Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Back At That Pool Again

Things change. That’s what happens as time goes on, like it or not. Films, on the other hand, don’t change. How much they mean to you can change and some matter even more as the years go by, while others fade away. In those cases, it’s often for the best. The reasons for all this become more clear as the films in question start to make more sense to the person you’ve grown into. And there are always reasons. Certain films deserve those reasons.
Watching SUNSET BLVD. again and, say what you will about him, but Joe Gillis apparently had a couple of B-pictures to his credit and I respect that. It seems to matter. He was in the Writers Guild, after all, which counts for something. And every morning lately when getting on the 101 North from Franklin I look over at the Alto Nido apartments across the way and give Joe a little wave, imagining him inside working on those original stories that are never going to get him anywhere. It’s left ambiguous just how good Joe Gillis ever was as a screenwriter but suddenly watching the film this time it feels more apparent than ever that none of the ideas for scripts that he’s sitting there pounding out are any good. None of them. They’re all just the work of somebody trying to come up with something, anything, and winding up with nothing. And if he ever got the chance to pitch the story of the film he’s the main character of, he should still bring in Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett to do the real work. But if we were ever meant to believe that Joe was a great writer, or even a halfway special writer, this would be a very different film. I wouldn’t think about him as much, that’s for sure. Paramount reader Betty Schaefer, one of ‘the message kids’, knows Joe by reputation as someone with talent so maybe he did have some even if it’s slipped away by the time the movie starts, drained out of him. “It’s from hunger,” Betty says about his BASES LOADED outline, which could also be a decent review of plenty of movies from the past thirty years or so. Whatever work Joe did on Norma Desmond’s version of SALOME doesn’t seem to have impressed C.B. DeMille either but maybe we can chalk that up to whatever Norma insisted he put in there. Maybe. Joe’s narration of his story gives the impression of someone with a knack for churning out sentences that contain a punchy, colorful flavor but maybe also with a hard-boiled edge that’s putting a little too much effort into the phrasing. Regardless, he was still trying. He didn’t want to go back to that copy desk in Ohio. And even though he says he was on his way out of town I’m still not convinced that Joe Gillis was really going to leave.
Of course, people do leave. I know that all too well by now and maybe I shouldn’t make any promises about my own future. Norma Desmond definitely would never leave, especially since she could never possibly imagine a world other than what she knows. We also don’t know just how good an actress Norma was during her own heyday but the way DeMille speaks of her makes me think there was something, even if he was the one who did much of the shaping of that persona. And she feels like a star, no matter how much her own madness informs that. You meet these people in Hollywood. They’re a star, they’ve been a star, they have that power and they drag you into their web if that’s what they want. Of course, Joe Gillis is the one I still relate to, even if I’m closer to Norma’s age by this point and it is certainly Joe Gillis in the first ten minutes of the movie that I’ve felt like more than a few times over the years. In my apartment, trying to write, trying to figure out if it’s any good, trying to avoid the truth of it all and I can’t see what’s coming around the corner. Along with that money problem you constantly need to worry about. Plenty of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BLVD. is about a Hollywood that’s no longer there but some of it still is and so much of it still hurts. It understands those moments when you just know you could never be anywhere else. And who can really say what sort of Hollywood isn’t there anymore? The way it is, we either deal with it or we don’t. It’s just that sometimes we’re not sure why we still do.
Flashing back from the body of a Hollywood screenwriter discovered in a fancy Beverly Hills swimming pool, we meet Joe Gillis (William Holden) at the end of his financial rope, unable to sell any story ideas and finance guys after his car. On the run from them he quickly turns into what he thinks is an old, abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard only to discover that it’s populated by silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who lives there with butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), waiting for her comeback, waiting for nothing. She enlists Joe to help out with a script she’s working on, a remake of Salome, but soon enough Joe realizes that he can’t leave. And why would he. But an encounter back in the real world with friend Artie Green (Jack Webb) and his script reader girlfriend Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) becomes a reminder of what he’s missing and when he tries to do something about it, that new script turns into something else entirely.
