Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard is undoubtedly a classic, and has long been heralded as one of the best movies about the movies. It’s also a film noir, a horror picture, a story about the madwoman in the attic. It juggles all of these elements incredibly well, with a great script, great acting, and cinematography and direction that backs all of this up wonderfully. I was motivated to watch this film again after seeing similarly-themed Veronika Voss and I’m happy to say it more than holds up.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a down and out screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. He’s trying to sell any of his stories to Paramount in order to keep his car which is on the verge of being repossessed. Fleeing the repo men, he stumbles into the garage of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who is mourning her dead pet chimp. Initially mistaking him for a funeral parlor representative, she realizes her mistake and gets Joe to work on her script for her comeback return, Salome. Joe of course, takes her up on it, low on funds that he is. He gradually gets caught up in Norma’s own personal tragedy, that of a once famous actress struggling to remain relevant.

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Sunset Boulevard is a movie about failures. You have failures like Norma and her butler/ex-husband/former director Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), who used to be great artists and who no longer are. Norma refuses to face the reality that she no longer has a place in the entertainment business, and she is encouraged in this by Max, who writes all of her fan mail and reassures her that her public is still out there. Then you have Joe. He’s seemingly lost all hope of writing any successful movies and simply content to be Norma’s boy toy. It makes sense that they would all be stuck together, and Norma has enough money left over from the old days that they can forget about their failures. Or at least try.

Max is easily the most interesting character, especially upon rewatches after the shock and awe of Norma has faded somewhat. Max works as her butler, a far step down from husband/director that he formerly was. However, his job is really to keep up the illusions, and what is film if it’s not creating illusions? Perhaps he isn’t as much of a failure as it seems at first glance, he might not be making a film (until the end), but isn’t he still directing? Instead of a film, it’s Norma’s life. He brings the reclusive star narrative to life, instead of the reality that he’s the practically the only one who still cares about Norma.

There’s a little subplot with Joe and an ambitious young girl named Betty Shaeffer (Nancy Olson), a reader for Paramount. She doesn’t like most of Joe’s ideas but sees some merit in one of them, and they start working on a script together. Joe has to hide this from Norma, knowing that she’ll get jealous. This story is not as interesting as the main one, but it provides good contrast between the hopelessness and desperation going on in the mansion on Sunset Boulevard and the ambition and drive that Betty has.

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One thing that always rubbed me the wrong way about this movie was the voice over narration. It works within the world of the film, and there’s a justification for it, but nevertheless it’s terrible. It’s Joe’s, an unsuccessful hack writer, narration, of course it’s overwrought. Because it’s narration from beyond the grave (the first thing we see in the film after the credits is Joe’s dead body), it gives the film a ghoulish feel that goes well with the creepy near-abandoned mansion and the dead pet monkey. I can give justification upon justification for why the narration works, but that doesn’t change the fact that it provides some cringe-inducing lines. I love it and hate it at the same time.

It’s been much written about, so I probably don’t even have to address it, but Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the best-casted film of all time. I’m not talking so much about the performances that come out of it, though they are great across the board (maybe Olson is weak link, but not much of one), but more of  the associations that the actors bring with them to the screen. Most of the older characters are playing themselves, at least on paper. I don’t think Gloria Swanson was actually as crazy and ghoulish as Norma Desmond was, but on paper, they are both silent film stars whose film careers never recovered after the transition to sound. Same with von Stroheim, who actually directed Swanson in silent films. Norma Desmond’s bridge group is made up of similarly situated silent stars: Buster Keaton, HB Warner, and Anna Q Nilsson. Cecil B DeMille, who also directed Swanson back in the day, literally plays himself.

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Then you have William Holden, an actor who I don’t particularly care for. I feel about his performance here basically the way I feel about his voice over narration (which makes up a big part of said performance); I love it and hate it with equal measure. I think that works with the picture. He’s a pitiful character, who deceives nice girl Betty and feeds off of her the same way Norma feeds off him. His self-loathing and disgust is palpable in every scene; even as he scorns what he’s gotten himself into with Norma he still stays. According to Wikipedia, Marlon Brando, Fred MacMurray, and Montgomery Clift had been considered to play the part that eventually went to Holden. I remember reading the thing about Brando when I first watched the film several years ago and wishing he had gotten it, but the thought doesn’t interest me after seeing Holden’s performance a couple more times. I like Brando more, but would he have been as pathetic as Holden here? I’m not convinced he would have. I think it’s probably his best performance.

Sunset Boulevard seems like it’s somewhat of a stereotype now, a typical story of the washed up actress who thinks everyone is still in love with her. Veronika Voss is obvious throwback to it, and I’ve seen an episode of The Twilight Zone that’s basically the same thing. I’m sure there are more. It’s a character and a story that never seems to get old, somehow, and even though Sunset Boulevard isn’t as creepy to me as when I first saw it, I still love the film. It shows everything that’s great about Billy Wilder’s many great films, the dark humor, the taboo subjects, the excellent performances, the cutting dialogue, and most importantly, the perfect marriage of every separate facet of filmmaking.

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“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review
The New York Times review

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