February 25, 2017

Gloria Swanson • Sunset Blvd.

as Norma Desmond
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd.
Won: Golden Globe - Best Actress in a Drama • National Board of Review - Best Actress
Within the time-honored tale of 1950's Best Actress race, a question presents itself: how could Gloria Swanson lose the prize for her work in Sunset Boulevard? She did, after all, produce a performance that is nothing short of legendary. She should have won! What a travesty!

One cannot dispute that Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is an image which has engrained itself into the annals of cinematic legend and iconography, for as long as one may merely think of Sunset Boulevard, one may instantly recall Swanson, her eyes bulging from out of their sockets, her voice bouncing through exaggerated, eerie timbres, her head cocked back with stretched eyebrows in an upward arch, elongating that remarkable face of hers. The worship for her work is unbounded - and my insouciance towards it confounds me.
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd.
Who can forget that iconic line: "I am big, it's the pictures that got small." Very rarely do we hear self descriptive lines so fully delineating the character, the performance, and the actor to a tee. As Norma, Swanson simply is what it means to be larger than life. She's a towering presence in Sunset Boulevard, overpowering all of those around her - though what's impressive is how the extreme, over-the-top eccentricities she imbues into Norma totally work. You watch her and she stands out like a sore thumb, gesturing and glaring like some sort of alien fiend; she's so uniquely bizarre, as fascinating as she is off-putting.

It's one of those actor/role pairings that fit seamlessly together, so fully realized and impactful such that you cannot imagine anyone else playing the character - can you imagine the kind of Norma that've been spawned by Mary Pickford or Mae West?
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd.
When I first laid eyes on her performance in Sadie Thompson some time ago, what floored me was Swanson's sheer magnetism, confidence, and classic movie star swagger. All of these outstanding qualities of Swanson's are blended together and regurgitated back onto Norma Desmond, but in a manner such that you can't keep your eyes away from her because it's all a bit of a fantastic train wreck. It's no easy feat - to display yourself in such an overdramatic, unattractive fashion, all the while being tasked to caricature an entire era of Hollywood history. That's what makes this performance extraordinary - the audacity of it all.

And yet: I've never been enraptured by this performance. I first saw Sunset Boulevard years ago for a film history course and left feeling mostly indifferent towards Swanson. Upon rewatch for this review - I've gained a greater appreciation for the scale and the execution, though my opinion of Swanson still isn't as euphoric as the great share of those who debate the 1950 Best Actress race.
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd.
Why is this? I've struggled to determine a concrete conclusion over the past few weeks. In theory, this is the type of attention-demanding, powerhouse, fab actressing that should align with my biased tendencies. Perhaps the shrill theatricality of a character so off her rocker is harder to resonate with me than say, a comedic performance that breeds laughter and joy, or an emotional performance that tugs at heartstrings.

I suppose my words here are convoluted - I praise Swanson and yet I retain indifference. My feelings are complicated, but then again...so is the performance. The fact of the matter is, I'm not vehemently passionate about her work - I'm not outraged that it wasn't rewarded Best Actress. I don't think Swanson's loss is a travesty, and I'd be content had she won. I'm indifferent, I admire this performance for its strengths and its wild cocktail of idiosyncrasies, and I understand why people revere it as much as they do. This is some legendary, fearless acting - and for those reasons alone I give Swanson a...



13 comments:

  1. I would agree that this performance is overpraised (as are, I think, most of the Best Actress performances of 1950). For me, it took some getting used to. Is Swanson larger than life or over the top? Is she a character or a caricature? Is she mannered or over-reliant on mannerisms? Depending on the given day, I could answer those questions in either direction. She's playing a grotesque, without doubt. I can't sympathize with her because there's no warmth in the portrayal and she's despised by every character but Max. In some respects, the role easily becomes tiresome because once you get the gist of it, that's that.

