Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.
Recipient: William Holden
Born: April 17, 1918
Died: November 16, 1981 (63 years old)
Died: November 16, 1981 (63 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - Sunset Blvd. (nominated) as Joe Gillis
Back in the 1950, there were two competing films about the perils of the entertainment industry. There was the Best Picture winner All About Eve, which was more of a brutal portrait of aging beauty and how fickle success really was. It was a powerful film that would seem hard to top, especially with its witty and meta script. However, there was the other film that was more honest and darker. In fact, it opened with its protagonist dead in a pool. Billy Wilder had returned with his latest masterpiece Sunset Blvd., which was just as scathing of the new generation, but chose to tackle it with more inside jokes that film buffs recognized than fictionalized scenarios.
The film, much like Wilder's earlier work on Double Indemnity, was one of he finest film noir titles out there. For starters, its mystery was about how Joe Gillis became mixed up in this case with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who herself was aging into obscurity after a fruitful career in silent films. With a lot of small nods to the golden age of Hollywood, it seeks to destroy the myth and the jealousy of those who became unemployed by it. More than any other movement in Hollywood, the talkies have been rich material for tragic stories and none are as unique and gripping as Sunset Blvd. was largely because of its two leads, who almost suckle at each other for different answers.
Everyone is likely to remember Desmond because her performance was phenomenal. She was a silent star even visually in the film, choosing to express herself with big eyes and broad hand gestures. However, there was the other person in the picture. The one who was forced to put up with everything and provide his own narration to the whole thing. Gillis was just an ordinary man who became intertwined in the scenario. He had the typical film noir factors about him and helped to add a melancholy layer to the overall film. He was a man who lost his conscience and had to hide it from the even more frail Desmond, who imprisoned him in discomforting ways.
It was a testament to Wilder that he was able to make so many of the finest acting performances during his long career. Whether it was dark and brooding dramas like The Lost Weekend or screwballs like Some Like It Hot, his biggest attribute was not in his ability to stylize the action, but to allow the characters to come to life. Even at his happiest, there was a sense of melancholy about him that resulted in his films having a dark tone to them. He was an auteur and few characters are likely as true to his form as Gillis was. He was a dead man recanting his life to an audience that was just starting to accept that they may just be jaded about Hollywood. It was a notion that Wilder would apply to most of his films, but never this explicitly.
While this film rewards film buffs, it isn't distinctly accessible to them. The story itself is tragic and focuses on more universal themes that were also present in All About Eve. Desmond was desperate for attention and the success that she once had. She was delusional about her life and sought peers who would make her feel better. She was nostalgic in a discomforting way. It is a theme that works very well and one that exceeds the film noir genre of which this is largely associated. It is just a film about those that time has left behind and how it may not be easy to deal with them. It may be melodramatic in nature, but it is also personal and raw in ways that are honest. A lot of it comes from Gillis pulling back the curtain to unveil just how crazy we all are for liking movies.