”Sunset Boulevard” is a movie I have been looking forward to a long time. It is one of those I have heard spoken of with great admiration, but never actually seen before. That is a line that I have come to repeat a great many times over the past few years and this is certainly a case in particular. I am not sure what I expected, maybe a harsh critique of Hollywood or some spectacular performances, but I certainly did not expect this to be a film noir. But film noir it is and very much so.
We have a story narrated in flashback with an opening scene revealing that something is terribly wrong. The male lead is heading for his doom through a combination of ill fate and personal failings and we have the most sublime and extravagant femme fatale in movie history. Add to that a black and white cinematography that emphasizes the dark, derelict and, well, bizarre and we are in solid film noir land. I am not complaining, to me that is an added bonus, I love noir.
As a noir “Sunset Boulevard” is interesting, even captivating, and as a viewer it keeps me at the edge of my seat, not through some criminal scheme but with the tension between the characters and the weirdness that seem on the edge of exploding into a monumental disaster. When the disaster does happen, cause it does indeed, it still feels unexpected and surprising and yet the most logical and fitting conclusion to the story. That is not small feat. Billy Wilder has shown again and again that can make excellent film noir (“Double Indemnity” for instance) and I suppose it was a fitting framework for the movie.
Framework is actually not a bad term, because the film noir cinematography and storyline is not the main feature of this film. The main feature is Norma Desmond and all she represents. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is an aging woman who used to be a megastar back in the silent era. In the transition to sound she got left behind like so many others of Hollywood’s great, but Norma Desmond remained in the dream of her greatness unwilling and unable to face the reality that she is not 25 years anymore and that her career is over and gone. Even the mansion she lives in cries of has-been. When the male lead Joe Gillis (William Holden) first arrives at the house he compares it to Miss Havisham’s mansion in “Great Expectations” and that is truly a fitting comparison. Where Havisham stopped time at her wedding Desmond stopped time when her career ended.
In a sense the movie is a portrait of Norma Desmond and it is not difficult to imagine this portrait being based on some real characters in Hollywood. Maybe Billy Wilder had even been contacted by a Norma Desmond the way she contacts Cecil B. DeMille. Who knows? It is through the eyes of Joe Gillis we see this woman. He is down on his luck and with no small amount of sarcastic bitterness himself, so when he describes her manners, gestures, ludicrous manuscript and raving insanity it is both funny and immensely tragic. Should we laugh or cry at this woman who fools herself and makes a laughingstock of herself in the eyes of everybody else? Gillis despise her but he also pity her and so helps uphold her illusion. Of course it helps that he needs her money and she still have loads of it. In fact everybody around her helps her maintaining her illusion. Some for her money, at the studio out of respect for what she used to be, her card playing friends because they are of the same stock and some like Max, the butler, (Erich von Stroheim) out of love.
Who are Billy Wilder after in this movie? Is it the aging stars who will not face reality who he intends to expose? Or is it the movie industry and all that surrounds these stars that he is aiming at for their hypocrisy and leeching on the poor insane? Probably both, but as much as Norma Desmond is revealed as a delusional and dangerous spider queen there is also not a small amount of love for her and her kind as if they were unjustly forgotten. Certainly it is a very intelligent script and a stark portrait.
In hindsight Gloria Swanson is the most unforgettable feature of the film. She was not anywhere close to the first pick for the role, but I could hardly think of anyone better. In some ways she was a Norma Desmond, having experienced the stardom and adoration as a silent star, but failing to make the transition to sound. The difference was that she had accepted her fate and was quite lucid about it, yet I am sure it was not difficult to identify with Norma Desmond. When she enters the gates of Paramount studios in her old car and relish at her return it was also Swanson’s glorious return and Cecil B. DeMille was also her old director with whom she had her great successes. Norma exclaims that without her there would not be a Paramount and that too could be said of Gloria Swanson. But similarities aside Gloria Swanson is magnificent as Norma Desmond. This is Oscar awarding performance as I ever saw it. Wow! She steals the picture in every sense of the word and without having seen Judy Holiday who actually won the award I would still claim she was robbed. A statue for Swanson would have had the added benefit of being a fitting lifetime achievement considering that her career basically ended before she had a chance to win any (though she was nominated twice before her career faded during the transition).
Billy Wilder has included a ton of references, which makes this a great movie for film nerds as well. Making Erich von Stroheim Desmond’s butler, first director and first husband is both really weird and telling of the characters of Max and Norma, but also fitting in the sense that Stroheim was also a “broken” director (though he, once he gave up direction, became an excellent actor), he directed Swanson in some of her most disastrous movies and the one they screen in the movie was essentially the one that broke them both: “Queen Kelly”. Norma’s card playing friends, the waxworks, as Gillis calls them, were in reality all stars that did not make the transition, most notably Buster Keaton. Their inclusion in the film is like an afterthought, but a very poignant one. There are many more references and I can only recommend the extra material to the DVD which revels in them and rightly so.
All this fails to emphasize the brilliant script. Apparently Wilder did not allow a single change to the dialogue and yet it is spot on. This movie is as stuffed with quotable lines as “Casablanca” and many have entered the pop-culture since. In fact the movie would be great if it was just Swanson saying her wonderful lines. Just awesome.
I have not mentioned Nancy Olson as Joe Gillis love interest although she was nominated for an Academy Award. The reason is simply that apart from filling her role well, she is quite forgettable next to the massive presence which is Gloria Swanson.
Yes, I loved this movie, no doubt about it. I think moviegoers where spoilt in 1950 having both “All about Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard” to watch. Two phenomenal views on the entertainment industry and both with something so rare as excellent female roles and truly original stories.