"I AM big. It's the pictures that got small."
Sunset Blvd was written and directed by the great Billy Wilder for Paramount. The picture is a scathing indictment of Hollywood and the monsters it produces; it's a macabre comedy, full of stick-the-knife-in-and-twist-it-slowly humor; it's sordid melodrama and Noir, from which it borrows the flashback structure, fatalism, the sucker and a different kind of femme fatale who lures with money, not sex. As far as Noir goes, this is one of the bleakest. Nothing here is candy-coated for easy consumption.
The movie also has more quotable dialogue than any other film I can think of.
The movie also has more quotable dialogue than any other film I can think of.
It’s a Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie as brutal as any to ever come out of Tinseltown. I think only The Player (1992) can match it in cynicism. Sunset Blvd ruffled the feathers of a lot of Hollywood luminaries. Nobody likes to have his soul laid bare quite so savagely. Louis B. Mayer wanted to have the movie destroyed in the interest of industry honor. He bayed for Wilder's blood and wanted him run out of town. Lucky for Wilder his home studio Paramount held him in high esteem. He had given them a few box office successes.
The movie isn’t quite a hate letter to Tinseltown, for that there’s too much compassion and nostalgia in it. It stays just this side of outright condemnation, because the audience can feel Wilder’s love for the Silent Age and the studio system which was coming apart at the seams in the 50s. There’s also some positive portrayals in movie. Cecil B. DeMille for example, playing himself, is shown in quite a favorable light.
The film opens with the spectacularly audacious shot - now considered one of the most iconic opening shots in movie history - of Joe Gillis’ dead body floating face down in a swimming pool. He then proceeds to tell the audience how he ended up there. The picture’s sardonic voice-over narration is provided by a talking corpse. Now that’s creative.
Two-bit screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is down to his last buck and on the run from the repo men. By accident he ends up at the crumbling estate of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), former Silent movie star and now a recluse, who lives there with her strange and creepy butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Norma's been desperately trying to resuscitate her career and has been writing on a script for Salomé for years, impatiently waiting for that one coveted phone call from Cecil B. DeMille inviting her back to Paramount. Unfortunately the script is melodramatic tripe that nobody wants to read. Joe sees the prospect of some impressive money looming in the future. He knows Norma’s script is useless but makes her believe he can do a patch-up job on it and so accepts an invitation to stay at her house. But things get weird quickly. Norma turns out to be the original cougar. She pays off his bills and he becomes her boy toy. His life gets even more complicated when he falls in love with fellow writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). But Norma’s possessiveness and jealousy know no bounds. Joe should have paid a little more attention to the fate of John the Baptist.
An icon of the Silent era, Swanson - like so many others - came close to being reduced to nothing when sound arrived. She continued to make movies, but her kind of films had simply fallen out of favor with the public. Thankfully she proved to be a shrewd and successful business woman so her life didn’t go off the rails.
Norma Desmond is a reminder that Tinseltown habitually treats its stars as disposable commodities, quickly kicking them to the curb to let them rot in obscurity if they don’t fill the studio’s coffers. When she was a star people worshipped the ground Norma walked on. “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit”, says DeMille of Norma. It’s hard to weather such unmitigated awe and adoration with any kind of cool aplomb. Fame is addictive. As a result, Norma has an ego the size of a small planet and it needs feeding constantly. Like a black hole, she consumes all light and life around her. Norma is Hollywood incarnate.
In a stroke of genius Wilder often photographs Norma’s hands like the greedy talons of a bird of prey, desperately clawing at life but grasping nothing.
Norma used to be the brightest star of them all but now she’s been living in her decaying mansion in self-imposed exile for over 20 years. She barely sees anybody and has cut herself off completely from the real world while turning her mansion into a shrine to her lost fame and glory days, reliving them over and over again. She surrounds herself only with other fallen idols long past their expiry date who Joe calls disrespectfully “the waxworks”.
Her delusions aren’t helped by Max who’s enabling her. He’s forging countless fan letters to keep her happy. One day Norma makes the decision to visit DeMille on the Paramount lot. A few old-timers still recognize her and just for a few minutes Norma is in heaven. Though someone from Paramount has been calling her house numerous times - seemingly about her script that she mailed to them - DeMille can't bring himself to tell Norma that it’s not her script they want, just her exquisite vintage car which would make a great prop for another movie. Max aids him in his deception.
The moment Joe sets foot on the dilapidated estate he remarks on its rotting splendor. Though Norma has enough money for repairs on her mansion, the outside of her house is neglected simply because Norma's entire life takes place within her walls. She never ventures out. Norma’s mansion is a mausoleum where time stands still.
“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”.
He’ll soon find out that everything is rotten on the estate. The decay has seeped deep down into the foundations.
Many viewers likened Norma to a vampire. She feeds on other people and sucks them dry. In her clinging need to be loved, she even goes so far as attempting suicide to blackmail Joe into staying.
