Friday, October 2, 2009

Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along...

An actual post, about an actual movie, in this blog? Quelle suprise! Actually, I'm supposed to be keeping "film journals" for two of my classes this semester, which works out extremely well for me seeing as how I already have one.

The first film I watched in The Movie Industry this semester was Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. This 1950 noirish drama stars the fabulous Gloria Swanson, herself a silent film star who successfully negotiated the transition to sound, as an aging actress who wasn't nearly so lucky. Norma Desmond has the overbearing presence of a great star, which belies her fragile and childlike nature. She relies on her ex-husband-turned-butler Max and, later, the hapless writer Joe Gillis to perpetuate the illusion of her relevence in a culture that's long since forgotten her.

The setting largely seems to reflect Norma's character. Her house is decrepit and filled with the badly-preserved remnants of her glory days, including numerous photos of herself in her prime -- as Gillis says, "that's all she wanted to see." My professor pointed out a resemblence between Norma's sprawling old mansion and that of Miss Havisham, and although it's been years since I've read Great Expectations I found myself coming back to that analogy all throughout the film. Norma's old photos and silent film reels evoked the same feelings I got from Miss Havisham's stopped clocks; namely, the sense of a character trying desperately (even pathetically) to literally suspend time.

Norma's insistence on living in the past seems to be infective. Max and Gillis willingly cut themselves off from the outside world, although Gillis eventually rebels, and even Cecil B. DeMille is drawn into protecting Norma from learning that time has moved on without her. They become Norma's supporting cast as she stars in her own daily melodrama; when Gillis begins to deviate from the "script," she finally loses the plot entirely.

When Norma is arrested for Gillis' murder at the end, ever-loyal Max makes sure that she gets her audience one last time. At this, I'm left to wonder if anything in Norma's life really will change. After all, has her spacious, hollow mansion with the big iron bars on the door ever been anything but a prison to which she willingly sentenced herself? As the camera zooms in for the last time on Norma's gastly face, I get the sense that she will go on being a star in her own mind regardless of what happens to her.


  1. wow, what an excellent post!! I'm definitely going to watch this in a different light next time I see it-- and I never even thought of the Miss Havisham comparison before, but it really is so true.

  2. Thanks, Kate! I definitely saw the rest of the movie a lot differently after my professor brought up Great Expectations. I love finding connections like that.

  3. Good post. and it's a striking comparison when you think about it. It's always cool to think what happens to characters after the closing credits and for some reason I always imagined that Norma committed suicide in some theatrical manner.

  4. That's an interesting ending too, Andrew, and the film does set a precedent for it. I can see it playing out that way.

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