By picking Sunset Boulevard for this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot, our dear Nathaniel unknowingly helped me get rid of one of my most embarrassing cinematic blind-spots. That’s right, I had never seen Billy Wilder’s classic melodrama about the cruel afterlife of Hollywood celebrity. But that’s not all, in order to make things even more interesting, he made it clear that we were not allowed to pick the film’s iconic last shot, which as he wisely put it, is one of the most iconic final shots in the history of the medium, and no one wants to see all of the participants picking the same damn shot.
Being completely honest, I don’t know if I’d had chosen that final shot of faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) enchanting the camera as she relishes in the close-up she is suddenly ready for, but there is no denying the tragicomic nature of the image, which ends the film with a haunting yet melancholic period. Because let’s be honest, we might be entering the movie’s world through William Holden’s character’s point of view, but unlike him, we *are* here to see Norma Desmond. She is what the movie’s reputation has promised, and she is what the movie delivers.
Truly, Swanson gives one of the best performances in history in the way she seamlessly fits into the acting style of the fifties while filtering her performance through the mannerism of silent movie acting. One of my favorite touches is how she uses her mugging and overreacting to milk as much comedy out of the situation as she possibly can, which in turn brings in the necessary pathos to make Norma’s story even more tragic.
Needless to say, my pick for the best shot revolves all around Norma Desmond. It comes from somewhere in the middle of the movie, when our writer protagonist and the movie star sit down to watch one of her classic movies. Norma is transfixed by her own acting. She can’t understand why she’s no longer the biggest name in Hollywood. Of course she is such an outsized personality that one gets the feeling she ends all the screenings of her movies the same way she does this one, which is by jumping off her seat and promising in true Scarlett O’Hara fashion, that she will be up there again and show these stupid producers what a real star looks like.
Seconds after making this forceful promise, she turns around, and bathed in the light of the movie projector, we see Norma Desmond. The high contrast shadows, the expressive face, the pointed chin and nose. It’s the taste of greatness that has swallowed up this woman’s life. These are the remains of what Hollywood thinks she’s lost, but she so painfully clings to. Now we see what all those fans saw. Now we see the profile of a true movie star.