In fact Sunset Blvd. plays very much like a horror movie. We have a haunted house complete with big pipe organ where a strange butler plays eerie music at night. There are the ghosts of Hollywood past, the undead - Norma, Max and the “waxworks” - forever damned to walk the earth in search of something long vanished.
And weirdest of all there’s the midnight funeral for Norma’s feverishly beloved pet monkey that’s right out of a freak show. That alone would have been most people’s cue to leave, but Joe doesn’t heed the warning signs. He stays and so becomes Norma’s replacement chimp. The poisonous spirit of the mansion will possess him as well.
Sunset Blvd. is a horror movies that doesn't need blood and gore. Monsters come in many different shapes and sizes.
Swanson is phenomenal in her role. She gives a gutsy performance which could easily be dismissed as campy and close to parody. But she plays it exactly right. It’s a performance within a performance. Norma is always in front of an audience, always posing for the cameras. She cannot let go. A theatrical acting style was part of the Silent Age and Norma never made it out. Holden’s natural acting contrasts sharply with hers.
Von Stroheim’s story in Sunset Blvd. is actually the one that comes closest to reality, lending the movie an air of uncanny authenticity. A once-great Silent director, he had a reputation for extravagance and a fanatical insistence on perfection regardless of costs. He and Swanson had a history. He had directed her in Queen Kelly in 1929, but was dismissed from the set after a disagreement with her. The movie was never finished and lost an astronomical sum. It is Queen Kelly that Norma screens nightly at her house. The film ruined von Stroheim’s career and Swanson’s suffered too. He made only two more talkies, and was then reduced to playing self-parodies in other directors’ movies. It was a spectacular fall from grace.
When Max says to Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,” we’re supposed to substitute von Stroheim for von Mayerling. That is how famous he was in the 1920s.
Von Stroheim brings great pathos to his role. Max, as it turns out, is not only Norma’s butler but her former director and former husband too. He was the man who made her, and is now reduced to lackey status because he still loves her. It is enough for him to devote his life to her. The man’s a masochist. He thinks he’s helping her, but no doubt he’s partly to blame for Norma’s mental state, letting her live in a phantasy world, feeding her delusions, her denials and ultimately her illness.
Joe Gillis is a stand-in for all those wide-eyed hopefuls coming to Hollywood, just to be chewed up and spit out again. At the time William Holden was a bit like his character. After he had exploded onto the Hollywood scene in 1939 with Golden Boy, his career was going nowhere for the next 10 years. Holden was bored with his roles and he literally leapt at the chance of playing Gillis. He made the right choice. Sunset Blvd made him one of Hollywood's greatest and revitalized his career for the next 15 years.
Joe thinks he’s found himself a cushy setup, but he gets a lot more than he bargained for. In true Noir fashion, he's doomed the second he sets foot on Norma's estate. She has her own ideas about their future. Joe is a chump who fatally underestimates Norma’s combustible mix of neurosis, fear and insecurity. He despises himself for being a gigolo, but still can’t bring himself to leave. Every once in a while he ponders going back to Ohio where he came from but that would mean admitting defeat. The question is does he really want to leave? He likes the lifestyle despite his claims to the contrary. Such is the corrupting nature of easy living. A gold cigarette case, expensive suits, shoes and watches are better than the poor house even if it means prostituting more than just his art. Roger Ebert suggested that he is content being a prisoner and I’m inclined to agree.
It all changes when he falls in love with Betty. She’s all good, sweet and pure and may have been his redemption. But Norma finds out and tries to disclose Joe’s dirty secret to Betty. It doesn’t work. Joe’s finally had enough and invites Betty out to the mansion to see the situation for herself. Unwisely Joe then throws the brutal truth in Norma’s face. About hating the mere sight of her, about the fan letters, her script and DeMille humoring her. But Norma can’t handle the truth. She has been teetering on the brink of madness for years and this is the last straw. Her world comes crashing down. She sends Joe on his way…with a few parting shots. No one ever leaves a star. That's what makes one a star.
The final scene shows true cinematic genius, an image that sears itself into the brain. It is truly disturbing and a master class on brilliant acting.
The homicide squad has arrived to take Norma away but she has slipped into complete insanity. Her big day, her big return, has finally come. Max tells her that she’s filming Salomé’s climactic scene, convinces her to come down the stairs as if it’s a grand entrance not a descend into police custody. It is his last act of love for her. Joe comments: “Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.” She graciously addresses “the crew” - assuring them that they’ll make many more movies together - and the big man who’s finally come to see her. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” The cameras keep rolling in her alternate reality, she’s back on top again where she belongs. Then mercifully the shot fades into hazy oblivion. She'll make the morning edition for sure.
Madness can be a blessing. All is best in the best of all possible worlds. Norma got her comeback with Mr. DeMille, Max could direct her one last time, Joe got the pool he always wanted.
Sunset Boulevard, the boulevard of broken dreams. Only the chimp got off easy. He’s the only one who didn’t get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.