    Then again, maybe that's the whole point about Norma Desmond. She a grotesque leftover from the silent era who refuses to change and face reality, so she succumbs to a sick dream world. Under those terms, her performance is near perfect in its grandiose overdone-ness. I admire Swanson for really going for it, audience sympathy be damned. I may not sympathize with Norma, but Swanson imbues her with a tragic desperation that is quite memorable, almost chilling because it's potentcy makes me uncomfortable. It's hardly a feel-good performance but it's not meant to be and Swanson's cruel passion in the part makes that final staircase scene almost Shakespearean in its desolation. That moment could have been an inadvertant laugh-fest because there are so many ways it could've gone wrong, but she got it damned right. Swanson also achieves the near impossible: she makes Norma's talents come alive. Both in scenes from Swanson's silent film work and in moments such as Norma's spot-on 'Chaplin' impression, we understand that there really is more to her than what time and the fade to oblivion has done to her.

    It's not a perfect performance, but it's undeniably memorable and the essence most caricatures of the character miss is what Swanson did not: what we see is only what's left, but there was once so much more that should never have been forgotten.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's funny because I've never been floored by this performance, and was about to give it a four. But in thinking more about it, it's just not four-quality work. What she does with the role is astounding in terms of penetrating the collective remembrance, and how she gives in the part makes me understand why people laud it the way they do, even if I'm more impressed than captivated by it.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  2. I guess I felt in a similar way and the performance is becoming more projected than factual - people for the last 20 years have given it a legendary status than having a look at it scene by scene. I still really like it, and it's somewhere between a 4 and a 5, but I see you are again the more generous one. :)

    I am sure the voting among the 3 front-runners was quite even and I doubt Baxter stole that many votes from Davis. It's just a case of the pretty young thing (and in this case very talented) winning, like the Academy members tend to choose when stuck in a decision

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The five is because it is undeniably great work, even if it doesn't enrapture me the way other fives have :)

      Yeah, if anything I think the votes were likely split between Swanson and Davis, allowing Holliday to emerge the victor. I get the feeling that if either Swanson or Davis were out of the picture, the other would have trumped Holliday...

      Delete
  3. When a performance starts off with a funeral for a chimpanzee, you know you're in for a strange ride indeed. I'm happy to report I saw this first in my early 20s before knowing it was a certified Gay Man's Essential, so it could just do it's magic without my being duty-bound to love it. How frustrating that Judy, Bette and Gloria land such greatness in the same year after those endless, arid 40s.

    I can't help a nudging supposition that if this film were made nowadays the character of Joe might be a gay man like the strange marriage of Jack Wrangler to Margaret Whiting or the fellow that married late-in-life Martha Raye. Even if I'm wrong, we know they couldn't pull that in the 50s.

    Excellent review and remarks by the preceding reviewers. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you much Dvlaries!

      I suppose the broad mediocrity of the preceding decade just had to culminate with one year of total stellar greatness!

      Delete
  4. I somewhat expected this would be a performance you admired but not quite loved. As usual, beautifully written review. Thoughts on the two supporting nominees?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm...I thought Erich von Stroiheim was great, while I found Nancy Olson to be pretty forgettable, to be honest. I've never understood that nomination - your typical nod to the upcoming young thing, I suppose.

      Delete
  5. The funny Thing about this Performance is that I also often tend to think it's overrated. Then I watch it again and at the end I am again completely overwhelmed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha, I don't know about overwhelmed - I'm mostly just baffled by how kooky the whole thing is, I actually wish more of the performance affected me.

      Delete
  6. What strikes me about this performance is on how she balances the haywire/diva scenes with the more subtle, humane moments of the character. She builds a strong foundation on those smaller moments that the bigger 'acting' moments really have a strong impact, at least for me.

    Every time I get carried away by the "overhyped" wave, I watched it again and I'm still floored.

    Tricky role, amazing performance. Definitely one for the ages.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great observation. I totally agree with you.

      Delete