It begins in the gutter…but of course. A street name, Sunset Blvd., painted on the curb above the sewer drain is a convenient way to present the film’s title, but it also tells us where we’re going: down. Even the abbreviation gives it a kind of slangy, tabloid grit. The title refers to one of the most famous arteries in Los Angeles, but it also evokes the heavy depression of the end of the day—and the movie is about the “sunset years,” and how they can be disastrously handled.
Sunset Boulevard is also about Hollywood, and its corrosive view of Tinseltown might best be summed up with one of its opening images. As we see a corpse floating face down in the swimming pool of a Hollywood mansion, the narrator savors the irony of the moment: “The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.” Hollywood is the place people go, dreaming of their own swimming pools. Little do they know they’ll end up drowned in them.
There’s another level of irony here. The corpse and the narrator are one in the same person. Sunset Boulevard is famously told from the perspective of a dead man, the late Joe Gillis (William Holden), journeyman screenwriter, cynical burnout, self-loathing gigolo. One of the most intriguing pieces of Sunset Boulevard lore is that director Billy Wilder shot an even more outrageous opening to the film: the picture fades in on the Los Angeles County Morgue, where Joe’s dead body, on a slab, begins to converse with the other stiffs, and then to narrate his story. Wilder loved the sequence, but preview audiences got the giggles at the sheer outrageousness of the thing—and it was cut before release.
Gillis begins his flashback with his struggles to make ends meet. He pitches lousy concepts to middle-management studio flunkies, and he can’t bum any more money off his indifferent agent. Spotted by a couple of repo men looking to seize his car, Joe drives into the secluded garage of a Sunset Boulevard mansion, where he is mistaken for someone else and invited in.
The two people in the house are expecting an undertaker for a dead chimpanzee. Perhaps this should have been Joe’s warning that all is not well in the old, decaying house—he also notes the melodramatic wind wheezing through the organ pipes, and the rats in the pool. Still: any port in a storm. The owner of the house is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star. “You used to be big,” Gillis says with typical gallantry. Norma, who—for a silent star—has quite a knack for memorable phrases, replies with a memorable piece of self-justification: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” When Norma finds out Gillis is a writer, she hires him to edit her sprawling screenplay, which will be the vehicle for her great comeback.
Thus begins Joe’s doomed run as Norma’s housemate, lover, and errand boy. A new pet monkey. In one especially mortifying moment, during one of Norma’s bridge games, she orders Joe to empty the ash tray—and he does. (The weirdness of the moment is enhanced by the other players, a group of silent stars whose past glories must have struck the 1950 audience as rather ghoulishly invoked: Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the great Buster Keaton.) The entire film is infused with a sense of debasement and humiliation. Take, for instance, the casting of Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s butler, Max von Mayerling. Not only does Max attend to Norma’s daily needs, including the writing of bogus “fan mail” that Norma can reply to, he also happens to be her former husband and director.
The overlapping between art and life is all too unsavory here. Stroheim was indeed one of Hollywood’s most flamboyant directors in the 1920s, a career halted for a variety of reasons (including his own extravagance). He actually directed Gloria Swanson, in Queen Kelly, a film that is excerpted in Sunset Boulevard for the memorable scene of Joe and Norma watching her old movies at night. As magnetic a performer as Stroheim is, there is something uniquely uncomfortable about the similarity between actor and character.
Of course, this is magnified in the case of Swanson, who had been one of the biggest of silent movie queens—as well as the mistress of Joseph Kennedy. (more…)