selenak: (Carl Denham by Grayrace)
Lebenswerk (9874 words) by Selena
Chapters: 8/8
Fandom: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Norma Desmond/Max von Mayerling, Norma Desmond/Joe Gillis
Characters: Max von Mayerling, Norma Desmond, Cecil B. DeMille, Noah Cross (Chinatown), Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Joe Gillis, Mabel Normand
Additional Tags: Backstory, Obsession

Eight movies Max von Mayerling made with Norma Desmond. Max, Norma, and the camera: their story from the beginning to the end.

Sunset Boulevard is still THE "Hollywood on Hollywood" movie, never matched in its bite-yet-humanity and brilliance. Billy Wilder was one of the best scriptwriting directors ever. Was I intimidated as the prospect of dabbling in that universe? Was I ever.

I still couldn't resist doing it, obviously. Having a go at the Sunset Boulevard backstory - the rise and fall of Norma Desmond and Max von Mayerling - was such a great opportunity to combine several of my loves of which the Wilder film was but one silent movies, shifting relationship power dynamics, obsession. As Wilder himself had done, I used bits and pieces of the real life careers that Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim, the actors portraying Norma and Max in Sunset Boulevard had. (One reason of a thousand why any SB remake would be utterly pointless: no one will ever have the advantage Billy Wilder had, using actual silent movie actors and in Stroheim's case actor/directors, and letting their style clash with the then modern performances of 1950s actors like William Holden.) Without, however, using their personalities; Gloria Swanson was a very un-Norma-like survivor who adapted with the times, and was never married to Erich von Stroheim. No, the personalities owe it all to extrapolation from their older selves in Sunset Boulevard. How did they get to that point? What happened between them en route? (And how many cameos of both historical and invented celebrities of their age could I work in? *g*)

Lebenswerk is one possible reply, and I felt a bit like an award winner myself when it got the response it did.

The rest of the days )
selenak: (Emma Swan by Hbics)
Reading the the review of the latest David Cronenberg movie, I stumbled across the following sentence:

Agatha is at the centre of the film for another reason: she is a personal assistant, or, in the cynical slang, a "chore whore", someone very different from the gallant courtiers that attend Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.

"Gallant courtiers"? In Sunset Boulevard?!? Gallant courtiers?????? Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian, you must have watched a different Billy Wilder movie. One where Joe Gillis isn't Norma's paid boy toy, and Max von Mayerling isn't her former-husband-turned-her-butler-who-writes-all-her-fanmail. The only person in Sunset Boulevard who acts in a manner which can be described as "gallant" towards Norma Desmond/Gloria Swanson is Cecil B. De Mille when she visits his set, and that's an improvisation because he didn't expect her and doesn't have the heart to tell her his flunkies are only interested in her car.

I haven't been so bemused since an article called Milton's Satan a "gleeful devil". (This for the king of Byronic gloom and daddy issues; if you want gleeful devils, check out Goethe's Mephistopheles, is all I'm saying.)
selenak: (Ray and Shaz by Kathyh)
Back last autumn when I did my Sunset Boulevard rewatching for my Yuletide story, I also checked out various bits and pieces of the musical based on the film because I was interested in how other actresses and actors interpreted the part. It's also interesting in what it says about adaption to another medium. I don't think I could stand a Sunset Boulevard remake: it's one of these films where a remake wouldn't just be unthinkable heresy, but also extremely impractical. Back in 1950, Billy Wilder made a contemporary film, not a costume drama, as any remake would invariably be. He also, and this is an advantage no one will ever have again, had actual stars from the silent age avalable to let them play against then-contemporary actors, and the clash in styles is as much part of the story as anything else. But a) theatre, and b) a musical is such a different form of expression that I don't mind in the same way I would a film remake.

Plus: watching the likes of Glenn Close, Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey et al having a go at Norma Desmond, or Hugh Jackman and John Barrowman try their hand at Joe Gilles is immensely entertaining, I have to admit.

Check out the evidence )
selenak: (Maria La Guerta by Goddess Naunett)
[profile] abigail_n wrote a post that looks back on the second season of Homeland and the seventh season of Dexter, here, which I think manages to sum up the good and the bad of Homeland perfectly. Now I'd broken up with Dexter a season earlier, but through fannish osmosis as well as [personal profile] monanotlisa managed to hear roughly what happens in s7, most of all in the season finale, so I thought myself prepared, but reading about it in Abigail's post still managed to upset me a lot.

