TALKING FILMS

A Billy Wilder double bill kind of Saturday: Revisiting ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Fedora’

The celebrated American director’s films have twinned themes and a yearning for ‘the way movies used to be’.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) is Billy Wilder’s macabre expose of art imitating life. It opens with dead leaves at the kerb and a corpse floating in a private swimming pool. It fades out on a psychopathic diva reaching for an audience that has long vanished.

Not without discomfort, opportunist-turned-gigolo Joe Gillis sums up the self-reflexive story: “It’s a very simple set up. Older woman who’s well to do, younger man who’s not doing too well. Can you figure it out yourself?”

Scriptwriters Charles Brackett, DM Marshman Jr and Wilder create film noir at its most mind-bending by adding cruelty to eeriness. The reel cast play versions of their real and near- fading selves. Silent film star Gloria Swanson, who had not been seen since 1941, gutsily plays Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent screen star planning her return (she hates the word “comeback”). William Holden, whose broad shoulders hadn’t carried much since The Golden Boy (1939), plays Joe Gillis, an out of work script writer. Film director Erich von Stroheim plays Max von Mayerling, Norma’s one-time director, husband and now butler. Extras on sets are played by real life extras. Cecil B de Mille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves. Can a meta movie get greater?

It can and it does.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Norma’s dark lair is 10086 Sunset Boulevard. As Gillis takes his first fateful steps towards it, his voice over sums up a yesteryear Xanadu “stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion”. Rather like its owner whom “30 million fans had given the brush”.

Drunk on denial, 50-year-old Norma surrounds herself with paintings and photographs of her prime (Gloria Swanson in stills from her early films). She has a projection screen running her pictures every other night. The audience? Just herself and Max and later, Gillis, because Norma is “mad about the boy” and cannot let him out of her sight. Norma travels in a grand Isotta-Fraschini with leopard skin seats. On her finger, she wears a bizarre contraption for a cigarette, around her throat she wears ropes of jewellery and her bed is designed like a gondola.

Art direction (John Meehan and Hans Drier), costume (Edith Head), set design (Sam Comer and Ray Moyer), and music (Franz Waxman) give Sunset Boulevard all that it takes for cinematographer John F Seitz to assemble a furtive chiaroscuro. Shadows form bars of “that peculiar prison” Gillis ultimately allows himself to be trapped in. Giant mirrors reflect a claustrophobic inner world. Also built into the screenplay is a chilling and recurring motif of watching, whether it is Norma gazing through the blinds at Gillis or the voyeuristic audience peering through eye like sockets of lockless doors.

For all this and the performances which are outstanding (Swanson even does a jaw-dropping impersonation of Chaplin), the real draw of Sunset Boulevard is Wilder’s stinging and witty dialogue. “You say the cutest things,” a desperate Gillis tells collectors from the auto finance company just before he gives them the slip. Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) is a script reader who can see when a screenplay is “written from hunger”. After Gillis finishes a swim in her pool, Norma rubs him down with a towel and asks Max about a phone call he has just attended to. Max says it was “someone asking about a stray dog” – probably what he views Gillis to be. And of course, there is Norma herself who imperiously informs us of her eternal presence: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

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Sunset Boulevard (1950).

In Fedora (1978), Wilder’s “tepid imitation” of his earlier masterpiece, independent producer Barry Detweiler (played by an older William Holden) spells out that success in Hollywood is all about “sugar and spice on the outside and cement and stainless steel on the inside”.

Fedora begins in medias res. A melodrama that is part narrated and part stumbled upon by Detweiler himself leads us to Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef), a Machiavellian battleaxe who holds the secret of the glamourous Fedora (Marthe Keller). Now locked up in a villa in Corfu and guarded by German Shepherds both human and canine, Fedora has had all 51 mirrors taken down from the villa walls and drawers have been filled with new, white gloves.

Based on a novella by Thomas Tryon, Fedora relies on the same techniques as Sunset Boulevard – flashbacks, voice-overs and actors (Henry Fonda and Michael York) playing themselves. This time, the yearnings are not for silent cinema of the ’20s but for the films of the ’40s, which earned the world famous Fedora valuable fan mail from Winston Churchill and Jean Paul Sartre, among other luminaries.

The indubitable Janet Maslin describes Fedora as “old-fashioned with a vengeance, a proud, passionate remembrance of the way movies used to be, and a bitter smile at what they have become”.

True as this is, production designer Alexandre Trauner, composer Miklos Rozsa and cinematographer Gary Fisher do not give Fedora the sense of foreboding or the sinister ambiance of its monumental predecessor. Exteriors are often overexposed and contrasts are washed out. There is one unforgettable blue Santa Monica sunrise, however, before we lose sight of eye candy Stephen Collins (the young Detweiler). Vando, (Jose Ferrer), the accidental vandal of the charade, gets some smart lines and Marthe Keller plays her role with panache.

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Fedora (1978).

“You find my body boring?” Fedora asks young Detweiler, point blank after she has done a nude scene on set.

“No,” Detweiler blushes. “I think you have a very nice body.”

“I do not.”

“No?”

“I have a terrific body.”

Fedora has its moments for sure, but 67 years later it is Wilder’s devilishly clever Sunset Boulevard, a film on failures that makes for resounding success. That is what explains Glenn Close as Norma Desmond making a spectacular return after 22 years in the Rice-Lloyd Webber opera of Sunset Boulevard whose lyrics rely heavily on the words of the original screenplay.

“No one ever leaves a star!”

Right you are, Ms Desmond. And we are ready for your next close-up.

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Glenn Close on playing Norma Desmond.
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.