I apologize in advance for what will be a long entry, but there’s a lot to say about these next two films!
Every so often at the Oscars, there is one film amongst the nominees that clearly stands above the rest. Occasionally, that film does win (Casablanca is one example from the years we’ve already covered, along with The Best Years of Our Lives and All Quiet on the Western Front), but more often, its genius isn’t recognized (enough) at the time and it misses out on the Best Picture award (e.g., Citizen Kane, La Grande Illusion, or all of the losing nominees in 1939). I love it when I get to talk about the former, because it means the Oscars were doing their job, but the flip side is that I get so frustrated when the superiority of a film is so obvious and the Academy swings and misses. 1950 is an example of the second one.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Sunset Boulevard deserved to win Best Picture this year…there’s no doubt in my mind that it would deserve to win in most years. A William Holden noir directed by one of the era’s great cynics, Billy Wilder, it is a wonderfully perfect film that captures the essence of Golden Age Hollywood, and how the studio system could be so magical from without, and terrifying from within. Working on dismantling the myth of Hollywood from the inside out, Wilder reveals how the industry destroys even its brightest stars, yet continues to attract multitudes of hopefuls desperately fighting for their close-up with Mr. DeMille.
It’s quite possibly the greatest movie about movies ever made, excluding perhaps only Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which is also about the struggles faced by silent stars in the transition to talkies.
In fact, Singin’ works almost too well as a Norma Desmond origin story…
The film opens with its protagonist already dead, and is told entirely in flashback from the point of view of the very man we see floating lifeless in a swimming pool, Joe Gillis (William Holden). The story unfolds with tongue firmly in cheek, narrated by the dead man and following the unlikely series of events that led to his demise. Since the dead are notoriously unreliable narrators, we must take Gillis’ word for all that happens, but being deceased seems to give him such a sense of freedom and dark humor that one gets the feeling that he is not all that upset about being murdered. Though as the story proceeds, we find out why.
Gillis is a hack writer trying to make it in the cruel Hollywood system, but his almost total lack of talent continually prejudices studios against him. Fortune smiles on him, however, in the form of psychotic former silent film star Norma Desmond, who lives nearly alone in a decrepit mansion on…some street in LA, I can’t remember offhand. Anyway, she takes him in as her script doctor/gigolo as she plans her Big Comeback, and all she asks in return is his utter acquiescence to being a kept man.
He really couldn’t catch a break this year.
He puts up token resistance to the idea of being romanced by a 1,000-year-old woman trying desperately to look 600, but she wins him over with a few tweed suits and the prospect of not starving to death waiting for that big Paramount contract to come though. With the benefit of supernatural hindsight, Gillis-the-Narrator knows that the power dynamic shifts against him within minutes, but Gillis-the-Idiot-Protagonist takes a while longer to figure it out. Too long, in fact, though the moment when she has his car towed away, leaving him stranded and at her mercy in the middle of the Hills, should have been a big clue.
Their relationship grows in fits and starts, and he more than once considers flying the coup, but Norma is the master here, and soon they end up where we all knew they would…though the film has the good grace to fade to black before the heavy stuff starts.
Good, because it was about to get a little…yuck.
The whole arrangement ends about as well as you might expect, and I won’t spoil how Gillis ends up in the pool, but see it for yourself…it’s a wild ride. Gloria Swanson turns in a wonderful (and, in any other year, I would say Oscar-worthy) performance as Norma Desmond, able to act over-the-top and neurotic in a completely realistic and believable way. Of course, the character helps, since Desmond is slowly going mad and usually believes she is giving a performance in a silent film at all times, but Swanson manages to play a delicate balance, keeping the audience engaged with and sympathetic towards Desmond without making her (too) sad and pathetic.
Every performance in the film is solid gold, but the one who steals the show is silent film director Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s steadfastly loyal–and domineeringly Austrian–butler Max, who caters to her every whim to maintain the illusion of her solipsistic madness. He even finds the time to write her bogus fan mail every day, and Norma is so wrapped up in neuroses and feather boas that she never notices that they all have the same handwriting and come exclusively from fans in a zip code that only covers her house.
