Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim
Is Sunset Blvd. the most brutally lacerating film made by Hollywood ABOUT Hollywood? Possibly. I’m sure, dear readers, that now I’ve said that, you’ve got at least five other films you’re thinking of to prove me wrong, but you’ve got to admit that Sunset Blvd. is an absolutely eviscerating portrait of the filmmaking industry. And Christ, I love it.
Famously opening with a shot of his dead body floating in a swimming pool, the story is that of Joe Gillis (Holden), a down on his luck screenwriter in Los Angeles who narrates the story of how he wound up dead. In an effort to evade the repo men, he drives his car one day into the garage of aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Swanson). Desmond is more than a little eccentric, what with the funeral for her dead monkey, her frankly creepy butler (von Stroheim), and her ridiculously narcissistic view of the world around her (“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!”). She soon ensnares Joe, turning him into a kept man, and Joe goes along with it for awhile, and the two plan Norma’s comeback (“I hate that word! It’s a return!”). But Joe can’t live like this forever.
There have been plenty of movies made by Hollywood about Hollywood, but Wilder ups the ante on nearly all of them by not bothering to disguise his characters as caricatures. Oh no, he uses real names, like Zanuck, Ty Power, and “We’re always looking for a Betty Hutton,” and references real films (“You’d have turned down Gone with the Wind!” “No that was me. I said ‘who wants to see a Civil War picture.’”), and even uses real studios, with most of the action taking place at Paramount, with references to Twentieth Century Fox as well. Even the main characters in the film are thinly veiled references to the actors who portray them. William Holden had indeed been pretty hot in Hollywood, but not for some time. He was certainly down on his luck, and had to convince Wilder to give him a chance. Gloria Swanson was indeed a silent film star who had not transitioned at all to sound. Even Erich von Stroheim was playing a version of himself, a former silent film director. Sure, Holden doesn’t really behave like Joe Gillis, and I’m certain Gloria Swanson wasn’t nearly as crazy as Norma Desmond, but the point is there. Sunset Blvd. isn’t nearly so much an allegory as a straight up “true crimes” story about the dirty business that is Hollywood. I love that about this film. I don’t have to try to guess who each character is supposed to represent, as in the also very good The Bad and the Beautiful, because realistically, everyone is playing themselves, right down to the waxworks of Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson.
Of all the crazies in Sunset Blvd., it is actually the main character, that of Joe, who most fascinates me. Clearly, we are meant to sympathize at the outset with Joe, as Norma is, frankly, batshit crazy and does everything in her power to keep Joe within her talon clutches. But the thing is, Joe isn’t exactly the most sympathetic character in the world. In fact, he’s kind of a dick. He acquiesces far too easily to be “kept” by Norma, and he rather shamelessly takes advantage of her wealth. Sure, you can tell that he’s lost respect for himself when he accepts her expensive gifts or favors, but that doesn’t stop him from accepting them. Just as much as Norma is using him to help her get back into show business, Joe is using Norma. It’s an equally parasitic relationship. This is evident most especially when we are introduced to Betty Schaeffer, a young, pretty script reader at Paramount who Joe eventually starts to work with and develop feelings for. The best, most noble move that Joe makes in the film is when he shows Betty exactly how far he’s fallen and how much he hates himself. Joe and Betty’s blossoming romance would never work; he’s too far down the rabbit hole with Norma to make an honest go of it with someone as righteous as Betty, and by bitterly showing Betty his rather ugly side, he pushes her out of his life. The fact that this is the “nicest” thing Joe does in the film is what makes me easily conclude that Sunset Blvd. is a film noir. Noirs all have a fatally flawed hero, someone who is good but can’t help himself when it comes to one thing; money, or maybe women, or maybe power. For Joe, his fatal flaw is clearly luxury. He can’t help himself but leach off of Norma when given the opportunity. As much as we are meant to sympathize with Joe getting trapped by crazy Norma, by the end of the film, Wilder has, rather cleverly, slightly turned the tables on us. Joe is hardly a hero, and Norma actually becomes a bit sympathetic. For as crazy as Norma is, for as much as Joe complains about being “caught” by her, he is just as much to blame for his downfall.
Practically a character in the film in and of itself is Norma Desmond’s estate. A ridiculous portrait of grotesquerie, Joe Gillis equates it with the house in Great Expectations when he first walks up to it, and the comparison is fitting. While not quite as full with cobwebs and decay as Miss Haversham’s, it certainly exhibits the same sort of mood. In Great Expectations, Miss Haversham ensnares Pip and manipulates him, and we have the same sort of relationship between Norma Desmond and Joe. The fact that this is played out in Sunset Blvd. against a background so stuffed to the gills with ornate, ludicrous luxuries makes the whole story feel unseemly. You don’t need dirt and grime to make a story feel sordid, oh no. The set is almost claustrophobic despite the vast expanse of the mansion because no matter where you look, there is some gaudy monstrosity of furniture leaning into the shot, crowding the scene. It all feels so… so… creepy. Wrong. Unnatural. Which is to say, absolutely perfect for the story at hand.
Honestly, it should go without saying that the script to Sunset Blvd. is sparkling; just look at how many quotes I’ve already included in this review, and I don’t find myself normally including quotes. Billy Wilder is famous for his screenplays, and when you hear the amazing turns of phrases in this film, it’s easy to understand why. The great thing about Wilder’s films is that it’s not just great lines, but great lines combined with great stories. The lines themselves are powerful and potent on their own (“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup”), but when you see them in the context of the story, they’re even better.
Back in my biochemistry grad school days, I had to write plenty of rather wretched research proposals and committee meeting reports. I remember holing myself up in the basement of the house we were house-sitting in at the time, and putting in either Double Indemnity or Sunset Blvd. (funnily enough, both by Wilder) and putting them on repeat while I eked out the reports on the computer. It was here, during this fairly crappy time in my life that I learned to love film noir. It was having these films on repeat, over and over, where I fell in love with the dialogue and the music and the characters and the themes. I’ve seen Sunset Blvd. more times than I can count, and as sappy as this may sound, I’m glad this movie is a part of my life.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10.