February 4, 2017

William Holden • Sunset Boulevard

as Joe Gillis
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It's known as the part that reinvigorated William Holden's career - Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, finds his way into the world of a disturbed former silent film star, after which he begrudgingly yet acquiescently becomes her "kept man" as she plots her ill-fated comeback. It's a part that's mostly passive and reactive, taking a backseat to a dynamic, theatrical character with a greater call-to-action against the plot. It's not Holden's fault that I don't "get" this performance, at least not its nomination - the fiber of the character just isn't meant to be that compelling...not when you're sharing the screen with Norma Desmond.

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In reflecting on the part of Joe, I can't help but think about how Montgomery Clift might have played the role had he not decided to drop out of the production in the weeks leading up to the shoot. Clift would surely have brought to Joe an aura of sensitivity, perhaps a queerness which would have made the inverse gender dynamics played out in Sunset Boulevard all the more compelling. Instead, we have Holden, who holds his own just fine, but brings to a table a straight-forward type of masculinity which doesn't provide Joe with any unique qualities of which to bounce off of an extremely interesting Gloria Swanson and an unusual plot line. I guess you could say that that is the point of Joe - he should, after all, be a symbol of normalcy in this warped depiction of Hollywood's underbelly. But I found that Holden's work doesn't escalate the role into something greater - you might plug in a younger Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper into the part and receive a carbon copy of what Holden achieves.

I felt as though Holden served the character's purpose as efficiently as possible - he navigates through the narrative's outlandishness with the appropriate levels of skepticism, and he internally simmers his growing layers of frustration towards Norma adequately. That said, I'm hard pressed to identify any differentiators that would make this performance a nomination-worthy one. For me, watching Joe is watching a character watch a circus unfold in front of him. Problem is, the entire circus is much more memorable than he, and when it comes time to analyze various aspects of Sunset Boulevard, everything else greatly contrasts against Holden's more simple contributions. The sad thing is, once it ends, I don't even have feelings about Joe's demise - perhaps it's because Holden plays Joe rather rigidly, and you never really feel bad for him in his situation. Ultimately, there's little connection or investment built between Joe and the viewer. And for that, I blame Holden.


11 comments:

  1. I sort of expected you wouldn't care for this performance. What did you think of the movie?

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    1. The movie is great! So weird and daring (for its time). Totally deserving of a BP win as well.

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  2. Wow, that really surprised me! I thought you would love him! :)

    Personally, I think he's fantastic and I have not yet finally decided in my own Ferrer vs. Holden-scenario :)

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    1. There's not a whole lot of reviews out there discussing his work, so I'm open to your opinions on him!

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  3. I'm not sure I knew or remembered before your blog that Holden was nominated for this. He's good, but this isn't his showcase, and feels like a drag-along nomination much like Walter Pidgeon's work in Garson films. Holden is simply too strong and establishes his character's seen-it-all cynicism so well early on to fully believe his capitulation to gigolohood. Both more enjoyable and more durable is his idealist in Born Yesterday.

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  4. I like Holden's performance a bit more than you but I do think every point you make is valid. This was not a stellar year for Actor nominations (actually, I think it's one of the weakest) so my preference for Holden is somewhat by default. Still, he brought a much needed virility and sexual tension to SB that counterbalances both Swanson's rococo weirdness and the inherently 'camp' aspects of the production. He's dwarfed by some of those aspects, but that's because SB is so original it almost defies description.

    Good review, Allen.

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  5. I remembered him as being pretty solid actually, but I agree on what you say about how more layers could have been brought to the part.

    Still, easy to see why he is overshadowed by Swanson's performance and the movie, which are both masterpieces in my opinion.

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    1. I think he's overshadowed because he's acting in a different film. Holden is a steady, reliably conventional male-lead in a film that's so uniquely original and quirky that he doesn't stand a chance. I think "Sunset Boulevard's" classic status is because of its eccentricities, not the conventionalities.

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    2. I think he's solid as well - and that's the thing...I definitely don't think he's bad, but what he produces isn't enough to be considered the best of the year, imo.

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