I have no idea how many times I’ve seen SUNSET BLVD. by now. Of course, I could say that about plenty of films. But this one feels different. Like only the very best do, this is one that’s become something different as I’ve gotten older, what started as something great has only gotten better, deeper, funnier, scarier. It felt even darker to me this time and it hadn’t been that long since I’d last watched it. What the film means has shifted, looking at it from the outside at somewhere I wish I could be to it turning into a view of a place I have a different perspective on now. And it also says something that SUNSET BLVD. is one of the best films ever made, as close to perfect as can be, with some of the most biting, quotable dialogue ever and it’s still maybe only the third best film ever made by Billy Wilder but I’m willing to have discussions over official rankings. Right from the first moment everything about SUNSET BLVD. is perfection, that narration, the acerbic rhythm of the dialogue in the studio exec’s office, that cynical tone Joe Gillis holds onto as he enters the mansion for the first time, just assuming that it will be enough armor against these two people. He has no idea how much more they know than him and he has no idea just what sort of power Norma is going to have each time she enters a room, the power she still has when she leaves. One of the things that makes it great is those shifting perspectives, the way it allows us to consider the narrative from each of the main character’s viewpoint and the comedy within it, as well as the horror, feels absolutely, scarily true.
But what is truth in Hollywood? What makes you connect with anyone? Just as many days I pass by Joe’s apartment building I’ve also driven down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, presumably passing the 10000 block where Norma’s mansion was. I also worked for several years at Paramount when most days I would take a walk around the lot during lunch, looking up at the giant soundstages, passing Robert Evans’ office, glancing up at the readers’ department where Betty Schaefer worked. I loved working at Paramount, a major studio that really is in the heart of Hollywood where such a place should be in our dreams. Paramount means even more because of SUNSET BLVD. Most of the film defiantly stays put in Noma Desmond’s mansion, that crumbling world where time stopped in the late 20s and to realize the clock has kept turning after all would be too horrible to confront. Realism is a factor in a film like this involving such larger than life figures, but those times when you suddenly find yourself in certain big houses up in the hills of Beverly Hills or Hollywood, realism has very little to do with things anyway. “Is it a black comedy?” Cameron Crowe asked the director in his book “Conversations with Wilder”. “No. Just a picture,” was the reply. He was right. Of course, it is a comedy, it is a drama, it is a noir, it is a horror movie, it is a damning look at what Hollywood does to people when they’re not looking. In Wilder you get the truth and from that truth comes the cynicism people still talk about when it comes to the director. The acerbic comic tone, the cruelty, maybe even the misogyny in its portrayal of ignoring the inevitability of age. Maybe this is correct, maybe it’s avoiding how much that tone feels like it comes from a jilted romantic or someone who is becoming more accepting of the way the world really is. ‘Curdled Lubitsch’ is how Andrew Sarris once described the Wilder approach, adding ‘romanticism gone sour’ but that isn’t how SUNSET BLVD. plays, a film that has long since moved on from na├»ve hope that you’re going to change the world. Even the 22 year-old Betty Schaefer seems to be approaching her writing career on a completely pragmatic level.
As for realism, the elegance found in the best of Lubitsch isn’t always so lifelike itself so maybe what Wilder brings is an appropriately rational cynicism, as if Lubitsch was about all the grace in the world while the best of Wilder can be about wondering how the grace was lost. Joe Gillis, after all, has been around Hollywood long enough to feel this way with some reason, to still be trying but to know what the odds really are. Cecil B. De Mille, at least as portrayed here, has an idea of how things really are and even he only has so much power. The film doesn’t hate Norma Desmond but it also knows she’s too far gone to be saved as Joe (or Wilder, or us) sadly shakes his head, that the past itself is way too far gone, and all it can really do is give her that moment of glory near the end when she’s too far gone to even fully understand it. The humanity is there and even Joe tries to offer that to her as he pleads with her near the end, before he's killed and even in his narration afterwards. He knows how much it means to her for the cameras to roll. He even seems to know that, in the end, her story is going to be more important than his own.
