Every week here on Cinematic Century I talk to you all about my favorite film from each year. But, today we’re getting to talk about one of my favorite films, period. Not just in the context of 1950. I really and truly love all the movies I’ve highlighted over the course of this project, but today’s film, Sunset Boulevard, is held in an even higher position for me. We’ve already hit one of Billy Wilder’s films so far in this project, Double Indemnity, and we’re going to be looking at quite a few of his other films in the coming weeks, but there’s really no beating Sunset Boulevard. Every time I watch this film I find something new to appreciate, some new little element to obsess over. It’s everything I love about movies, all rolled up into one perfect little film. Which meant that there never really was a shot for anything else to even come close to toppling it. Although, there are some other great movies from 1950 if you’re curious. If you’re still in the mood for noir the stellar In A Lonely Place is one of the finest examples of the genre, showing us a whole new side of Humphrey Bogart that dives into far deeper and murkier psychological depths than usually examined in his films. The deeply fascinating Rashomon also came out in the same year, providing a film that really feels timely in a world where everyone seems dead-set on treating their own opinions and iron-clad fact without any acceptance of other people. And Cinderella came out. It’s fine. But none of that compares with the beautiful oddity that is Sunset Boulevard. It’s one of the greatest noirs of all time. It’s one of the greatest movies about movies of all time. And it’s one of my favorite films of all time.
Sunset Boulevard began life when director Billy Wilder came to Hollywood in the 1940’s and became fascinated with the aging mansions in the Hollywood Hills belonging to the stars of the silent era. So many actors who faded into obscurity when the pictures made the shift to sound, lost in a bygone era, and Wilder was fascinated with he lives they possibly led, watching as time passed them by. So, he, Charles Bracket, and D.M. Marshman began working on a script about one such hypothetical star. They didn’t base the film off of anyone in particular, instead taking facts and rumors surrounding several famous actresses of the silent era to create an amalgam character, the perfect example of a silent actress who has lost her livelihood to the march of progress. And, to bring their actress to life, they found Gloria Swanson, an actress with a very similar past to the fictitious Norma Desmond. Swanson had been a star of the silent era, becoming one of the most powerful and famous women in Hollywood, only to watch her career crumble when sound took over. However, unlike Norma Desmond, Swanson adapted fine, and retired to a different, more happy life. Until she was approached with this script, finding the role fascinating. The film then began production, filled to the brim with inside references to the inner workings of Hollywood. We had cameos, actual locations, and plenty of information regarding the actual process of film-making, all while telling one of the most quintessential noir stories of all time. And it was a huge success. The film was beloved, earned Paramount quite a bit of money, and has been regarded as one of the finest American films of all time. It gave the average person a very in depth view in the world of the movies, while telling an incredibly powerful and enduring story, complete with one of the finest performances in all of cinema.
Sunset Boulevard begins with a slew of police and reporters entering the Hollywood mansion of an actress named Norma Desmond. She has just murdered a man named Joe Gillis, and his body is floating in her pool. The film then flashes back, following the story of Joe Gillis, and how he ended up in this position. We learn that Gillis is a struggling screenwriter, at constant odds with making a living and actually writing stories that mean something to him. His career has fallen apart, no one is willing to hire him, and he’s even being followed by some men hoping to repossess his car. He flees from the repo-men, and ends up having a tire blow out while driving on Sunset Boulevard. He drives his car up into the driveway of one of the mansions there, and hide his car in the garage, assuming that the house has been abandoned. But, someone actually does live in the over-grown house. Gillis is caught by a butler named Max, and brought into the house to meet with the owner, actress Norma Desmond. They both thought that Gillis was here to deal with a recently deceased chimpanzee, but when Norma realizes that Gillis is a screenwriter, she gets intrigued. She used to be one of the biggest stars of Hollywood, but left the industry after sound took over, and she’s been planning a comeback. She’s been writing a massive screenplay for a Biblical Epic which she would star, and wants Gillis to look over it for her. Gillis sees an opportunity to get paid by this strange woman, and agrees, sitting down and reading the screenplay. He immediately realizes it’s terrible, but offers to work with Norma and get it up to snuff. She agrees, and insists that Gillis begin living in her guest-house, so that he can be ready to work with her at all times.
Gillis begins living with Norma, and begins trying to salvage her script. All the while, he begins realizing just how insane Norma has become. Her home is a mausoleum to herself, she’s become completely unhinged from reality, and she starts to make it clear that Gillis isn’t meant to leave her home without her. She begins giving him lavish gifts, remaking his wardrobe in her own specific tastes, and keeping him trapped in her clutches, all while stubbornly refusing to change any of her script. But things really get untenable when New Year’s Eve arrives, and Norma throws an entire party just for her and Gillis, professing her love for him. He flees from the mansion, thinking to give up Norma once and for all, and spends the evening with his friend Artie and his fiance Betty. Betty’s a script-reader, and actually holds Gillis’ work in esteem, and the two begin hitting it off, only for Gillis to get a call from Max telling him that Norma has attempted suicide. Gillis returns to the mansion, and finds himself utterly trapped by Norma, giving in and beginning a relationship with her. The two then continue working on the script, and Norma finally decides it’s time to take it to Paramount and make a deal with Cecil B DeMille. While on the lot Gillis meets up with Betty, and the two come up with an idea for a new script, and agree to begin working on it together at night, when Norma isn’t aware he’s busy. But, the whole day is a bit of a disaster when Max realizes that DeMille isn’t interested in Norma’s script at all, and just wants to rent her car for another film. But Gillis, DeMille, and Max can’t bring themselves to tell Norma the truth, and let her believe that her comeback is imminent.
