25 September 2014

My favourite scene from 'Sunset Boulevard'

Sunset Boulevard is Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir featuring a remarkable and remarkably courageous performance by former silent movie star Gloria Swanson, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She plays close to home as the increasingly delusional former silent movie star Norma Desmond, whose relationship with a much younger screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) starts out as one between an employer and employee but swiftly elides into a relationship between the grandiose older woman and the down-on-his-luck writer. Swanson's performance is historic in its impact, and several of her lines from the film are still quoted - "I'm ready for my closeup, Mr DeMille' and 'I am big, it's the pictures that got small!' The film was nominated for an impressive 11 Oscars, but only won three, most prominently for the screenplay. There are even treasured cameos from the golden age of film: DeMille himself, the legendary Buster Keaton, famed director and actor Erich von Stroheim, and doyenne Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.

But my favourite scene from the movie is a tiny snippet involving Holden and the talented young would-be screenwriter Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). At this point in the film, Joe and Betty are foils - Betty is Joe's best friend's fiance, and had previously nixed one of Joe's studio spec scripts with an honest but honest review in her day job as a script reader. It's New Year's Eve and Joe has sneaked out of Norma Desmond's mansion for some company closer to his own age. In the bathroom of a noisy party, Holden and Olson stage this lovely scene, which is the first inkling the characters actually do fancy each other. Facetiously assuming the roles of melodramatic screen stars in a saccharine romance, they satirise the genre while at the same time sparking a new romantic dynamic that, as you might imagine, rather complicates Joe's relationship with his batty middle-aged patron. Just soak up the lovely jink in Olson's '...furthermore you can have the phone now' and Holden's mock-aristocratic 'Suddenly I find myself terribly afraid of losing you'. Not bad for a scene under a minute long! Olson and Holden would be paired in three further studio films in quick succession after Sunset Boulevard, but none was as successful as this classic offering.
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