The casting of von Stroheim–a silent film giant whose monumental achievement, Greed (1924), is easily the greatest film of the pre-sound era and a strong candidate for the greatest film, period–was a stroke of genius; his very presence adds layer upon layer of complexity to an already rich plot. Von Stroheim imbues every line, every movement, with a gravitas that feels completely natural, a rock against which Norma’s histrionics crash and echo in their shared mausoleum. And when Gillis finally gets around to asking Max why he is so devoted to Norma, the answer is so dark, twisted, and perfect, and encapsulates everything that is great not just about Max, but also Norma, Gillis, and even Cecil B. DeMille…and the myth of Sunset Boulevard itself.
Add to the mix Nancy Olson as idealistic and aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer, a dead monkey, several hilarious Hollywood in-jokes (such as the producer who turned down Gone with the Wind), and an enchanting cameo by Buster Keaton, and Sunset Boulevard is pretty much a perfect film.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had without trains.”
Part of what makes it so perfect—aside from the biting satire, the flawless acting, and the moody black-and-white cinematography—is Billy Wilder’s penchant for injecting extremely dark and bitter themes with such acerbic and self-referential humor. We saw him do it five years ago with alcoholism in The Lost Weekend, and we’ll see him do it with adultery in about a decade with The Apartment, and here he does it while eviscerating the very system that was allowing him to make movies in the first place. Every scene in Sunset Boulevard is dripping with bitter irony, and it’s handled with such deftness that we are laughing, maybe a little uncomfortably, even as the situation spirals out of control towards an inevitably tragic climax.
Even for 1950, in the wake of the postwar cynicism and examination of society that Hollywood embraced, and even for a noir, it’s a remarkably nihilistic film. In the end there is no redemption, no justice, and certainly no optimism…everything remains as hopeless and cruel as it was before. The only difference is that there is one less failed artist wandering down Hollywood Boulevard desperate, destitute, and rejected. In other words, the film ends as organically and realistically as possible…like I said, a perfect film.
That said, however, it’s easy to see why it lost to All About Eve for the top Oscar. Sunset Boulevard is unrelentingly dark and cynical in its treatment of the studio system, laying the blame for Norma Desmond’s descent into irrelevancy and madness squarely at the feet of the executives and filmmakers who cast her aside when she stopped being profitable. Considering this was the exact same system still in place in 1950, it’s hardly surprising that the Academy offered it a bunch of nominations but couldn’t bring itself to lavish too much honor upon it—though it received the second-most nominations of the evening, its awards were limited mainly to technical categories, and its acting was completely shut out despite being nominated in all four categories.
“Sure, we could give Best Actor to the performance that lays bare all the profit-driven selfishness and evil deeds of our industry…but how about we give it to this guy with the goofy nose? Sound good?”
That brings us to this year’s winner, a film that also examines the aging-actress theme, but which comes to an altogether dumber conclusion:
As I stated in Part I, with All About Eve Joseph L. Mankiewicz repeated his double win in Directing and Screenwriting from 1949, becoming the first and, to date, only person to do so; he’s also one of three to win consecutive Best Director awards (the other two being John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath  and How Green was my Valley , and Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman  and The Revenent ). And, also as I stated in Part I, he probably didn’t experience a great deal of suspense on Oscar night.
Like A Letter to Three Wives before it, All About Eve is pure Oscar bait, starring big names and telling a story with a “wholesome” moral in which career and family are mutually exclusive concepts–for women, that is–and it is very obvious which one is best–again, for women. It is a propaganda film pure and simple, sending American women a very clear message: it was real cute when you all were working, but the war is over, the men have returned, now go back home.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’m whipping out the answer to your ‘career’ problems right now.”
Before I get into all that, I must say that the film does endure as a classic, and the reason is the acting. Bette Davis is masterful as aging Broadway star Margo Channing, who finds her career stalling as she gets older but her roles do not. Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a young, starstruck simpleton who worms her way into Eve’s lives and those of her friends.,.namely her director/boyfriend Bill Sampson, playwright Lloyd Richards, and his wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm).
