When the movies went from silent to talking, who got left behind? How did it change the movie industry for the people in it? How did the change in the medium affect the world? That is the single-minded obsession of a film of obsessive, singular greatness – 1950’s Sunset Boulevard.
The melodramatic black hole of a performance by Gloria Swanson in the lead, and the obvious symbolism of the title, draw you into a speculation on the end of something. But it is important to remember that at the core of this film is also the beginning of something – in fact of what you would normally consider the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’.
The era of Norma Desmonds’s seclusion after all is the era of Bogart, of Gone with the Wind, of Howard Hawks. This was an era where the script and the dialogue was king, where people went to the movies to hear people talk, and where the dialogue comes so thick and fast that it feels (perhaps rightly) like audiences at this time weighing their ticket price vs the volume of words and making their judgements accordingly. Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall…all not only great actors but phenomenal when judged on words per minute…
Sunset Boulevard is thick with distaste for the world of words that seemed to have been unleashed by the new age of movies – and by implication, TV too. Its lead, lent almost-sympathy in the dramatic trick of making him narrate from beyond the grave, is profoundly unsympathetic as a word-churning writer. In fact writers across the board seem like a pretty tawdry lot, pumping on second-rate variations on formula, filled with plausible verbiage.
The chattering fast talk of journalists and writers alike is thrown into sharp relief by the Norma Desmond’s dramatic delivery and physical expressiveness. The intense drama of her declarations of affection are played off against the facile verbal fencing of the writer’s love affair. And the most powerful character, Butler/Director Max, is a man of very few words.
It’s also a movie in a grand tradition of pieces in which ‘I love you’ is held cheap. There is only one person who seems to mean it when they say it, if for all the wrong reasons – and that’s Norma Desmond. Particularly when she has it engraved in gold.
What we can feel in this movie is not so much a harking back to the golden days of the silent screen – much as you hanker for them as Buster Keaton flits across the screen – as an underlying unease about the world of chatter, of too many words from too many people signifying too little. And this was in 1950. Project this forward to the modern age of ubiquitous video, and you begin to get a sense of how much psychological pressure and acrobatic effort is placed upon the human mind by this deluge of words.
To end with a huge diversion – this line of thought leads me to reconsider what I consume with my ears, just as I do (sometimes) what I eat. On this subject, a great talk from the ever great TED. Maybe it is worth considering how to ration the chatter that we absorb every day – and to weigh and ration each word as people did when they first saw the Jazz Singer…and consigned Norma Desmond to a slow death of madness.
Fittingly, Sunset Boulevard also has two lines of dialogue, terse and perfect that are amongst the greatest in cinema.
“Mr De Mille? I’m ready for my close up.”
and, most appropriately…
“I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.”