Sunset Boulevard defies categorization. It’s a film noir, gothic, horror, melodrama, suspense, tragicomic romance. It’s surreal, but properly grounded in reality. You laugh, you cry, you cringe, but you never look away. It’s absolutely spellbinding. And has there ever been such a weird, yet utterly compelling ending as when Norma Desmond descends the staircase, now completely lost in her delusions, believing that the media cameras are really the cameras of Cecil B. DeMille and that he is shooting her as Salome, descending the stairs of the palace? When watched in isolation on youtube, the scene looks melodramatic, but when seen as the climax of the film, it is shiveringly effective.
I’m gushing a bit. I had very high expectations for this film and in one of those rare instances they were actually met. I even went out of my way to prepare for watching this. I wanted to see Gloria Swanson when she really was a big star in the silent era. I wanted to see some of the movies that Erich von Stroheim had directed during the silent era and also some of the movies Cecil B. DeMille made during the same time (some with Gloria Swanson). Fortunately, since the film is so iconic and most people have a general idea of the plot, it still feels fresh even though you know what’s going to happen. The drama is not in what happens, but how it happens.
Sunset Boulevard is often called a critique of Hollywood, which it certainly is, but this film is not limited to that. It’s about individual people more than monolithic Hollywood. It’s about obsession and ambition, wanting love (intimate love and also the more general and all embracing love of fans, people you don’t even know). It’s about wanting to be someone important, to be acknowledged, to earn money, to have a career that provides meaning and identity. These are universal themes that have meaning anywhere, it’s just that Hollywood magnifies these things, so it is an ideal setting.
The film manages the unique feat of having both an unforgettable beginning and an unforgettable end. The movie opens with the body of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a swimming pool, shot three times with a revolver. We then hear his voice narrating throughout the film, telling the story of how he got there, how Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, became involved with the fading, forgotten silent movie star who cannot accept that her time has passed.
On a side note, it seems incredibly cheeky of director Billy Wilder to have a corpse narrate our story, but somehow it doesn’t come off as macabre unless you think about it too much. There is a sharp, biting humor that pervades the entire film, especially in Joe Gillis’ narration, wryly commenting on the action in hindsight.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is borderline insane throughout the entire film and one of the things that impressed me is how Swanson never goes over the top. It seems like she does, multiple times, but it is believable and not just theatrics. It is like the character Norma Desmond is acting all the time. She cannot behave normally and naturally. She is always putting on a show for some invisible audience, using the people she interacts with as her props.
It is amazing, however, how much sympathy both she and William Holden garner for their extremely flawed characters. She is imperious, arrogant, commanding, childish, and manipulative. She has attempted suicide several times and is quite willing to threaten it if she thinks it will get her what she wants. But this fact is also tragic. Even if she is incapable of killing herself without grand gestures, she is still unhappy enough to be willing to die. If she can’t be Norma Desmond, a beloved and needed movie star, then she isn’t anybody at all.
William Holden’s Joe Gillis is also a flawed character and capable of a little manipulation of his own. When he first meets her, he thinks he can manipulate her into giving him a job to brush up her ridiculous script of Salome that she believes she will make her comeback with (though she hates the word comeback; “It’s a return!”). He doesn’t mind taking advantage of an extremely vulnerable and deluded woman. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem flirting with his friend’s fiance, Betty Shaefer (Nancy Olson).
Erich von Stroheim is fascinating as Norma’s inscrutable butler, Max. Max was once a promising director in the silent era who discovered Norma Desmond when she was sixteen and made her into a star. When her career was wrecked by sound, he asked her to take him on as her butler/jack-of-all trades – he can even play the organ like a regular cliched horror villain. It is not clear what his motivations are. Does he feel guilt over how he made her into a star and set her on the path that has so crippled her emotionally? Does he still love her madly, does he share in her obsession over her own greatness? It is never clear. The only thing that is clear is that he made things worse by feeding her delusions that she is not forgotten. He writes fake fan letters and requests for her autograph, confirming to the end her own image of herself. Is it the image he gave her at the beginning? Is he perhaps her evil genius? But he doesn’t play it like a moustache-twirling villain. There is pathos in his unwavering devotion to her.
Joe Gillis’ love interest, the aspiring screenwriter Betty Shaefer, is played by Nancy Olson. It was only her second movie, but Wilder chose her because she could bring a breath of fresh air into a very gothic and cynical film. Cecil B. DeMille also does a fine job playing himself, the director who made so many pictures with both Gloria Swanson and, in the film, Norma Desmond. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised at how natural he seems; he did start his career as an actor on Broadway, though he quickly turned to directing plays and then silent movies.
Reality meets art so often in the film, it is astonishing, once again, how cheeky Billy Wilder was. Gloria Swanson’s career really did deteriorate after the coming of sound and when she made Sunset Boulevard she hadn’t made a movie in nine years, though she was not sitting around in a ruined home bemoaning her glory days. She was evidently a very busy woman, starting businesses, acting in summer stock, promoting health foods. Erich von Stroheim was also a promising director from the silent era, but because his movies always went massively over-budget, over long, and because he wasn’t a ‘team player’ and pushed the censorship envelope, his career was ruined and he was reduced to acting in bit parts, often as Nazis.
When Norma Desmond shows Joe Gillis footage from one of her silent movies, it is footage from a 1929 silent film called Queen Kelly, that was never completed. It was directed by Erich von Stroheim and starred Gloria Swanson, but owing to censorship concerns and huge financial issues, Swanson and her backer, Joseph P. Kennedy, pulled the plug on the film. It was the end of his directing career and hers petered out soon after.
According to an interview with Nancy Olson, in one of the documentaries on Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection, Billy Wilder told her the movie was about people who were on the make, which makes sense with my idea that it is not a film exclusively about Hollywood, despite how often reality meets art in the film. These are people who are willing to sell themselves to achieve their goals.