In a different way that Dexter did when I was still watching, by the day. In retrospect it seems clear that the quality went downhill ever since writer Melissa Rosenberg left the show after s4, and by the time s6 ended it had gone to a point where I couldn't bring myself to watch further. However, what upset me about the s7 developments isn't about quality (how could I judge that, not having watched the season?); it's about content, the content being the type of storyline I'd enjoy seeing explored in fanfiction but never, ever, wanted on the show itself.

Spoilery for s7 explanation follows. )
selenak: (Carl Denham by Grayrace)
This year, I wrote what turned out to be the longest stories in the realm of fanfiction that I ever did, and enjoyed every minute of it, though the fretting afterwards once they were beta'd and posted was, as always, abominable. They were my love declarations to early Hollywood and the Swinging Sixties respectively, and here they are, courtesy of the neat "share" button at the AO3:

Lebenswerk (9874 words) by Selena
Chapters: 8/8
Fandom: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warning: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Norma Desmond/Max von Mayerling, Norma Desmond/Joe Gillis
Characters: Max von Mayerling, Norma Desmond, Cecil B. DeMille, Noah Cross (Chinatown), Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Joe Gillis, Mabel Normand

Eight movies Max von Mayerling made with Norma Desmond. Max, Norma, and the camera: their story from the beginning to the end.

You may recall there was a bit confusion when I got my assignment, and I was thus worried whether or not the recipient would like the story at all. As it turns out, she was the ideal audience every writer dreams of, giving extensive feedback for every chapter and writing a lovely overall review here. This was a big relief, not least because Sunset Boulevard is one of my favourite movies of all time, and when you play in the universe of the late, great Billy Wilder, you really don't want to make a mess of things.

Ramblings about the writing of the story follows, with spoilers for said story )

Such an easy game (11874 words) by Selena
Chapters: 9/9
Fandom: Swinging London RPF, The Beatles
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warning: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Alma Cogan/Brian Epstein, Alma Cogan/John Lennon, Brian Epstein/John Lennon, Alma Cogan & Paul McCartney, John Lennon/Paul McCartney, Cynthia Lennon/John Lennon
Characters: Alma Cogan, Brian Epstein, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Sandra Caron, Fay Cohen, Cynthia Lennon, Jane Asher

Friendship, misunderstandings, sex and song: or, what happened when the biggest British singer of the 50s met the biggest British band of the 60s and fell for their gay manager. Or did she? Alma Cogan, Brian Epstein and the Beatles.

[personal profile] naraht and I had dared each other to write this story for eons, so when I saw her prompt, I decided to take the plunge and do it as a treat. Her thoughtful review is here, and honestly, I like her summary ("it is about fame and love and family and art and being Jewish and being queer and so much else besides") much better than mine!

Ramblings about the writing and spoilers follow )
selenak: (Carl Denham by Grayrace)
As someone who loves silent films as well as those occasions when film goes meta on its history and manages to wrap that up in a good story, I was thoroughly charmed, but also very frustrated, by The Artist. The charmed part is easily explained: the film actually pulls off being, if not a completley silent film, then a silent film the way Chaplin made them when he was still holding out against sound but also tried to use it to make a point, in City Lights and Modern Times. (Meaning: for the most part, the respective films are silent as far as the acting is concerned, but not only is there a musical soundtrack but there are also sound effects now and then, distorted speech intruding on silent artistry one of them. The film actors handle the challenge very well, despite the fact none of them would have had practice in acting without relying on your voice before. And visual gags & movie homages abound. (Including one to the breakfast scene from Citizen Kane that's less of a homage and more of a rip-off, but then again it has the neat addition of the wife painting moustaches all over the newspaper photos of her husband.) The finale is one of those glorious cheerworthy sequences that make you wish you could dance.

