Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Norma Desmond Holden on in the Sunset of her Career
There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you're trying to be twenty-five - Joe Gillis
Over the years there have been various movies which have taken us behind the scenes of the showbiz world be it the music industry or the movie industry. Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" is without a doubt one of the best when it comes to giving us a behind the scenes look at the movie industry delivering drama, intrigue and a sense of satire as he shows Hollywood for what it is. At the simplest level "Sunset Boulevard" is great entertainment with a clever storyline and brilliant performances. But it also works at a more revealing, deeper level as Wilder exposes the movie business and being a celebrity for the shallow world it is. So no matter whether you just want to be entertained or enthralled by deeper context "Sunset Boulevard" works.
Struggling to put food on the table and stopping the debt collectors from repossessing his car, low grade screen writer Joe Gillis (William Holden - Sabrina) finds himself hiding his car in a garage of what he believes is an abandoned mansion. But the mansion is not abandoned and is the home of aging star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) who after a confusion over who Joe is makes him an offer. Norma wants to relaunch her career and has written a sprawling story so convinces Joe to edit it for her, but her manipulation of Joe leads to resentment as she forces him to move in and turns him into her plaything.
On face value, watched for pure entertainment "Sunset Boulevard" completely works. It opens up with a body floating in a pool of an aging Hollywood star and over the course of 110 minutes we learn how this man, this low grade script writer ended up dead. Wilder crafts this side of the movie perfectly with the script writer, Joe Gillis, interjecting with narration as we watch him go from a debt ridden writer to the play thing of an aging star trapped by this manipulative yet fragile woman who once was great and still lives in a state of delusionment thinking she still is. It builds almost obviously as we watch this aging star, Norma Desmond, exert control over Gillis, buying him fine clothes and gold trinkets in order to keep him by her side, whilst all the time Gillis fighting the urge to leave knowing that in her company he has no worries but at the same time trapped.
It's marvellously done and Wilder fills "Sunset Boulevard" with interesting characters, Max the mysterious butler who seems almost obsessed by keeping Norma Desmond completely happy as well as keeping up the pretence that she is still a big star. Then there is the young copy writer, Betty Schaefer, who you can guess will fall for Gillis, but gives an almost naive innocence to the proceedings. All of this combines with the drama as it unfolds so that on the simplest level "Sunset Boulevard" in enthralling, beautifully paced so it never feels drawn out and scenes which almost have little relevance such as Norma Desmond doing a Charlie Chaplin impression are beautifully comical.
But whilst "Sunset Boulevard" works as great entertainment on the simplest level it is a movie of much greater depth. Wilder explores the world of Hollywood and celebrity painting a caustic picture of how it is. Take writer Gillis, a hack of a writer with mounting debts yet whilst he feels entrapped by the possessive Norma Desmond is happy to leech off of her, selling out to who he really is. Then there is Norma Desmond herself, an aging star of the silent movies who is convinced she is still a great star thanks to those around her who are happy to keep up the pretence as long as she doesn't try to make a come back. On top of this you have the movie system itself, willing to use people, treating them as disposable products rather than humans. And then with copy writer Betty Schaefer you have the innocence, the young girl who whilst having grown up in the movie industry is naive to how it all really works.
It's a fascinating and revealing picture which Wilder paints mixing caustic reality with subtle satire. When we meet Norma Desmond she is as eccentric as Michael Jackson with a dead monkey to bury in the grounds of her sprawling mansion. But it doesn't feel wrong, just Wilder taking the absurdity of stardom and embellishing it slightly to be comically revealing. And that is what Wilder does throughout, he takes how Hollywood and stardom really works and embellishes subtly so that whilst amusing it also paints an almost shocking picture of how Hollywood truly is, not the fake picture that Hollywood itself tries to maintain.
It's no surprise that all 4 of the main actors received Oscar nominations because each of them plays their characters brilliantly. Take copy reader Betty Schaefer played by Nancy Olson, here we have the young woman whose innocence and naivety means that she hasn't really been burned by the movie machine yet and Olson delivers that, the charm of naive youth, the lack of scepticism which makes her immediately loveable.
Then there is Erich von Stroheim who plays Norma's butler Max Von Mayerling a man who does everything that his boss desires, but as the character demands Stroheim makes him intriguing. On one hand you have this obedient servant who will go beyond the call of duty for his boss, to the point that he is either deeply in love with her or obsessed then on the other he is mysterious lurking in the shadows, not only protecting Norma but also Gillis when enters the house, you ask yourself why and in one of the movies best twists we learn exactly why.
But whilst Stroheim and Schaefer give brilliant performances in supporting roles "Sunset Boulevard" is a movie which belongs to William Holden and Gloria Swanson. Holden is marvellous as low grade hack Gillis, delivering a character who we warm to despite being quite shallow, shallow that he will leech off of a delusional star. In a way we learn to like him because Holden makes him torn, torn between the freedom of the real world yet trapped by the security in which Norma gives him. In the scenes where she basically treats him as a plaything, buying him clothes, patting his head the animosity which Holden gets across is stunning as if he is deep down hating playing the part.
Then there is Gloria Swanson who in Norma Desmond brings together facets of various well known female stars but it is the constant acting, the playing for the camera even when it isn't there is what makes Norma such a stunning creation. And Swanson seems to be so in tune with the character understanding the way the character works from the over the top dramatic gestures to the fragility of a character who in rare moments of clarity knows she is a relic. Between Holden and Swanson they lead us through this incredible movie, entertaining us with clever, 3 dimensional characters who we warm to in one way or another and making every moment of drama, every sentence spoken spellbinding.
What this all boils down to is that "Sunset Boulevard" is a brilliant movie as it leads us into the real world of Hollywood and stardom painting a less than glorious picture of how the industry works. From the studios treating people as products, through to aging stars living in a false reality and the whole seedy manipulations of everyone it is sheer entertainment on so many levels. And it works thanks to the brilliant direction of Billy Wilder but also the performances not just those of William Holden and Gloria Swanson but everyone, even the cameos from the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Hedda Hopper.
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