Friday, July 17, 2009

Gloria Swanson: Best Actress Of 1919 (Male And Female)

The second in a series of brief essays about the Katie winners of the pre-Oscar era.

I've teased Gloria Swanson off and on for two lines of dialogue that her character, Norma Desmond, spoke in the Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard—"We didn't need dialogue; we had faces!" and "I am big; it's the pictures that got small!"—but she really was one of the best actresses of the Silent Era and for her breakthrough performance in the Cecil B. DeMille drama Male and Female, I gave her the Katie for best actress of 1919.

The movie itself is an odd marriage of Upstairs Downstairs and Gilligan's Island—a group of English aristocrats and their servants are marooned together on a South Seas island where naturally the servants prove much more adept at survival than their indolent, self-indulgent counterparts. Initially, Gloria Swanson plays the most stubbornly indolent of them all, but when she falls in love with her butler, the real leader on the island, she gradually comes to realize what's truly important in life.

That is until they're all rescued and DeMille serves up one of the most reactionary endings in movie history.

That Swanson managed to make all this hokum believable was a testament to her skill as an actress. Overnight, both she and DeMille became major players in Hollywood and both were stars on their respective sides of the camera for the rest of the decade.

Swanson made such silent classics as The Affairs of Anatol and Sadie Thompson and seemed to make the transition to talkies successfully—she received an Oscar nomination for her first talkie, The Trespasser—but her career went into decline and, with one exception, she made no movies between Music in the Air in 1934 and her comeback in Sunset Boulevard in 1950, for which she received her third and final Oscar nomination.

She died in 1983 at the age of 84.

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