The frustration takes somewhat longer to explain. Let me start with a clever and amusing homage I spotted in a montage of movie credits which indicate how Peppy, the female main character, goes from being the female version of a spear carrier to a supporting actress to a main lead in the business. In the first film Peppy lands a job in, the leading actress is called "Norma Lamont" which is a neat combination of two famous fictional silent movie actresses, Norma Desmond (from Sunset Boulevard) and Lina Lamont (from Singing in the Rain). Both of these films, in quite different ways, deal with the silent films and their stars being overtaken by sound, and both are obvious inspirations for The Artist, a film that centres around silent actor-star George Valentin whose fame vanishes as young actress Peppy's star rises. Singing in the Rain does this as a comedy-musical, with Lina Lamont as its villain; her inability to adapt to sound is played for laughs. Sunset Boulevard does it as perhaps the most acid Hollywood-on-Hollywood film until Robert Altman made The Player, and Billy Wilder is better at dialogue, and it was a present day film of its time having an advantage none of the others do, to wit, Wilder could cast actual silent movie stars. Gloria Swanson playing Norma Desmond against William Holden's screenwriter Joe Gillis doubles the old versus new Hollywood in a way that can't be replicated down to their very body language. Norma is larger than life in that film; the "you're Norma Desmond - you used to be big!" / "I am big. It's the pictures that got small" dialogue works because of that. However, the way Wilder achieves this isn't by begging the audience to feel sorry for Norma, or letting his other lead feel sorry for her. On the contrary. Joe Gillis is relentlessly and witheringly sarcastic at Norma's expense, more, not less so once he takes her money and becomes her lover. This, btw, works in Norma's favour in terms of audience sympathy. (It might also be due to the fact director/scriptwriter Billy Wilder actually had made some additional cash as a gigolo during his Berlin days as a struggling scriptwriter and reporter. In the article he wrote about this he included the statement that key to any success was not to come across as feeling sorry for the ladies.) And there we get to my problem, because The Artist relentlessly asks you to feel sorry for George Valentin, and has practically every character feel sorry for him to boot, most of all Peppy and his chauffeur (James Cromwell, always nice to see). This, on me, had the effect of feeling George's self pity incredibly annoying instead of feeling for him the way I did for Norma Desmond.

I also felt the screentime devoted to George's downfall-and-misery times far too long, which brings me to another homage/compare-and-contrast. If you've watched some silent films, say, by Chaplin, literally a child of Victorian England by imprint of taste, or for that matter Fritz Lang of Vienna via Berlin, you know those films love their melodrama in terms of plot. And their occasional deus/dea ex machina. But Chaplin, probably due to being a comedian, was also very clever with his timing. Those times when the characters in his films, be they the Tramp or the respective other leads, are out of luck and miserable do not give the impression of going on endlessly and often go with being punctured by absurd comedy. The opening sequence of The Kid is a case in point: THE WOMAN (Chaplin characters don't often have names) has become an illegitimate mother and was deserted by the father (never to be seen in this film again). Poor, miserable, near suicidal she puts the baby into a millionaire's car. So far, so melodramatic. But this is of course when the car gets stolen by two two thieves who discover too late they have a baby to deal with as well, and we're into a series of gags as they try to get rid of the baby, which is found by THE TRAMP, and then he tries to, etc.The conclusion of The Kid also offers pure Victorian melodrama and dea ex machina: THE WOMAN, saved from death back when and now a star, is reunited with the kid and adopts THE TRAMP as well. Hooray! The Artist goes for a similar mixture of melodrama and comedy but doesn't get the balance right in the same way. George's relentless lengthy misery is one reason, but the other is that Peppy, with no other reason than the fact he was nice to her once when he was a star and she a newbie (and that he looks admittedly dishy), keeps trying to help/save him; one of her films is called "Guardian Angel" which is the kind of thing silent film would do, granted, but you know, most silent films still would have tried to give Peppy a bit more actual relationship with George to begin with in order to justify her selfless support. And while you could never accuse Chaplin of creating feminist characters, his women don't feel guilty because of their success. (The woman in The Kid is worried what became of the baby, obviously, but quite happy with being a star. The flower girl in City Lights just loves having a flower shop of her own at the end, thanks. The closest to the George/Peppy relationship in a Chaplin film is probably the relationship from Limelight, the should-have-been-his-swansong sound film that has Chaplin as a down on his luck former star and music hall comedian Calvero versus Claire Bloom's rising star (as a ballerina). The ballerina feels sorry for Calvero, granted, and organizes a come back stage show for him at the climax of the film, but he literally saved her life at the start, is a pragmatist mostly free of self pity (and also realistic enough to know turning this into a romance would be a bad idea), and they spend enough time together to make it understandable why she fights for him later on. And she, too, doesn't feel guilty for being successful when he is not.

Where all of this is going: Peppy as George's selfless guardian angel made me long for cynical Gigolo scriptwriter Joe. Or Norma Desmond herself, who as opposed to George kept her money from the silent days and employed her first director (and first husband), played by Erich von Stroheim (told you Wilder could get the actual goods for Sunset Boulevard) as her butler. I'm sure she'd have found a spot for George as the gardener, but the fights as to whose films to watch at night when in a down-with-sound-mood would have been glorious, and given their respective will power, there's no question Norma would have won.
selenak: (Default)
Still in a nostalgic "Youtube is great for paying homage to your favourites in movie history" mood. This time, you get some highlights of the films of the late great Billy Wilder, scriptwriter and director extraordinaire, creator of one liners, icons and and some of the most memorable movies in film history. Born in Austria (when it was still imperial), had his first successes as a young scriptwriter in the Weimar republic (with Menschen am Sonntag), emigrated in 1933 for the usual reason (he was to lose all family members who didn't emigrate in concentration camps, which was why Humphrey Bogart calling him a Nazi during the shooting of Sabrina was in spectacular bad taste), arrived in Hollywood, fell in love with the English language and went on to prove it on screen and off. Have some examples:

Starring Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Gloria Swanson... )
selenak: (Orson Welles by Moonxpoints5)
Being sleepless again thanks to my current cold, I'd love to watch Just Rewards, the Angel episode [ profile] bimo kindly brought, but alas, it turned out my laptop hasn't got the necessary codecs. It'll have to wait until I'm reunited with my normal computer. So I'll muse on two movies I love instead.

Hollywood on Hollywood is a fascinating subgenre in the movie world. I already wrote about one of my favourite examples, Tim Burton's Ed Wood, that hymn to the losers in Tinseltown.

Two other examples, which fascinate me with their parallels and contrasts, and which I rewatched recently, are Sunset Boulevard by the late, great Billy Wilder, surely still the best cinematic word on the subject, and Gods and Monsters, directed by Bill Condon. Gods and Monsters, though it does deal with a real-life director, James Whale, and consequently uses several of Whale's topics and visual motifs very effectively, also is quite openly influenced by Sunset Boulevard: the triangle of old star, devoted housekeeper/butler of German origin, and young attractive beefcake, for example. The imagery, notably the dead body floating in the pool and the introduction of the Hollywood legend, standing at a window, gazing outside at the young man, though it's significant that we see James Whale photographed from the inside of the room (i.e. we're in his point of view), while we see Norma Desmond from the outside, from Joe Gillis' point of view. Sunset Boulevard gazes at Norma in her tragedy and mad baroque splendour but never presumes to enter her inner world; Gods and Monsters is a far kinder picture.

James Whale (played superbly by Ian McKellen) might be in decline, in (self-imposed) exile from Hollywood, and haunted by his past (which allows script and director to fill us in on crucial background - his childhood in working-class poverty which he reinvents as gentility for interviews, his traumatic WW I experience and of course his time as one of Universal's most successful directors, creating the first two Frankenstein movies); his mind might be betraying him by being unable to stick to the present, and his body might be frail. But at the same time, he's presented as deeply intelligent, witty, and mosty rescued from self-pity by his gift for irony. His former lover David still is friends with him; his unlikely friendship with gardener Clay Boone (Brenton Fraser) is a genuine relief from loneliness. For that matter, Clay, though at times uneasy and freaked out by Whale's homosexuality, genuinely cares and is charmed and touched by the old man and his stories. Clay is a naïve, and in turn rescued from hisloneliness by the friendship. (Both Clay and Whale are at various points identified with the Monster of the Frankenstein movies visually.) As I said, it is a kind film, despite some bitchery about George Cukor which is rather unfair, going by all I've read about the man, but then it's Whale doing the bitching and he is presented as jealeous. You could say that despite the occasional black-and-white flashers, Gods and Monsters is painted in gentle pastels.

Sunset Boulevard, on the other hand, is Billy Wilder at his most acid. There is no gentleness for Norma or Joe, save one. When Norma is funny (and she has some great lines - so often quoted and repeated by now), she is so without realizing it, except during one brief scene, the terrific little Chaplin impersonation she does for her hired lover when she's happy. She's completely lacking of Whale's insight or conscious wit about her situation as an Hollywood relic, clinging to the belief that her public ("all those wonderful people out there in the dark") hasn't forgotten her and wants her to return as an increasingly disappearing lifeline. Norma Desmond, one of the great icons of cinematic history, is played by the genuine article, Gloria Swanson, one of the great stars of the silent screen. (And as opposed to Norma living quite happily and sanely in New York at the time Wilder hired her for the picture, as opposed of declining in a Los Angeles mansion. Swanson is decidedly not playing herself here, but she's acting her heart out, and it's one of the great injustices she didn't win an Oscar for this.) Her entire physical language comes from another era, and provides a great contrast to William Holden's subtle acting as Joe. The camera mercilessly exposes every one of Norma's and Swanson's 50 or so years - not really old by any standards save the crucial Hollywood one which has captured her in her youthful glory and never allows her to escape the contrast, and as for her relationship with Joe… we're not talking "A Star is born" sentimentality here.

