Dir: Billy Wilder, with Gloria Swanson and William Holden
Probably the third time I’ve seen this film, and I still found plenty to enjoy. This time round, I focussed on the vast gap between the Hollywood of silent films and contemporary Hollywood. Swanson and Holden’s acting styles encapsulate it well: he plays a cynical, washed-up writer in a naturalistic way (albeit one who could be modelling himself on Bogart as Philip Marlow) with lots of wisecracks that only the “talkies” can offer, and she hams it up brilliantly as the unhinged ex-star of silent films. (Also with some great lines: “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small”.) With those eyes and magnificent/ludicrous expressions and gestures, Swanson gives a masterclass in silent-era acting AND portrays perfectly a woman for whom artifice and delusion have become a way of life. She is of another age and another world . . . but a world that still has some enduring lustre, as in the scene where she is fêted by the elderly extras in the Paramount studio. It is emphasised in the film that she was fairly wonderful in her day, and perhaps there is acknowledgment of the magic (and excesses) of early Hollywood.
This time I noticed, too, the role of Betty (Nancy Olson). It’s not just that she’s a generation younger than Norma: she’s natural and unself-conscious, a typical all-American girl. Her presence highlights how much Norma – all of 50 years old! – belongs to the past personally as well as professionally.
I also enjoyed the intertextuality of the film, using actors playing themselves or a fictionalised version of themselves (von Stroheim). It is fairly brutal, though: having Buster Keaton as one of the card-playing “waxworks” is a bit like having Leonardo paint your bathroom. Or is it poignant? Or just a joke?
Whatever . . . it’s a brilliant Hollywood film about Hollywood.