An Appreciation – Sunset Boulevard
A struggling Hollywood screenwriter finds himself in hot water. Without a hit movie and bills stacking up, his desire to write serious and thoughtful projects makes way for his need to earn a buck. Fate brings the screenwriter to the presence of an aging actress, a silent film star who has faded from the spotlight but desperately wishes to make a comeback. The two join forces exploiting each other for their own purposes: he to keep from having to move back to the Midwest, and she to make a last ditch effort to retain her stardom in the company of a much younger man. In a short time, the actress will have succumbed to her delusions of grandeur, lost in a sea of dreams and fantasies. The screenwriter will be dead.
Not many films of any era would start with such a bold beginning. But Billy Wilder sets the tone of Sunset Boulevard (1950) with such a striking opening shot that it causes a ripple effect that stays with us. William Holden – as the writer Joe Gilles – is introduced to us dead in a pool, floating face down. The shot captures Holden from below the water looking up, watching as his body floats along, with policemen and photographers standing at the edge of the pool. This was accomplished by placing the camera above the water looking down at a mirror, essentially shooting the reflection of Holden making it seem as though the camera was submerged. This moment is blunt and unusual; it flies in the face of conventional storytelling. Not only are we made aware that our protagonist will end up dead (the story is told in flashback), but we also find out that the dead character will be narrating the whole way through, becoming a specter guiding us through this strange and unnerving plot.
Sunset Boulevard is arguably the greatest film ever made about the “Hollywood Dream.” It’s a pitch-black satire that isn’t focused on the machinations of the industry. We aren’t witness to any backroom dealings where people get stabbed from behind as others try to make it up the ladder of success. Instead, Wilder’s interest is in the ramifications of stardom on the human soul – how fame and fortune can corrupt and break a person in the same way a drug addict becomes obsessed with taking another hit.
It’s the kind of story that could only come from the perspective of a person like Billy Wilder. Wilder was one of the European émigrés, escaping Hitler’s wrath but losing family members along the way. This would paint his viewpoint throughout his career. There is a cynical, pessimistic side to him, despite the fact that he often excelled in comedy. Very few of his contemporaries would hold a mirror up to the picture making business with such an unflattering eye. Already an Oscar winner by this time (thanks to his work on The Lost Weekend, 1945), Wilder used his power and influence to mold his film with a self-awareness that would be looked down upon by insiders. With frequent collaborator Charles Brackett, Wilder would employ familiar names and places into the narrative. The Paramount lot that we see is the actual studio lot. Real life actors, actresses, and studio executives are called out by name, and a handful of performers appear as themselves. When our characters visit Cecil B. DeMille while he is in the middle of shooting his latest picture, we get to meet the real DeMille, who in fact was in the middle of his latest production (Samson and Delilah, 1949). To paint the world he thrived in with such a negative light did not play well to those within the industry. Famously, after a private screening, Paramount head Louis B. Mayer derided Wilder’s depiction of their business.
But it was Wilder’s insistence to blur the line between fact and fiction that makes Sunset Boulevard the masterpiece it is. It touches a raw nerve that I’m sure some would prefer not to have exposed. That’s what makes it such a fascinating watch – to see these characters operate within this story and yet not be so far removed from reality. Yes, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is an eccentric with an odd lifestyle, exaggerated speech, and large physical gestures, but her life reflects many stars still trying to cling to past glory. How many times have we’ve seen an actor or actress become reclusive after their popularity has died down? How many times have we heard about a star having a peculiar quirk that makes little to no sense? When we first meet Norma, she is in the process of burying her pet monkey. This is baffling to Joe and to us as viewers, but then decades later we see Michael Jackson having a monkey of his own. We begin to wonder if celebrities developed these eccentricities out of their own will, or if it’s the result of living the life of a famed person.
Gloria Swanson as Norma is one of the great screen performances. It’s such a difficult part to play because she could have easily tripped into parody. Norma doesn’t know how to live outside of the silver screen, and thus everything she says and does is as though she is performing to an audience. Swanson was a perfect choice to play Norma, because her own life took a similar turn. Swanson was a silent movie star who also fell victim to the sound era. Unlike Norma, by all accounts Swanson resigned to the fact that her days of being a bankable star were behind her (she was about 50 at the time), and yet that didn’t stop her from pulling out all the stops with her delivery. In fact, it’s that very connection that enriches what Swanson does here. She has such control over every inflection of her voice, every wave of her arm and movement of her fingers. She can be charming one minute and then dangerous the next. Her facial expressions are broad and dramatic, it’s no wonder that she was a star of the silent era – the use of her face proves that. Swanson holds Norma together until the very end when Norma’s fantasies take over. It’s a performance for the ages, and should be studied in how precise it is despite how outlandish it may appear to be.