A HOLLYWOOD STORY.
Gloria Swanson used to be big. She had a pretty decent career as a silent-movie star, but shortly after transitioning into talkies she was abandoned by her fans. When Billy Wilder set out to make his finest film ever, a black comedy about Hollywood, he needed to find the right actress for the showy part of the old silent-movie star who has turned into a shut-in, trapped in an elaborate mausoleum of a house. George Cukor recommended his friend Gloria. When she objected against having to do a screen test, Cukor told her, “If they ask you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests, or I will personally shoot you.” He knew that in more ways than one, she was the real deal.
The movie begins with a talking corpse. The story is narrated by William Holden’s character, even though the picture opens with police fishing his dead body out of a swimming pool. A daring stunt, but the flashback that takes us back six months soon makes us forget about the fact that it will lead up to his death. Joe Gillis is a second-rate writer trying to make it in Hollywood. After a string of failures, Joe finds himself unable to pay his loans. One day he is chased by repossession men and ends up outside an old mansion. He hides the car in the garage and meets the owner of the house. She turns out to be Norma Desmond (Swanson), an all-but-forgotten movie star who now seems stuck in her successful past.
Eerily enough, everything in the house still looks the way it did in the 1920s, maintained by Norma’s faithful butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). She desperately wants to make a grand comeback in the movies and hires Joe as her ghost writer. Norma has written a terrible story for her next movie and needs him to turn it into a functioning screenplay. Joe agrees to do it, but is in over his head, not realizing the kind of grip the unstable Norma will have on him.
Powerful, funny and deeply cynical
You may think you’ve seen the walking dead in all kinds of zombie movies; the characters here may not be rotting on the outside but they are nevertheless doomed for all time. Sunset Blvd. is a powerful, funny and deeply cynical view of Hollywood that apparently seemed irresistible to some of its most famous denizens. Swanson may have shared a trait or two with Norma Desmond, but she was probably sharp enough to realize that her character was the stuff that Hollywood myths are made of, a larger-than-life icon… but also a joke.
This balance is equally reflected by Cecil DeMille and several silent stars who make small appearances; their presence proves a sense of humor, but there is also a bitter truth to the fact that in 1950 their influence was irrevocably waning. The dialogue is brimming with sharp, acerbic one-liners, but the admiration for and love of the old Hollywood still shines through the darkness. It is also evident in several supremely crafted scenes where Norma is given the chance to excel like in the old days, such as a visit to Paramount Studios where she’s caught in the limelight once again for just a little, touching while.
Swanson is magnificent in her greatest role, ever the diva, but she is ably supported by Holden as the out-of-luck writer whose position as a kept man makes him dangerously equal to Max the butler, who’s harboring devastating secrets about Norma and himself. Von Stroheim, the masterful old director, is very effective in that part and DeMille is also good as himself.
Self-loathing and insanity seem to be the risks of life in Hollywood, but they’re also perfect ingredients for a great drama. That’s the way it goes – the darkness of cinema and real life forever entwined.
Sunset Blvd. 1950-U.S. 110 min. B/W. Produced by Charles Brackett. Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr. Cinematography: John F. Seitz. Music: Franz Waxman. Art Direction: John Meehan, Hans Dreier, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer. Cast: Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), William Holden (Joe Gillis), Erich von Stroheim (Max von Mayerling), Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Jack Webb… Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille, Anna Q. Nilsson.
Trivia: Mae West, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford were allegedly considered for the part of Norma; Montgomery Clift as Gillis. The scene with DeMille was shot during the making of his movie Samson and Delilah (1949). Sunset Blvd. was eventually turned into a Broadway musical.
Oscars: Best Story and Screenplay, Music, Art-Direction-Set Decoration. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actress (Swanson), Score.
Quote: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” (Swanson)
Last word: “At first, you know, this was supposed to be a comedy. We were going to get Mae West, but she turned us down. And then [Gloria] Swanson almost dropped out when Paramount asked for a screen test. There was a lot of Norma in her, you know. The biggest threat to the mood in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was when we lost the original actor, [Montgomery Clift], and went with Bill Holden. He looked older than we wanted, and Swanson did not want to be made up to look sixty. It would never have worked anyway. This was a woman who used all her considerable means to go the other way. Who knows what mood a younger actor, or at least younger looking, would have given.” (Wilder, Images Journal)