Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman Jr.
Directed by Billy Wilder
Movies about making movies was not a new thing when Sunset Boulevard came along. What was novel about this film was that it wasn’t a story of rags to riches, a reflection on the dream of fame. This is a film noir version of those Hollywood tales. Our protagonist is a screenwriter who fails to make it big. The antagonist is a movie star who fell from great heights and never recovers. Much like in Day of the Locust, we have an examination of the effects of a system that promises wealth & fame that rarely delivers those dreams.
Joe Gillis is dead. He floats face down in the pool of a decaying mansion, yet he narrates this story. After a series of failures and mounting debts, Gillis stumbles upon the massive home of long-forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. Desmond has been slaving away on a script about Salome that she hopes to convince veteran director Cecil B. DeMille to make, paving the way for her return. Gillis’s profession causes Desmond to plead with him to help her, and the cushy digs help in convincing the penniless writer. Desmond is sheltered from the outside world by her faithful butler Max who also keeps the full truth from Gillis. As the months go on, Gillis begins to learn more about Desmond and his own role in this twisted charade.
Billy Wilder wasn’t content to just make a film about old Hollywood he brought in people who actually lived through it. Desmond was played by Gloria Swanson, an actual silent film star whose luster had faded since her glory days. At one point in the 1920s, Swanson was making the equivalent of $8,000,000 a week for her work. Swanson definitely understood the plight of her character and was able to tap into her own insecurities and what she likely saw in her fellow former stars. Joining her in the film were directors of the silent era, Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim, as well as fellow actors, like Buster Keaton. Wilder made a movie that was deeply metafictional, causing the audience to question where the fiction ended, and reality began.
There’s a veneer of performance in Norma Desmond’s world. Gillis is expected to play a particular role and when he challenges that Desmond spirals into threats of suicide. Is her suicide a performance? It seems to be real. When Gillis returns to the house, a doctor is leaving, and Desmond’s wrists are bandaged. Later we see no sign of scars, so we’re left questioning what is really happening in that house. Max is the most exceptional performer of the whole bunch, revealed to have two deep ties to his employer yet now playing the role of butler. Why is he so devoted to Desmond? We never really know, but it is near-religious. Max understands she is not well but agrees with her that the world is at fault.
Gillis is a wonderfully complex protagonist, which makes Desmond a sympathetic antagonist. The writer is stuck trying to pen things that will appeal to studio heads, which in turn causes a distaste for his material. Gillis quickly sells his services to Desmond and, when he learns he’s become a plaything for her, goes along because he’s getting quite a bit out of it. There comes the point where he tries to play Desmond while seeking personal gain outside the manor, and we know this will be his downfall.
Desmond is overdramatic and powerful, yet deeply sympathetic when her weaknesses are exposed. We never learn any backstory about her before she came to Hollywood and struck it big. When old friends speak about her, they have a reverence and pity. She obviously was a bright figure at one point, but they see how she’s never recovered, been able to move on with her life. That is Desmond’s most significant flaw, the past is too beautiful and glimmering that it blinds her from the reality of her present.
Sunset Boulevard is a perfect piece of cinema made by a master filmmaker. Nothing is coming out of major Hollywood studios today that even approaches this level of quality. You honestly have to look to foreign cinema now to find this kind of work. There isn’t a single second of Sunset that feels unneeded or padding for time. Each scene plays into developing the characters while pushing forward the plot. If you haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard, please do yourself this treat, it is a sublime experience.