“They’re dead! They’re finished!” shouts Norma about the movies early on. Her viewpoint is because of all that dialogue but it’s nothing new. Someone, maybe me, could be shouting that about them even now. The movie knows how eternal the town is, or at least was then, how much this is all going to go on. The sympathy is shown to Norma, at least partly because Joe doesn’t ask for it. Whether or not he deserves it, he really doesn’t care. And just how strange it is, in that mansion. The film doesn’t waste a moment, mapped out in that brilliant script by Wilder and Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. whose involvement apparently boiled down to supplying part of the premise which gave him a credit meaning that he’ll forever be one of the writers of SUNSET BLVD, one of the greatest movies ever made. Which of course makes me wonder, just what have I done lately? It even seems important that this film marked the end of Wilder’s collaboration with Brackett for reasons that have always seemed a little unclear, even when one of them got asked about it. The storytelling carefully reveals one layer at a time almost before you realize it just as Max made up Joe’s guest room hours before he knew he was going to stay. It can be easy to forget in all this madness about Norma’s pet monkey who died right before Joe showed up. He becomes the new monkey and never even realizes it, at least until it doesn’t matter anymore.
And it’s a film about people who are waiting, so much of it is about that waiting. “Waiting for the gravy train,” as Joe Gillis puts it and it’s what almost all the people in SUNSET BLVD. seem to have in common. Everyone is waiting, even De Mille is waiting to shoot the next scene when we first see him. Norma Desmond is waiting too, waiting for that phone call she’ll never get about her big comeback. The first ten minutes out there in the world Joe is either trying to avoid people or get their attention and it all gets him nowhere. Once he finds himself in the world of Norma he’s just waiting to leave. Even though he has nowhere to go. Deep down don’t we all believe that something like this is going on in Beverly Hills right this minute? Money is just as much a factor with Joe needing it for his car what indirectly leads him into Norma’s driveway in the first place. But it’s not the only factor. Norma has so much money that she doesn’t care about it and at a certain point Joe doesn’t care about all that money either. The very nature of him prostituting himself, if that’s what we’ll call it, goes beyond the money. It’s not a movie about money, after all. It’s about wanting to be known in the end, whether as a star or just one more name in the credits.
And it’s about waiting through all those beginnings and endings. Maybe I’m thinking about a little of both right now, maybe because of my own extremes I’ve had the past few years. We meet Joe Gillis at his own end just as we meet Walter Neff near his end at the start of DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Both films lead right into a flashback structure although it’s not as clear at first in SUNSET BLVD who the real main character of the film is. As for beginnings, Betty Schaefer is apparently no more than 22 and in such a hurry that it would be easy to believe her if she admitted that becoming a writer was more important than her marriage to assistant director Artie Green (or, really, anyone). She probably has lots of opinions on films she’s seen recently like THE HEIRESS and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES that she can’t share with Artie but Joe would be ideal on an intellectual level if she could ever get him to stop talking around the subject. And she helps him want to write again, really write, at least for a little while, the way she gets into his brain and makes him want to do it, to overcome all those ways people never have any idea who writes a movie, that obsession he can’t seem to shake and is keeping him from ever actually really leaving. She knows all the plots, after all. She knows what he wants. Joe’s more romantic relationship with her isn’t quite the same as Walter Neff getting close with Lola Dietrichson played by Jean Heather in DOUBLE INDEMNITY but they serve a similar function as a reminder of the innocence that was once there, both young women seemingly offering the lead a way out of situation they’ve gotten themselves into, or at least a reminder that there really is some kind of innocence left in the world, no matter how much each of the men are already just too far gone.
The New Years’ Eve sequence even plays now as a funhouse mirror version of the end of THE APARTMENT which wouldn’t even be made for another decade, someone this time returning to a person for the absolute wrong reasons unlike what Shirley Maclaine’s Fran Kubelik would do much later. But back to the cynicism or at least back to trying to understand if there is any humanity in SUNSET BLVD, anyone onscreen Billy Wilder really cares about. He seems to know that caring about Joe is like caring about himself and that will only get him so far. Betty is young and she’ll be fine, Joe knows that he doesn’t need to worry about her. Norma, along with a little bit left over for Max, is where his affection goes even if she’ll never be aware of it and likely never care. She’s the one who’s going to get it somehow and in that is a reflection of his own feelings for the movies and for the town named Hollywood that he lived in, as much of a sewer as he understood it to be. SUNSET BLVD. is a film like no other about what it is to be in Hollywood and the choice to remain. Norma was discarded by the town. And in the final shot she envelops it.
