Sunset Boulevard review

:. Director: Billy Wilder
:. Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson
:. Running Time: 1:50
:. Year: 1950
:. Country: USA


Billy Wilder's darkly comic film about the corruption of Hollywood plays on genre conventions of its day to make it a truly progressive and classic American film.

William Holden, one of the crop of great post-30s and 40s American actors, plays Joe Gillis, a Hollywood screenwriter who is down on his luck. When his car blows a tire during a high-speed chase from the car's finance company, he wheels his rig into what appears to be an abandoned garage but which in fact belongs to Norma Desmond, a famous silent movie actress. She lives alone in the house with her butler Max, who has a hidden connection to Norma's past. All around are memorabilia from the all but forgotten silent era of film. Joe, who is in need of money and a place to hide his car, takes Norma up on her offer to house him in exchange for polishing her mammoth screenplay of Salome. As one could guess, the relationship turns into a strongly manipulative one as Norma falls into sick romantic love with Joe, while Joe's disgust grows by the minute.

Oftentimes, this movie is lumped into the film noir genre, which reached its height in the early- to mid-50s, when Sunset Boulevard opened. Holden narrates the film in a dry, deadpan narration that is a near parody of the narration in contemporary film noir. The film views the world of cinema with a cynical insider's viewpoint, a contrast to the glamour and worship of Hollywood portrayed by films of the 30s and 40s. Each of its main characters are in different stages of Hollywood-induced digression; Norma and Max, forgotten icons of the past who have deteriorated into near insanity; Joe, a screenwriter who is beginning to get the idea; and Betty Schaefer, his love interest, who is still fresh and naïve to the scene. Hollywood is not a fashion scene, a cool people club, or a cultural icon in Sunset Boulevard; it is a degenerative disease.

Billy Wilder reportedly worked on this film in the utmost secrecy, hiding the script from studio executives and describing plots to them that were no part of the script. The film is a scathing, pessimistic indictment of Hollywood and its effect on those who work there. It offers no answers, just observation and remorse, but all through a darkly comic lens. Perhaps the comedy exists because Wilder had so risen in stature that he could manipulate studio executives into producing a film about which they knew nothing. Maybe it exists to relieve the actors of the difficulty of essentially playing themselves. Whatever the case, the comedy exists only as relief from the darkness which pervades the final moments of the film.

The film hits home for a number of reasons, probably most of all because the characters portrayed by the actors are so close to their real-life personalities. Erich von Stroheim plays Norma's butler, Max von Mayerling, who was once a famous silent director and Norma's first husband. Von Stroheim, in real life, directed silent films, even directing Swanson in "Queen Kelly," a 1928 silent film. The parallels are unmistakable, and even caused the actors some difficulty in playing the parts.

The finale of Sunset Boulevard is downbeat. Joe doesn't get the girl (and I will leave the details of his fate for you to experience), and Norma descends deeper into insanity, never to recover, and utters the famous last line before the camera loses focus and the image fades to black. In the end it's all about appearances. Norma never wanted a real resurrection; she wanted to be a "star." As long as there were lights, cameras rolling, and the director yelling "action," she is fulfilled. She doesn't want a new wave of popularity; she wants to live the old one again.

Joe became aware of the illusion; consequently, it destroyed him. Max is aware as well, but lowered himself as a butler to survive. Norma, unaware of her deceased stardom, lives in the illusion, fed by Max's forged fan mail and arranged parties. This film is made by insiders revealing the perversion of Hollywood films designed for ignorant audiences, "those wonderful people out there in the dark."

  Jonathan Anderson

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