Norma might genuinenly love the young man who shows up accidentally in her mansion, but she's also very consciously buying him, and knows she does. In return, she doesn't get sympathy and friendship, as Whale does in Gods and Monsters, she gets pity and disgust. Because Joe quite consciously lets himself be bought. Men on sale are something of a red thread through Billy Wilder's pictures, which is quite unusual not just for Hollywood at the time but also for the present-day incarnation. (As opposed to women on sale, of course.) In Wilder pictures, you get Jack Lemmon selling himself out metaphorically through letting his boss use his flat for trysts in return for more money and more attention in The Apartment; you get Lemmon, again and more farcically finding money and happiness in drag in Some Like It Hot; you have the G.I. pretending love to get out of an investigation to Jean McArthur in A Foreign Affair. Men sell their charms (to quote Stephen Sondheim's lyrics from Passion "Women sell their looks/ Why not a man?/If he can") in Wilder's world, but I don't think anyone does it so openly, or filled with as much self-loathing, as Joe Gillis (William Holden, who competes with Jack Lemmon as Wilder's favourite actor). Wilder doesn't have any mercy with Joe, either. If Norma is mad and pathetic, she's also genuinenly larger than life; when she says, in reply to Joe's initial "You used to be in pictures - you used to be big", "I am big; it's that pictures that got small", we believe her. Joe is sane, and modern, sensible Hollywood as opposed to Norma's over-the-top past, but he is small. And a sell-out who can't say he doesn't know what he's doing; he's intending to exploit Norma from the moment they meet (though initially he just wants some quick bucks by pretending to proof-read her efforts at a script) just as she's intending to exploit his obvious financial desperation.

It has been observed that Wilder, though he adored America and all things American from the moment he arrived (not to mention the English language - Billy Wilder is one of the all-time best screenwriters in it, entranced by its rhythm as perhaps only someone who learns it later in life can be), never lost his European cynicism. (And in relation to Sunset Boulevard, that he literally knew the older woman/ younger man tango from having danced it himself, working part-time as a hired dancer in Berlin in the 20s for a while.) Which is true and yet not, for Altman (American born and bred) has as cynical a view on all things Hollywood in The Player. I'd say a film like Sunset Boulevard is the perfect union of what America and Europe could offer on experience at the time, including, ironically, the Universal horror movies, mostly shot by and with European emigrés like James Whale, Edgar Ulmer, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi. Norma in her mansion, greeting her guest and intending to keep him with her spidery gestures is echoeing Dracula in his screen incarnation just as much as anything else. Max, her possessive, devoted butler who as Joe later finds out was her first director and discover and her first husband, is every creepy servant of those horror movies, and James Whale would have recognised him immediately. (Meanwhile, Whale in Gods and Monsters gets his German-accented housekeeper full of devotion, Hannah, who loves him as surely as Max loves Norma, but Hannah echoes Whale's comic female characters played by Una O'Connor more than she does the male variety, as opposed to Max in Sunset Boulevard.)

Lastly, it's interesting to compare and contrast the way both films deal with sexuality. Recently at the Book Fair more than one reviewer observed tersely that our Great Old Men in literature currently indulge in another fit of Altherrenerotik, i.e. endless scenarios of old-man-meets-young-nubile-woman-who-rejuvinates-him-sexually. Neither Gods and Monsters nor Sunset Boulevard indulge in that kind of sexual sentimentality. Whale might find Clay quite attractive, but never kids himself Clay would desire him, nore does the movie go for a old-teaches-young/young-gives-old-youth-back sexual discovery. When Joe in Sunset Boulevard decides to sleep with Norma out of a mixture of pity, guilt and mercenary greed, we're never under any illusion he finds her sexually desirable, and though she wants to believe it, she never quite does. Meanwhile, Max' devotion to and obsession with Norma does have sexual overtones, sadomasochistic ones at that. (Which pleased Erich von Stroheim, who plays the part - von Stroheim of course was like Max one of the great silent directors (and an actor as well) who loved to tease the audience with S/M overtones. One of von Stroheim's suggestions which Wilder shot but ultimately didn't use was Max putting Norma's underwear in drawers.) And then there's Joe's relationship with Betty Shaffer, which you might think would be the audience's relief in sexual identification, since he's good-looking and relatively young, and so is she, but Betty is engaged with Joe's friend, ambitious for fame herself and not exactly an innocent, either. One doesn't really root for her and Joe to make it; when she departs in disgust after finding out how he earns his living, there is a feeling of relief. Good for Betty. And we're left with the one moment, where Wilder, and life, as the dead Joe in his voice-over observes, is kind to Norma Desmond. Who finally, mercifully, gets the light of the cameras back and, having lost her grip on reality entirely, does not notice anymore they're not the cameras she has been waiting for. She's ready for her close-up now.


selenak: (Default)

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