The plot is fairly simple. Eve appears in their lives with little fanfare or ambition, but as the story progresses, slowly reveals her true purpose: to replace Margo as the darling of the Broadway scene and be a great actress. She pursues this goal ruthlessly, abusing and throwing away everyone in her path…with one exception, veteran theatre critic and silver-tongued devil Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, in one of the most deserved Best Supporting Actor-winning performances I’ve yet seen), who sees through Eve in an instant but guides her along for his own amusement.
Which was his M.O. for everything, really.
Eve, so used to casually using everyone in her path, doesn’t see DeWitt coming until it is far too late. For his part, he gleefully strings Eve for yuks along until she goes too far, even for him, and then the gloves come off in truly glorious fashion. The climactic, almost triumphant scene in which he lays bare her sordid past is amazing, and is enough in itself to justify his Oscar. It is her well-deserved comeuppance, and is, thankfully, handled very realistically and doesn’t feel forced by the Code or by the story’s questionable morality.
Despite the film’s title, it is Margo, not Eve, who is the story’s true protagonist, the one whose decisions and agency truly move the plot. Her anger with Eve’s interference, which gradually morphs into outright manipulation, combined with her aforementioned frustration at not receiving parts commiserate with her age and experience, pushes her to her very limit. Davis, as ever, handles the role with grace and aplomb, and it’s a real shame she didn’t receive her third Best Actress award for her efforts.
Now for the bad stuff. Like I said, the film is a propaganda piece, one that, in its own way, is more over-the-top and offensive than the most forced and jingoistic wartime flicks we saw flood the Oscars a decade ago. All About Eve firmly and unambiguously tells women that they must choose between a man and happiness, or a career that leaves them crushingly empty and unfulfilled. What’s more, it is only immature, shortsighted women who choose the latter anyway…the film’s emotional climax comes when Margo Channing has an emotional epiphany in which she realizes that, in pursuing a career, she “gave up” being a woman, and that a woman is “nothing without a man.”
They also spelled it out in the trailer, presumably so women in the audience wouldn’t need to bother their husbands asking for an explanation.
In the end, Margo gives up her career and is instantly happy…Karen was always happily married, her only moment of unhappiness being when she’s worried Eve might steal her man…and then there’s Eve, at the top of her field due as much to her talent as her machinations, with a promising and still ascendant career ahead of her, dead inside. The men, meanwhile, never had anything to worry about, because they never had to make the choice between love and career…though I suppose they did have to grapple with the terribly difficult decision of whether to step out with Eve or not.
“Dolls, I’d say you owe us a few drinks for keeping it in our pants.”
This message has, to put it mildly, not aged well, and as a consequence of this, combined with the story’s subtle but still icky treatment of homosexuality, the film is an uncomfortable one to sit through in 2017. In terms of dated stereotypes it falls short of Father of the Bride, but it is made worse by the fact that it tries so, so desperately to be taken seriously as a cautionary tale.
Still, as I said, the film abounds in great performances, particularly the lead actresses, all four of whom were nominated for Oscars (the only time one film received four female acting nominations). They are all rich and compelling characters, even taking into account the oppressive script, but unfortunately come Oscar season they were split evenly between Lead and Supporting Actress, and thus canceled each other out. The film could have taken three acting categories this year if Anne Baxter had been nominated for Supporting Actress instead of Lead Actress for her role as Eve Harrington. The role really was a supporting one, and if she’d be in the right category, I’m sure Bette Davis would have taken Best Actress and Baxter, even against Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter, Best Supporting.
But, this was not to be. As it stands, of the film’s five acting nods, only George Sanders, whose only real competition in the category was Erich von Stroheim, came away with a win. I can’t say I’m disappointed, either, that Josephine Hull took Best Supporting Actress for her role as James Stewart’s long-suffering sister in the classic comedy Harvey.
And thus, the 23rd Academy Awards were decided, and before we move to 1951 I’d like to leave you with a clip from the real best picture of 1950…a little British movie that came out in 1949–but premiered in New York and Los Angeles in 1950–and should have swept the awards this year.
See you all in 1951!
 It joined My Man Godfrey in having the distinction of receiving nominations in all four categories and not winning a single one; the next film to do this was American Hustle (2013), though that was justifiable.