Norma begins spending all of her time preparing for her return to the silver screen. She undergoes exercise and beauty regiments hoping to bring her back to her youthful splendor, all the time unaware that her film is never actually going to be made. And, while Norma is distracted by all of this, Gillis is working on the script with Betty. The two really start to get a good script together, and slowly start to fall for each other. Gillis is fine leading this double life, even as Norma begins getting more obsessive and paranoid. But, things start to get worrisome when Max reveals that he knows what Gillis is up to, and even reveals that he used to be a famous director, one of the people who made Norma the star she was, and even became her first husband before debsing himself to become her servant. Gillis fears that he could face a similar fate, and starts planning on fleeing from Norma, right around the time that she finds his script, and begins worrying that Gillis is having an affair with Betty. She even calls Betty and attempts to ruin everything for Gillis. He then realizes that his situation has gotten too troubling, and decides to leave. He tells Norma the truth, informing her that her movie will never be made and that no one remembers her, before announcing he’s giving up on Hollywood and returning to Ohio. Norma produces a gun, threatening to shoot herself, but Gillis ignores her and leaves the house. But, as he leaves the mansion Norma shoots him in the back, killing Gillis. He then stumbles into the pool, and we catch up with the first scene of the film as the police and press arrive to find out what has happened. And, when they arrive they find that Norma has completely broken from reality, thinking that she’s on a film set. Max decides to help her, and convinces her that the news cameras are actually filming her for her comeback, and the film ends with Norma giving herself over to the police, ready for her close-up.
Like I said up top, this is one of my favorite films of all time. Each and every time I put it on it’s an absolute treat, from beginning to end, and each time I find something new to focus on and appreciate. It’s one of the finest noirs ever made, and absolutely everything about it comes together to create one of the most unique and fascinating films of all time. It starts right off with a murder, and keeps you hooked for the rest of the film. Wilder truly was one of the greatest directors of all time, and he’s one of the few people to find a way to make ham-fisted noir narration work, something that seems incredibly easy to do wrong, and next to impossible to do right. He’s able to craft a story about obsession and madness, primarily told in one single, incredibly claustrophobic, location that becomes more and more ominous as the film goes on. But the real draw of the film, and the thing that really took hold of me on this rewatch, is the performance from Gloria Swanson. Like I mentioned earlier, Swanson had a similar career to Norma Desmond, just with a significantly happier ending. She hadn’t had much experience with talkies, and yet seemed perfectly suited to bring this character to life. Swanson plays Norma as a person who has completely and thoroughly forgotten how to be a real person. She’s been acting since she was a young woman, and has spent her entire life being someone else, to the point that she now lives a life where she’s completely disconnected from reality, thinking that her own life is a happy movie that she’s just drifting through, waiting for her happy ending. It’s an all-time performance, and it keeps this film from becoming too unwieldy, too inside baseball, and ends up helping it become one of the finest American films ever made.
Because it does seem like kind of a risk to make a film about how show business is kind of broken. Storytellers love telling stories about storytelling, this is no new idea. But, for the most part, before Sunset Boulevard most views of show-business read as propaganda from Hollywood. They were joyous tales about people heading to La La Land and finding their true purpose, fun little adventures that make film-making look like the greatest pursuit a person can have. But this film doesn’t go that way. It’s a realistic portrayal of film-making, showing us people who want to churn out films they know aren’t quality to maximize profits, people who view film-making as a soul-crushing job, and it’s a shockingly frank look at how Hollywood can use people up and toss them aside. Norma Desmond is the ultimate cautionary tale of Hollywood, a woman who was given all the money in the world without any lessons on how to be an actual person. She was taught to live on fame and success, and then was unceremoniously dropped from the limelight and into obscurity, no one caring what effect that would have on her psyche. No one had shown Hollywood in this light before, exposing all the shame and issues with the industry, and it certainly ruffled some feathers. Louis B Mayer famously hated the film, saying that Wilder was biting the hand that fed him, exposing the reality of Hollywood to the public at large. And it’s one of the reasons that I love this film so much. It’s unflinching, it expels the mythology of Hollywood, and shows that broken people are everywhere, and that Hollywood isn’t a pedestal of perfect people. We’re all the same.
Sunset Boulevard was written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr, directed by Billy Wilder, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1950.
Categories: Cinematic Century
Thoroughly enjoyed this thought provoking essay. This film simply never disappoints. It’s interesting to note that Swanson was not Wyler’s first choice for Norma. Mary Pickford was approached as well as Mae West (who insisted on rewriting the script to make the film a Mae West picture). Nice summary of a classic!
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Thank you so much! It’s easy to be passionate about this film!