Hollywood is a weird, creepy place. The history of Hollywood is full of mystery, intrigue, fallen idols, and constant change. If Hollywood does anything right it’s look back on it’s own history with a critical eye. In the case of Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard, it takes a dark, satirical look at how the quick changing attitude of Hollywood can leave victims in it’s wake. Taking elements of film noir, Wilder created a dark and sometimes painful film that reminds the viewers of the fleeting life of Hollywood and it’s stars. In addition to being an example of a well written and well shot film, it features some excellent performances from it’s stars.
The film starts with a death. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is floating, dead, in a pool. He, through narrative voice over, tells us that he was murdered, but in order to understand the whole story, we’d need to go back six months prior. Six months earlier, we meet Joe as a down on his luck screenwriter. Everything that could be wrong, has gone wrong: he is 3 months behind on the rent, repo men are looking to take his car, and even his agent can’t seem to help him. While driving around, debating wither he should bother staying around, he has a flat tire that leads him to a large, presumed empty mansion. After storing his car in a garage, he is summoned inside by a butler later known as Max (Erich von Stroheim). Once inside, Joe comes face to face with an aging starlet, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who mistakes him for a pet undertaker. Upon learning that his a writer, she turns her own script over to him. Playing on his need for money, Norma slowly drags him into her own delusional world where he can’t help but become a pawn in her plan to return. After learning of Joe’s sneaking out to work on another script with another woman, Norma becomes enraged and threatens to kill herself. Joe, finally at his breaking point, tells her the truth that her script was awful, her movie won’t be made, and she is a forgotten relic of the past. Norma then turns the gun on Joe, which brings the film full circle. It ends with Norma, fully broken and delusional, ascending the stairs thinking she is being filmed. She then utters that all too familiar line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Written by long time collaborators Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (with some additional story help from D. M. Marshman), the film draws on Wilder’s interest in seeing former film stars, many of which retired form film all together, sitting up in their big mansions. He wondered what they did and it was then the idea started to grow. As they flushed out the script, only one name to play Norma Desmond kept coming up: Gloria Swanson. She was a famous star of silent film that found her popularity begin to wain as ‘talkies’ started to become the norm. Unlike the character of Norma, Gloria moved out to New York where she worked in radio and theater. She knew that she wasn’t going to continue to get work in films, so instead of wasting away to nothing, she moved on.
What is interesting about the film is how it borders on non-fiction. So many truthful elements are woven into a fictional story that sometimes it seems hard to distinguish the difference between what happened and what didn’t. It’s grounding the film in realism that seems to give the movie a chilling tone. In my research of the movie, I found some interesting thoughts that likened the film to a horror movie. There is a classic Universal Monster picture quality to the whole thing. The ornately decorated mansion that is paradoxically empty and claustrophobic at the same time feels like a mausoleum. It is full of pictures of Norma and flowers that seem to be more a monument to her life as opposed to a place someone lives in. The use of shadows and lurking characters (Max) makes you feel like Joe is being watched at all times. Of course, the very end where Norma has ascended the stairs and then looks directly into the camera, she has completely transformed into a grotesque version of her former self. Even as she walks closer to the camera, it is reminiscent of Bela Lugosi’s creeping toward the camera as Dracula.
My first encounter with this film was actually through the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name. In my Musical Theater History class in high school, my teacher professed this to be the best musical Webber had ever done. We listened to selections and talked about the original film. It wouldn’t be until my Film 101 class in college that I really thought about the film again. We didn’t watch the film, but we talked about it when we covered the topic of silent to talkie transition. This has been one of the films I’ve looked forward to the most with the list. I am happy to say, I was not disappointed.
There is an eerily honest performance from Gloria Swanson that you can’t help but feel sticks with you. Swanson gives herself over to Desmond 100% and it shows. It seems like the part allowed her to play out some sort of alternate reality that would have happened had she stayed in Hollywood. I’m also a huge sucker for the film noir genre of film. This film is an excellent entry into that genre and one that I would possibly use as an example of film noir (this assuming I was teaching a Film 101 class). It also has a feeling of a dark satire and treated it’s audience with respect. Many films of the time were bright, colorful musicals so this film was a stand out. It also wouldn’t really find a lot of success until the 60s when it was aired on television. I’m glad I got to finally experience this film and can understand why it ranks as high as it does.