Monday, April 19, 2010

Cinematically the Waist

Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden
Directed by Billy Wilder
Costumes by Edith Head

Let me tell you about the time I gave Buster Keaton an HJ in Chuck Chaplin's dressing room...

When it comes to tales of the dark side of fame, there is no greater film than Sunset Blvd. Billy Wilder's masterpiece is still painfully relevant 60 years later, what with the numerous downfalls and untimely deaths in our celebrity-obsessed culture.

They had FACES then. Their original faces, too.

And in the pantheon of great screen divas, few stand as tall, or as crazy, as Norma Desmond, brilliantly brought to life by silent screen siren Gloria Swanson in no doubt her greatest role.

Gloria the ingenue

Norma, like Gloria herself, was a major star before the era of the talkies and unable to accept the loss of her fame (and sanity), lives in a world of her past glory, assisted by her well-meaning and utterly devoted butler, Max.

Joe, do I look old? And before you answer, just know this bracelet doubles as a gun.

The walls begin to crumble when struggling writer, Joe Gillis, wanders into Norma's life. She sees in him the chance to engineer her long-awaited comeback to the big screen and he sees in her a meal ticket, but he's also inexplicably drawn to her.

If you had just given me my god damn cocktail, this wouldn't be happening right now!

We as the audience know from the first few minutes that their relationship will prove tragic. The film is narrated posthumously by Joe through an extended flashback as his lifeless body is fished out of Norma's pool. She shoots him in a jealous rage and out of fear of being abandoned, as she has been by everyone except Max.

Mr. DeMille, can you hear me? Make sure you get this shoulder.

But in one of the saddest and most beautifully poetic moments in cinematic history, Norma is allowed her final close up as she is taken away by the police.

Enjoying the imaginary applause, or the way I usually wake up in the morning.

A large part of what makes Norma so tragic a character is her wardrobe, realized by legendary costume designer, Edith Head. Head gives Norma Desmond an air of dilapidated glamour; her clothes are gorgeous, but they're a bit worn, a bit shoddy, a bit off. Much like the lady herself.

Norma is swathed in opulent furs and shrouded in dramatic gowns with sweeping capes. She's an ACTRESS, a STAR and therefore she is always performing, always on. Her clothes add to the already palpable drama, while her makeup is so severe it gives her a Kabuki-esque mask of a face.

A subtle poolside look.

Edith Head, the most honored woman in Oscar history (sorry, Meryl...again) was not nominated for her work, but instead won for work she did on another little movie that year. Fair enough. However, Norma Desmond remains one of the most haunting and interesting fictional characters of the 20th century, and her larger than life style continues to inspire drag queens to this day.

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