Fred and Yasser’s Film Club: Week Seven, Part Two – ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950)

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The Premise
Film fanatics and friends
 Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen. No style of acting, direction or writing will be left unturned as two very different lists collide, ranging from silent comedy to martial arts movies.

Fred’s choice this week is a cynical look at the fleeting nature of fame. Did Yasser rate it or hate it? Find out below.

You can read the entires from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.

You can also access the lists so far by clicking here for Fred’s and here for Yasser’s.
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Fred: Okay Yasser. My choice this week was Billy Wilder‘s Hollywood drama ‘Sunset Boulevard‘. Had you heard of it, or anything about it, before you watched it?

Yasser: Yeah, it was on my ‘to-do’ list. It was something I was told to watch and I was inquisitive because of that famous last line.

FS: Well preempted! I was about to ask why it was on your ‘to-watch’ list.

YA: I’ve heard good things about it, and when people parody it, they do the melodramatic actress shit and reference it to ‘Sunset Boulevard’.

FS: Yes.

YA: She’s flippin’ bonkers, isn’t she?

FS: (laughs) Yes. I can confirm that Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, is bonkers.

YA: You would think she’s constantly off her tits, but she’s not on anything!

FS: She has known what it is to be the biggest and can’t handle that her crown has slipped. What did you make of Norma and Swanson’s portrayal?

YA: Norma was the first one to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. It’s her pride that causes her to leave the business she was in, the same pride that keeps her living in the past, and urges her to write a ridiculous script for her comeback. One of her first lines in the picture is dripping with pride and ego – “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small“. Yet she is an empty shell of the former self she’s trying so hard to keep up.

FS: That line really sums the whole character up. She was a huge silent star and when sound came along, as we know, a lot of careers were ruined very quickly, some of them due to this inability to adapt to what they saw as vulgar.

YA: I think you love that era. You’re infatuated with it.

FS: Well, I am a big lover of silent cinema. If ‘The Artist‘ gives any sort of boost to the popularity of silent films then it will have done something wonderful. My first love, cinema-wise, is Laurel & Hardy, who were the silent comedians who made the best transition to sound, so my love of films originates from movies of that period.

YA: Well ‘The Artist’ tells a similar story. Maybe Norma needed a small doggy.

FS: She had a chimp, but she fucked it to death.

YA: (silence) She didn’t, did she?

FS: (laughs)

‘Sunset Boulevard’
1950 – USA
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen, Fred Clark

FS: Gloria Swanson – what did you make of her?

YA: Well, you know last week when we were discussing Faye Dunaway in ‘Chinatown‘? I said I hate over-the-top melodrama. Swanson plays it really well.

FS: Yes? You make me very happy.

YA: I hate that shit, but that is how her character is meant to be. It’s not one extreme to the next, it’s extreme all the time.

FS: She is always ‘on’, like there is always an audience.

YA: She is completely batshit.

FS: (laughs)

YA: There is something quite endearing about Max’s (Erich von Stroheim) loyalty to her, then it turned sickening when you discover his secret.

FS: Max – he is a bit of a tragic figure, as they all are really, but his loyalty is indeed touching. The lengths he goes to keep Norma in a sort of stasis, and then Joe (William Holden) gets tangled in the same web. On that subject, did you think Holden was the right man to play Joe Gillis?

YA: Yeah, he was a nobody. There was nothing exceptional about him. that made him right for the job.

FS: (laughs) That is the most back-handed compliment I’ve heard in a while. “You are nobody, that is why you’re so right for it”.

YA: He didn’t give an unforgettable performance. It wasn’t played poorly. It was fairly average – somewhat mundane – but that made it authentic.

FS: Right…

YA: I don’t know if that’s what he intended to do, but that’s how it felt he executed it.

FS: I think I see what you mean.

YA: Nancy Olsen‘s Schaefer was awesome. Finally, a strong, assured woman with her shit together. Rare in your movies. (laughs)

FS: (laughs) You were pretty happy with the standard of the acting then?

YA: Yeah, Cecil B. DeMille had a nice cameo as himself, as did others.

FS: The appearance of a few silent stars is another touch af authenticity. Did you like the way it was filmed.

