through these changes.
When the Demille turns down Norma later in the film, these were not people simply acting; this is what they actually experienced throughout their career. The film that Norma and Joe watch together in the gif above was an actual film that was released years prior and had been directed by Stroheim starring Swanson. This constant interplay between reality and art make the movie engrossing, as if you are there to watch the train wreck unfold.
While William Holden does a great job exemplifying quintessential film noir, it’s Gloria Swanson who steals the show as Norma. Her psychosis, completely turned inside out for us to see. The life that is forever trapped in an era that no longer exists and within a framework where she no longer matters. The irony of this is that Norma finally does get her final wish, back in front of cameras and people, but only after she has committed an irreversible deed, shutting the door on both the silent and noir eras, leaving open a space for the next wave of hollywood productions for public consumption.
This movie is simply exquisite, and with a little bit of research, you too can be in on all the references and appreciate how well this movie captures the dark side of the Hollywood churn.