My current Top 5

My current Top 5

4/15/2010

Best Actress 1950: Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard"

After various actresses had rejected the part of silent film star Norma Desmond, director Billy Wilder turned to Gloria Swanson, an actress who, just like Norma Desmond herself, had been one of the great stars in silent films but whose fame faded after the transition to talkies. While Gloria Swanson was interested in playing the part, she felt insulted by the demand to make a screen test for her studio but finally swallowed her pride and gave one of the most iconic and unforgettable performances of all time and the signature work of her entire career.

Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece and one of the greatest movies of all time, tells the story of Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful and cynical screenwriter, whose life takes an unexpected turn when he has to stop his car in the driveway of a big, apparently abandoned mansion. Very soon her realizes that this mansion is not left but inhabited by Norma Desmond, a great, but forgotten star of the silent era who dreams of a return to the silver screen.

Before Norma Desmond appears for the first time, the viewer hears her distinctive, bidding voice from the distance. Then the camera moves slowly towards her, but her face is mostly hidden behind some blinds in front of her windows. It’s a mysterious introduction to one of the most fascinating movie characters ever. Norma Desmond lives in a world of the past. She doesn’t realize that she is forgotten by today’s audience but still thinks of herself as the greatest of them all. She is not the same kind of diva as Margo Channing in All about Eve – Margo has trouble to face reality while Norma doesn’t even see reality and lives in her own fantasy world. And it’s also obvious from the beginning that the years of isolation, living in an empty house full of pictures of herself, watching movies with herself, has driven Norma close to the edge of insanity. As her butler says, she has already tried to kill herself and Norma’s constant behavior, her mood swings, her way of talking and behaving, show that this woman is slowly becoming crazy.

Gloria Swanson gives a performance that is pitch-perfect because she completely understands both the character and the movie style: it’s a mix of satire and realism, a dark comedy and a shocking drama and Gloria Swanson fitted her performance to this – her performance is stylized to the maximum, over-the-top and larger-than-life but always real and Gloria Swanson never crosses the line to unconvincing. It’s the only way this character could have been played successfully and Gloria Swanson is masterful. She also understands the humor and comedy of the film and that Norma Desmond is not supposed to be realistic but Gloria is able to give a real performance of this unreal character. She also perfectly brings all the supposed qualities of Norma to live – she is able to make it believable that this woman used to be a great star, there is something hypnotic about her personality that glues the viewer’s eye to the screen whenever she appears.

Norma Desmond is not a diva because she is a great star – she is only a diva because she thinks she is. Gloria Swanson is not afraid to show that Norma is mostly a pathetic character. Forgotten, laughed at, only remembered by people who actually experienced her fame. But Norma never becomes a laughable character thanks to Gloria Swanson’s dominating tour-de-force that always hints at something dangerous, unstable and uncontrollable behind Norma’s face that prevents from laughing at her. Instead, she is completely captivating from start to finish.

Even though the character of Norma Desmond sometimes seems of secondary importance compared to Joe Gillis, she never steps into the background and her presence is constantly felt. Gloria Swanson also developed a wonderful chemistry with William Holden who also plays his part with outstanding determination.

Gloria Swanson plays her role with full confidence in her own ability to combine her personal experiences as a silent movie star with Norma’s inability to leaves these days behind her. Especially in the scenes when Norma finally goes mad, Gloria Swanson’s own roots in the silent era become most effective because her widened eyes, filled with insanity, her way of moving could only be done by an actress who knew a time before there was ‘talk, talk, talk’. In these scenes, Gloria Swanson’s performances crosses the line from outstanding to perfection. Her line delivery, which has been wonderful already and turned so many of her lines into classics, becomes so deliciously mad without ever seeming exaggerated. Her final scene is an incredibly mix of insanity, paltriness and comedy. A performance like hers could not have been so successful in any other movie because it completely depends on Sunset Boulevard’s style and story but in this fictitious world, it’s true perfection.

In the role of Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson knows exactly what she is doing and what she can achieve. It’s one of the great screen performances and for this she gets

5 comments:

Louis Morgan said...

One of the greatest performances ever.

dinasztie said...

My pick. Yeah, definitely my pick. And I also believe that SB should have won Best Picture, Director, Actor and Supp. Actor too. But I'm biased, because it's one of my favorites.

Louis Morgan said...

I agree with you about Picture, Director, and possibly actor, but I think Sanders deserved to win best supporting actor.

Sage Slowdive said...

I hope she's your pick :)

Fritz said...

Of the big Oscars, SB should have won Picture, Director, Screenplay and maybe Supporting Actor. It's an amazing ensemble but the competition that year is so strong in all categories!