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Sunset Boulevard


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Year of release
1950

Directed by
Billy Wilder

Written by
Billy Wilder
Charles Bracket
D.M. Marshman Jr.

Starring
Gloria Swanson
William Holden
Erich von Stroheim
Nancy Olson


Sunset Boulevard

+

Plot - Sunset Boulevard opens with a bullet-ridden corpse floating in a pool. The pool is located on the grounds of a large Hollywood mansion owned by Norma Desmond (Swanson), a once famous silent movie star whose career dried up with the invention of the talkies. The corpse belongs to Joe Gillis (Holden), a jaded screenwriter who falls under her control. Gillis' voice comes from beyond the grave to guide us through the film. This is the story of his demise.

A couple of years ago, The Artist won the hearts of film fans all over the world as a much loved film that covered the transition from silent films to talkies in a fairly hopeful and uplifting manner. Sunset Blvd. covers similar territory but is about as far from those sentiments as possible. That doesn't stop it from being a truly wonderful film however. It's a film considered to be one of the all time classics and it's certainly worthy of such an accolade. It is a biting, darkly funny film that rips apart the golden dream of Hollywood. It is also a truly sad, slightly haunting story as the once famous star, Norma Desmond, descends into desperation, depression and finally madness. Along the way she drags a struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis, down along with her as he becomes trapped in her web

It is a brutal, scathing assault on Hollywood and those who reside within it. It crushes Hollywood as this soulless brute that destroys creativity and heart in favour of profit and a safe bet. As this fickle entity that will milk someone dry when they are on top, but then spit them out and forgot about them when there time has passed. It is also not particularly kind to the stars that populate Hollywood's output. Norma Desmond is a complete diva, complete with outlandish behaviour and eccentricities - for example she has a pet monkey whom she demands receives a proper funeral upon his death. She is spectacularly vain and narcissistic; watching nothing but her own films and going to insane lengths to prepare herself for her return to the screen.

Sunset Boulevard is privileged with a terrifically written script, complete with both a classic opening and closing scene. It is chock-full of sharp and witty dialogue, gifting William Holden in particular with some fantastic lines to deliver, especially in his voice-over narration from beyond the grave. And he seems to revel in delivering such scathing sarcasm. Though that is not to say that Gloria Swanson is given short shrift in this department. She is given the opportunity to spout some truly classic quotes. Even before I had any knowledge of this film's existence, I already knew of lines such as “I'm ready for my close-up Mr DeMille” and “It's the pictures that got small.”

Film Trivia – Despite her legendary performance, Gloria Swanson was far from Billy Wilder's first choice for the role. He had offered the role to Mae West, who rejected it as she felt she was too young to play a silent film star. Mary Pickford also rejected it as she felt it would destroy her wholesome image. In fact Wilder and fellow writer, Charles Bracket, actually went to pitch the story to Pickford but her horrified reaction as the tale unfolded made the men stop halfway through and apologise to her. While another of Wilder's original choices was another silent star, Nora Pegri. However when he contacted her, he found her Polish accent too harsh for such a dialogue heavy film. Ironically it was her accent that had killed her career in the first place when the talkies were introduced.
The main cast are universally excellent. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is incredible, perfectly capturing the desperation of the faded star and the unshakeable belief that she is still 'big'. It's a hammy style of performance that probably wouldn't work 99% of the time. However for this film, and this character, it is perfect. Her showing is gaudy, camp, overpowering and oh so melodramatic. In fact she is actually a rather terrifying prospect, one I imagine even the bravest of men would be likely to quiver in the presence of. Her demeanour can change in the blink of an eye; from fierce predator to a simpering and insecure weakling and back again within mere moments. And her descent down the stairs has to be one of the great scenes in film. By this point she has become completely delusional and believes that instead of being in her home she is on a film set. And that the news cameras, reporters and policemen are the cast, the crew and her adoring fans. She is just completely gone!

Swanson's expressive face and large gestures really are something to behold, completely what you would expect from a former silent movie star. And that comes as no surprise really as Gloria Swanson herself was a legendary silent film star whose career faded with the introduction of the talkies. In fact there are so many layers and context to the film, drawing directly from real life. As I said Swanson is very much the Norma Desmond character, at least in their career history if not the delusional nature. She made numerous pictures with Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary director who appears here as himself as the man Norma Desmond wants to helm her big comeback. While Eric von Stroheim actually was a director of silent films just as his butler character once was. And he actually directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly; footage of which is used as one of the films Desmond is watching. There are just so many parallels and so much depth going on here.

Film Trivia Snippets – The role of Joe Gillis had originally gone to Montgomery Clift, but he dropped out before filming began for a very specific reason. At the time he was in a similar situation to the character; engaged in an affair with Libby Holman, a former actress who was 16 years his senior. At her behest he quit the production. /// Cecil B. DeMille agreed to film his cameo for a fee of $10,000 and a brand new Cadillac. When Billy Wilder returned to him later to secure a close-up, DeMille demanded a further $10,000! /// Unsurprisingly the film didn't go down too well with many people involved in the industry. After a preview screening at Paramount, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer screamed at Wilder that he sould be tarred, feathered and horse-whipped for brining his profession into such disrespute.
Norma's palatial manson is a perfect setting for her, a representation of her character in brick form. Like her it is old, past its best and surviving on its past glories. You can see its former glory still lurking in there somewhere but it is now a mere hint of what was once there. The place is like a haunted house, with the ghosts being her career and the roles she once inhabited. Her home is brought to life by some wonderful set design; the place is damn near drowning under a mountain of photos of herself. And that set design is captured by some terrifically gloomy, atmospheric lighting and gorgeous black & white photography.

Opposite her, William Holden convinces fully as the screenwriter who knows he should leave but just can't bring himself to. He is a condemned man. From the moment he turns into that driveway, hears the siren-like voice of Norma calling him and crosses the threshold of that house he is doomed. Like a little fly caught in a web, he has no chance of escaping unharmed. His Joe Gillis is the archetypal protagonist of the noir genre, a man who inhabits the murky grey area of morality. We find him willing to sell his creative soul in the search for profit, attempting to manipulate everything and everyone for his own benefit and saying goodbye to his dignity to become Norma's kept man. For the most part he's a rather pathetic, cynical and unlikable individual who is however able to salvage his character right at the film's conclusion with a selfless act. He knows that it's too late for him, his fate has already been sealed. He is however able to save Betty by getting her out of the situation before she too is caught up.

The film does also have some real heart however in the shape of Erich von Stroheim's wonderful performance as Norma's butler. While he may be a cold, grave presence who feels like he could be the grim reaper himself, he also brings a humanity to that house; everyone else may have deserted her but he has stuck with her throughout, now doing all he can to protect the diva's fragile mind; protecting her from the truth of her downfall. While Nancy Olson provides a lovely contrast as the cheery, optimistic Betty Shaefer. Significantly younger than her contemporaries in the film, she has not yet been ground down by the Hollywood machine. Give it time my dear!

Conclusion - It's a film that can be enjoyed on a few different levels; either as a pitch-black comedy/drama, a brooding noir or even as a makeshift, quasi-horror film. The script, direction, set design, photography and acting are all top notch, as are the tone and atmosphere they create. 'Masterpiece' may be an over-used term these days but I think this is a film truly deserving of such billing.