5.20.2007

Nancy Olson in Sunset Boulevard (1950) - Supporting Actress Sundays

StinkyLulu'd never given that much thought to Betty Schaefer, "the girl" who complicates everything for Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder's ode to haunted Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. I mean, with Gloria Swanson's glam grotesquerie & Erich Von Stroheim's creeping rattiness & William Holden's punky passivity-- Why bother even noticing "the girl"? Isn't she only there as the control group -- the necessary whiff of normalcy to contrast with the aromatic stinks of Wilder's exuberant genre experiment in "Hollywood Gothic"? Well, sure. But merely glossing over Sunset Boulevard's "girl" (as StinkyLulu has for many years) not only disregards how essential Betty Schaefer is to the cryptic puzzle of the film but, even worse, ignores the crisp, generous actressing of...

approximately 19 minutes and 28 seconds
13 scenes
roughly 18% of film's total running time

At first blush, Nancy Olson's portrayal of Betty Schaefer seems nearly glib, yet another banal entry into the Generic Ingenue Hall of Adequacy. And, indeed, that is largely what the script asks of Betty. (Indeed, early scripts sought only a "new face" for the role.) But Olson's deft performance makes a more generous choice for Betty and creates a simple but textured characterization for what might have otherwise been a prop of a part.

Nancy Olson makes the smart choice to emphasize that Betty is every bit a Hollywood creature. As much so as Swanson's Norma Desmond, really, but, with a crucial distinction: Unlike Norma, Betty's a 3rd generation worker bee who has no desire to be queen. That's not to say, Olson's Betty is without ambition -- far from it. But with youth on her side (as well as a potentially crushing failure already in her past), Olson's Betty has opted for strategic optimism. She may be a script girl now, but she's got plans, some talent, and a good eye. And it's to Nancy Olson's credit that this formidable wit and appealing confidence comes through so clearly, as early as her first scene.

But Olson's Betty and Swanson's Norma share another Hollywood attribute: the ability to spot "it" -- that elusive quality that emanates from genuine star quality. Both women smell this in Joe. It's what attracts them, what instigates their parallel engulfing obsessions, what inspires each of them to rearrange their sense of the world around this man, this beaten up writer without a penny to his name. Olson's Betty offers herself as a collaborator; Swanson's Norma presents herself as a patron. And both women gift their love as something extra, as collateral to Joe's being "something special." (Even Jack Webb's Artie seems to have a crush on Joe Gillis and it's unfortunate that William Holden's generally appealing performance just doesn't capture this aspect of the character -- the spark that so inflames all around him.)

For, as much as it is about the ghosts of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is also about the erotics of creativity and Olson's Betty captures this more than any other character in the film. Betty's happy enough, driven enough and successful enough -- and then a chance meeting with Joe stokes something in her. As her attraction grows, so does the flow of her creative juices. And she becomes prettier. All because of Joe, of how he makes her feel. (The parallel with Swanson's Norma is obvious.) Olson's Betty may truly love Joe, but she also wants to protect -- or possess? -- him because of the way being near him makes her feel.

And this is what StinkyLulu so admires about Nancy Olson's performance in Sunset Boulevard. Nancy Olson allows her ingenue to be -- for the most part -- no better and no worse than Swanson's gorgon. Their cravings for Joe are virtually the same. Both women just want Joe's help with a script that could transform their career (...and maybe a li'l sumpinsumpin along the way). Olson's Betty just happens to be younger, prettier and a little less batshitcrazy than Swanson's Norma. That's all. And, somehow, Olson gets this. Or, at least, by allowing her ingenue the heft of a specific humanity, Nancy Olson provides a performance that allows this aspect of the film's complicated heart to shine through.

Good for Oscar that, right away, he caught on to the fact that Nancy Olson's Betty Schaefer was a whole lot more than just "a new face"...
Sure took StinkyLulu long enough.

8 comments:

newland said...

I never thought much of this performance, but your review made me want to watch it again, in case I missed something.