YA: Other than ‘Sin City‘ and ‘The Spirit‘, I can’t remember a recent film noir. I love that type of shot and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ pulled it off very well. I also like the moody voiceover.

FS: It’s a brilliant example of how a voiceover should work. Not to describe everything, just to add a bit of flesh to the bones.

YA: You know what else was AWESOME? That 1931 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8B Viggo Jensen Cabriolet D’Orsay. Oh my days!

FS: I assume that’s the car.

YA: No, it’s not the car, it’s THE car.

FS: (laughs) How about the script and the direction? Did you think they were well done?

YA: I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t awful enough for me to complain about it…

FS: (stunned silence)

YA: … and it wasn’t amazing enough for me to rave about it.

FS: Was it natural, then?

YA: Yeah, for that era it felt like it was the norm. The costume design was something to buzz about. Gillis’ evening garms were classy as fuck.

FS: Not quite up to your standard, from what I remember from the Christmas party.

YA: Arrrrrr… (laughs) what?

FS: (laughs) Tremendous. So the dreaded question… what didn’t you like?

YA: Hmmm… I didn’t like the way Schaefer slipped into love with Gillis. That was more of a tangent than I would have liked. There was chemistry between them and she was the sort of woman he needed, but when the romance emerged again in the final act of the movie I just blinked.

FS: Do you not think it was important to heighten the sense of how unreal and unhealthy his relationship with Norma was?

YA: I’d have liked it better if they kept flirting and his feeling had developed. Then he’d question his life.

FS: He’s always thinking that his relationship with Norma will be just a few weeks and then he can get back to reality, but he gets sucked in.

YA: Other than that it was good and, at times, great. Why do you love the film?

FS: Where to begin? First of all, Billy Wilder is one of my cinematic heroes and this is him at close to his peak. His films all have a streak of cynicism through them, but this is very dark.

YA: Go on…

FS: Secondly, as you touched on, it is about Hollywood. It’s nice to see a brutally honest view from the inside.

FS: Finally, and with great deference to William Holden, Gloria Swanson is mesmerising. I can’t think of a performance by an actress that I think is better… ever! Her way of acting is at first so alien, all exaggerated faces and big gestures but that is how silent stars acted.

YA: Okay, I’ll sum up now. I loved the style of the film, the era, the houses, cars… it was classy. Holden… the boy done good. He downplayed his role for the character’s essence. I liked the supporting characters too, especially Olsen until the romantic bullshit. Norma – the role was skillfully acted and the movie would have fallen apart if it was done differently. Swanson was faultless, but it was also annoying to watch sometimes. I was constantly thinking ‘Oh get over yourself, you dozey bint’. i wasn’t bored but it wasn’t as good as ‘Chinatown’ so it’s a high 7/10 from me.

FS: That’s good. Norma wouldn’t be happy though.

YA: Tough shit, lady.

FS: You’ll be floating face down in a swimming pool, narrating your own demise in no time, mate.

Next Week: Roman Polanski and Charlton Heston return to ‘Film Club’ as ‘The Pianist’ and ‘Touch of Evil’ get the once over.

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7 thoughts on “Fred and Yasser’s Film Club: Week Seven, Part Two – ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950)

    […] Sunset Boulevard […]

    […] It was dark and gritty, more like ‘Chinatown‘ than ‘Sunset Boulevard‘. Some of it was slightly exaggerated but it […]

    […] weeks, Yasser, you have watched movies directed by some of the greats such as Polanski, Welles and Wilder. This week it’s Ingmar Bergman and the film that brought him to international prominence, […]

    […] I wasn’t bowled over by him, but as you said about William Holden in ‘Sunset Boulevard‘, he was an ordinary guy and that is what was […]

    […] media about her love life – her character was everything I hate in a female role. But like Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, you can’t help but love the clueless bint because Hagen plays her to […]

    […] to know what you think of Billy Wilder. He wrote and directed one of my earlier choices, ‘Sunset Boulevard‘, and this, which is much lighter as a […]

    […] ‘Singin’ in the Rain‘, ‘Cinema Paradiso’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard‘ all nod to the old days of […]

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