Sunset Boulevard. Paramount Pictures; producer, Charles Brackett; writers, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr.; director, Billy Wilder; cinematographer, John F. Seitz; music, Franz Waxman; costume designer, Edith Head. Originally released as a motion picture in 1950. Performers: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich Von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen, Fred Clark, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper. Summary: a down-on-his luck scriptwriter finds a new line of work as screewriting consultant and reluctant companion to an aging film star.
How much more noir can you get than a dead guy narrating his own slow demise from beyond the grave? - Maurizio Roca, Wonders in the Dark (review)
And how much more can be written about a movie that’s had so much written about it? Well, inspired by a recent viewing on the big screen, I’ll offer my two cents and see what happens.
Sunset Boulevard is the crown jewel of the mid-century cinematic triumvirate which gave us the first warts-and-all portrayals of the nasty yet ever so seductive business we call the film industry, the other two being The Bad and the Beautiful and In a Lonely Place. Truth be told, despite their lofty status none of these is actually about the technical, financial, or even aesthetic aspects of making movies.
But what they are about is the peeling away of the curtain to reveal Hollywood’s mystique in its darkest, most transmogrified light, manifested through the foibles and follies of the characters. Like Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust, these movies, Sunset Boulevard in particular, are not about glamour and success, but much more about failure, disappointment, and the futile attempt to recapture past glory and success, and of the resultant psychological ramifications.
Among other things, the movie is a treat for writers. This is mostly due to the crackling script, but also because writers, specifically their psyches, i.e. egos, play a big part in the story (even Norma Desmond is a writer, of a sort). Thus no surprise that we sense the long shadow of onetime Billy Wilder collaborator Raymond Chandler hovering over Sunset Boulevard: the jaundiced tone, the corruption behind Southern California’s faux-glamour, the first person narrator always ready with a pithy one-liner. Even Joe’s arrival at the faded mansion recalls Marlowe’s visit to Gen. Sternwood and similar well-heeled clients.
For all the snappy repartee and humor – the most memorable lines this side of Casablanca – this is one of the saddest movies I know. All the eminently flawed characters live with an inflated self-assurance and sense of their own rightness, perhaps a way of covering up a certain nihilistic despair. It all borders on, and sometimes spills over to, outright delusion.
Probably the saddest aspect of Sunset Boulevard is that many of the stars in the movie, Gloria Swanson most of all, are portraying the kind of movie types they were in real life (sometimes playing themselves, as in the case of the bridge partners Joe rather uncharitably refers to as the waxworks). To their credit they all play it straight without a touch of camp or self-deprecation. Even the legendary Cecil B. DeMille literally plays himself – a sympathetic portrayal to be sure – and it’s a tribute to his strong sense of identity that he agreed to appear in such a blisteringly gloves-off portrait of Hollywood. By the way, DeMille shows some real flair as an actor.
What we’re seeing in Sunset Boulevard is a group of idealists and true artists given the brush, as DeMille’s realpolitik assistant puts it so crassly. They’ve been dissed and discarded, not for a higher good, which is still no excuse, but rather for the crude expediencies of marketing, current fashions, and the all-pervasive power of the dollar.
Of particular interest to film buffs is the mixture of Real Hollywood, complete with real names of actors and directors, etc., (John Gilbert, Mabel Norman, Garbo, D.W. Griffith), references and homages (Norma’s wonderful Chaplain vignette), real companies (Paramount), real places of L.A. local color (Schwab’s drugstore, Bullock’s), and other things, within the fictional context.
William Holden’s persona, especially his voice and delivery, is perfect as the Chandleresque, wise guy narrator who’s not quite as sharp as he thinks and harbors a barely self-concealed self-loathing. He looks just as great in a swimsuit as he does in all those vicuna and camel’s hair suits Norma buys for him. Of course Miss Swanson’s miraculous performance has been praised to the skies and this writer has little to add.