I always thought Olson had been dragged along the rest of the cast and got a nomination by default, also as a consequence of Oscar's crave for young actresses in this category.

But again, I might as well have to watch this again...

StinkyLulu said...

I don't think that assumption is necessarily wrong, newland.

And, frankly, prior to rescreening the film for this week, I'd always found Betty to be sublimely uninteresting. But, having watched it closely a couple times now (between screening, timing, and pic capturing), I'm fully convinced her work is about as good as it gets for a Hollywood ingenue. And it's certainly one of the most fully articulated performances in the film.

Which is to say -- she may have been caught in the film's general nomination net & definitely fits Oscar's taste for young actresses -- but, in this case, the work's good too. Not showy. At all. But definitely solid.

And, I must say, I did love watching this movie again carefully. I. LOVE. IT.

JS said...

I also carry the belief that Olson's nomination was dragged along (Hollywood must have just WANTED a war between All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard in as many categories as possible, especially their women, an assumption that I now have regarding the men of the Godfather vs Cabaret year). Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond's power I guess.

But I was nodding in agreement as I read your take on this character as well as the actress. :)

Derek said...

I've been long enamored by this actress in this role. She's really very beautiful and intelligent, down to earth but with a touch of class. There's plenty of Librarian-with-a-very-fun-side to her. As a kid I'm sure I saw her in the Disney role, but had no idea it was the same doll.

J.J. said...

Thanks for the post. I've always admired Olson's pluck in this role. The whole performance smells like apple pie, but it's not cutesy or saccharine; it's definitely Wilderian. And as the only surviving member of the cast, she ably participates in the DVD special features -- she's definitely aware that this was her big moment. (Save for her starring part opposite Fred MacMurray in The AbsentMinded Professor, that Disney masterpiece. I think I'm going to blog about that movie soon...)

StinkyLulu said...

I wonder what would've (or wouldn't've) happened with her career had she NOT married & "retired" for the next decade...

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Olson kept working sporadically until her appearance in one of the decade's biggest and slockiest (but entertaining) hits, 1955's Battle Cry, then it was almost all Disney after that. Don't know if she made the right choice in curbing her career endeavors, but Olson sure looked fabulous and was very energetic during her Sunset DVD interview, offering every indication she's led a healthly, productive life away from the camera. Good for her.

Dan's already mentioned an Olson/Eve link, but I would've liked to have seen the actress land something like the Alice Tripp role in A Place in the Sun. Shelley Winters is whiny to a fault in the part (and it appears she could easily keep an ultra-sensitive Clift, or even God himself, in his place without a problem- she may be playing meek, but it's still force-of-nature Winters up there on the screen). In contrast, I think Olson's fresh All-American girl innocence (she was about 21 when Place was filming) would have made the character's fall from grace (she's preggers with no ring, folks! Big deal in 1951) and eventual tragedy more touching and even shocking (in a Janet Leigh in Psycho- "Oh My God! They killed her off! And she was such a nice girl!"- way; does anyone really care when Winters drowns, knowing it also means Alice won't be around to crab and blab away at Clift's George Eastman anymore?).

Olson also would have made a very interesting parallel to Elizabeth Taylor and the vunerability she brings to her excellent work as George's true love, Angela. And finally (to get back to Stinkylu's main theme), with Olson in the role, the young actress might have actually won the BSA Oscar for 1951, as Alice really is a juicy supporting part (sure, winner Kim Hunter's Stella is pregnant in Streetcar, but she's (yawn) married already). Winters was a big enough star to land in the BA race, so Hunter was able to breath a sigh of relief before Stella's water broke. But that's another year.

Patrick said...

Nancy Olson's performance was marvelous...I watched Sunset Blvd again for the first time in about 40 yrs last weekend and she's just stunning in the role of Betty. Especially loved the scene where Olson half turns to Holden and replies "You" when he asks her what's causing her to back out of her engagemet to Jack Webb. The whole scente done with exquisite timing...she had a subtle erotic intensity undergirding her fresh-faced, girl-next-door screen persona. Lovely.