Billy Wilder very likely means more to me than any other director. He made films the way I want them to be and make sense in a life that I sometimes find myself caught up in, like it or not. Hoping I get to the right ending, unlike Joe, whether still in Los Angeles or not. No other film seemed to understand Hollywood quite this way until the 2001 appearance of David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DR., named for another road up the hill and several years after Lynch had already taken the name of the much talked about Gordon Cole from SUNSET for a character he played in TWIN PEAKS. The best Hollywood movies, even when they classify as comedies, are really horror films in their way. I’m also still a little fascinated by Robert Aldrich’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE which plays as some sort of odd mashup up SUNSET BLVD and VERTIGO even while never nailing down the tone beyond just coming off as sort of weird. A brief redo of the small piece of young Gloria Swanson footage from the unfinished QUEEN KELLY that appears briefly in SUNSET also turns up in Lynch’s even darker more extreme INLAND EMPIRE and the way his outlook has been inspired by Wilder becomes more crystalized the more each of their obsessions seem to mirror each other, effortlessly finding the horror of the real human feelings below the comedy. And SUNSET BLVD. is this original, pure distillation of that view. Even now, in a time when we don’t know how much longer there’ll even be a Paramount, it still matters, at least it does in my dreams.
The compassion the film shows may be for Norma and she may be the one who takes over the final image but it’s William Holden as Joe who holds it all together with a grounding that helps us understand and every single moment feels completely genuine. He has to be as cynical as he is, as dismissive of Norma and Max, so dismissive that he doesn’t realize how deep he’s in until it’s too late, with a believability to his desperation seen just under the surface and to play any of that from a remove would cause it to collapse. His determination is just as strong as that self-loathing and few other actors in 1950 would have been able to give his answer of “Constantly” to the question “Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?” just the right indication that he’s joking but not really joking, not when it comes to this. Maybe it would make sense for the character to be a little younger than Holden projects but that grouchy humanity he brings is essential for holding his presence down just as Gloria Swanson shoots everything else around her off into space, overwhelming each moment even as I sometimes notice how tiny the 4’11 actress really was. The intensity of every look she gives makes it seem like it wouldn’t be allowed to look at anyone else when she’s in frame, plus how much of her performance can be found in each gesture she makes, especially the way she pulls Joe towards her at the end of the New Years’ sequence, making it clear who really has had the power between the two of them all along. The movie really is the two of them but surrounding them with the intensity of Erich von Stroheim who the more you watch the more you pay attention to how much he’s holding this madness that he’s in charge of together plus the way he says the name “Gordon Cole” is one of those things impossible to forget. Nancy Olson may be the ingenue but she never comes off as too innocent, simply looking for the right way to get in a little bit more, knowing what she wants but never guessing just how far she will wind up peering into the town she’s always known.
Bringing it back around to each time I look across the 101 at the Alto Nido Apartments, SUNSET BLVD. reveals a truth that always feels like a reminder both of what I want and what I desperately want to avoid. And it’s also a reminder that, well, even Joe Gillis had those B-movie credits. This makes me wonder just how Billy Wilder thought of Joe Gillis, even in a self-deprecating way. He’s searching for the answers to why he’s still trying to do all this and if Wilder went through this sort of period during his early days in Hollywood, I’m sure he understood. Maybe this feeling is part of why I return to Billy Wilder films so much, pretty much all of them (well, maybe not THE EMPEROR WALTZ), even the few I’d just as soon do without. That look at a humanity that combines glaring in the mirror with unrequited self-hatred with desperately trying to hold out a little bit of hope. Sometimes that happens in Wilder’s films. Sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it’s a draw. But that’s what so much of life becomes. Waiting for that one thing. That one moment. If we’re lucky.