My own, perhaps slightly novel, take would be that the decaying, echt-creepy house, a synthesis of California Gothic and Castle Dracula, complete with wheezing organ that plays itself, is the real star of the picture, a symbol for a puffed-up Hollywood already in decline. Indeed, despite its noirish/black comedy bonafides, Sunset Boulevard is closest in spirit to the Gothic Horror film, or its first cousin, the Brontë noir as represented by films like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights.
Or perhaps the house is a metaphor for Norma herself. Consider Joe’s comment:
“…the whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”
But is Sunset Boulevard really about the movie business, or is it about us? It conjures up, however obliquely, some not so comfortable yet universal existential issues: what does one do when the star power (youth, vitality, marketability) fades; the sobering reality that none of us is irreplaceable; the dangers of unbridled opportunism and getting ahead at any price; the human costs of unchecked self- delusion.
The film’s mildly leftist subtext which contrasts the callous rich (Norma, movie moguls) with the more sympathetic little people (Joe, Betty, Artie) is softened by the ethically challenged character of Joe, who isn’t interested in Norma as a woman or her harebrained ideas. He submits to her machinations out of financial exigencies, an inconvenient fact she’s all too happy to point out. But there are some compensations along the way: he enjoys the good life ride, for as long as it lasts, and sneaks away for a little real writing when he gets the chance. And even the relatively normal, über-wholesome Betty (Nancy Olson) smolders with the ambition to graduate from reader to screenwriter.
Joe may well be correct in his assessment that Norma suffers all variations of deluded grandeur, but he never takes seriously her valid point that the good old days were more than just nostalgia, but represented a purer type of filmmaking (“we didn’t need dialogue; we had faces then”). Could her clinging to the silent film aesthetic be a belief in the superiority of a particular, and unique, art form?
In any case, in a movie where irony is piled upon irony, one of the best touches is that Joe, who is so good with the witticism that puts the movie business, and by implication, Norma, in its place, is himself such a true believer in the dream. The real common thread between Norma and Joe is that both exist in a twilight world that fends off a pesky reality.
But ultimately there are no heroes – or outright villains – in Sunset Boulevard. There’s lots of shadings rendered in sepia and similar tones, and it’s one of the things that makes it so good. The tension then is not so much hero v villain, but rather artist v commodity purveyor. Deluded or no, Norma wants to create something great. Joe wants to cash in on the best deal available, which for the moment is Norma.
The closest thing we have to a hero is Max (Erich Von Stroheim), Norma’s fawning, ever-protective butler and Man Friday who shares quite a bit of history with Norma, aesthetic and otherwise. But even Max isn’t totally innocent, far from it. In our current pop psychology lingua franca he’s Norma’s enabler-in-chief, shielding her from a world where she’s been relegated to forgotten has-been. But we can’t lay too much blame at Max’s door: pretty much everyone who is around Norma – her faded glory movie pals, Joe, musicians, beauty and health consultants – contribute to the conspiracy of silence to keep her from seeing the elephant in the living room. Even C. B. DeMille is a kind of enabler. Like the others, he simply doesn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.
And yet … for all its brittle wit and irony, Sunset Boulevard has a great humanity and compassion, nowhere more so than the final scene where, onlookers agog, Norma descends the staircase while Joe muses from beyond the grave that fate can be merciful. The one fleeting shot that stays with me is that of the hard-bitten Hedda Hopper unable to hold back the tears of sadness as Norma descends both the staircase and further into her own madness.
In spite of, perhaps because of, the nasty, catty tone throughout, Sunset Boulevard is much beloved by people who, well, love the movies. It just plain gets better with each viewing, and they sure don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Culbertson, Andrew “Who Owns This Place?”: Clashing Values in Sunset Blvd.
Mazur, Matt, The Devil is a Woman: Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond and Actress Noir
Staggs, Sam, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard : Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream, N.Y., St. Martin’s, 2002.
Sunset Boulevard (screenplay), by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr., intro. Jeffrey Meyers, Univ. of Calif. Press, 1999.