Sunset Boulevard

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.

Meet Joe Gillis.

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. Sunset Boulevard was a considerable triumph for Swanson, a comeback after enduring the same sort of slow fade that Norma Desmond had suffered. She won rave reviews and an Oscar nomination as best actress, although her career did not take off in a significant way.

Swanson is very fine, throwing herself whole-heartedly into Norma’s creepiness and madness. She’s especially good during the trip to the Paramount studio lot, where an embarrassed Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself), who’s read her awful script, tries to treat her with a distanced respect. Although Wilder is clearly enjoying Swanson’s baroque performance, he can’t quite slip the essential cruelty of the casting. For instance, when Norma does her imitation of Charlie Chaplin for a bored Joe one afternoon at the house, the scene plays on a few different levels. There is distaste for Norma’s obsession with the past, and Joe’s face reflects his own sense of entrapment in this bizarre world. Once again Norma is revealed as pitiful.

Yet Gloria Swanson’s Chaplinesque mime is absolutely terrific, a wonderful impersonation by a sharp-eyed actor. This discomfiting interplay between fiction and reality may be one of the reasons Sunset Boulevard gets under people’s skins. (Wilder, incidentally, always intended the Pirandellian vibe between actor and role: he considered Mae West and Mary Pickford for Norma before settling on Swanson. Casting is such a matter of alchemy; what a different movie Sunset Boulevard would be if Mae West had taken the role and played opposite Montgomery Clift, who was cast as Joe Gillis but dropped out two weeks before shooting began.)

Billy Wilder is one of Hollywood’s greatest directors because of his genius for structure, characters, and dialogue, but also because of the rich mix of tones in his work. His comedies have a dark and sometimes morbid streak, his dramas are laced with razor-sharp humor, and his most disgusted surveys of the human animal have a tendency to blossom in sudden moments of lyricism. Much of the comedy of Sunset Boulevard, dripping with sarcasm, comes from Wilder’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood. In many ways, this is one of Wilder’s least balanced films; from the monkey funeral and the rats in the swimming pool onward, Sunset Boulevard reeks with nausea. I would offer such lesser-known Wilders as Five Graves to Cairo or A Foreign Affair or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as closer to the quintessential spirit of Wilder than Sunset Boulevard. The rising bile nearly overwhelms the film at times.

Could it have been Wilder’s own youthful experiences as a dancer-for-hire that caused the darker aspects of the story to take over? It has always been a somewhat murky part of Wilder’s biography as to just how much, or what kind, of gigolo he really was, but the dilemma of Joe Gillis clearly spurs Wilder to an startling intensity of feeling. Perhaps Wilder would reply that every screenwriter understands the reality of being a “kept man.” There’s a scene in which Norma takes Joe on a shopping trip for clothes (a sinister precursor to the Pretty Woman scene?), and Wilder’s camera dramatically dollies in as an insinuating salesman leans over to Joe to whisper, “As long as the lady’s paying….” That camera movement is uncharacteristic of Wilder, and points to the degree of torment poor Joe finds himself in.

This was all too much for some people, including mogul Louis B. Mayer, who suggested that Wilder should be tarred and feathered for having created such an unflattering portrait of Hollywood. The film permanently ruptured the profitable partnership of Wilder and his co-writer and producer, Charles Brackett, whose sophistication and taste had sometimes crashed against Wilder’s more savage tendencies. They did win an Oscar for their original screenplay, with a third collaborator, D.M. Marshman, Jr. The film was nominated in eleven categories, including nods for Swanson, Holden, Stroheim, and Nancy Olson (as a studio reader and oasis of sanity). Another acid portrait of the movie business, All About Eve, took the top prizes that year, with Sunset Boulevard winning for script, art direction, and Franz Waxman’s spooky music.

Norma Desmond, ready.

Sunset Boulevard has never lost its classic status (it is on the National Film Registry list of protected titles), and became enough of a cultural icon to inspire an Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musical in the 1990s. There may be something in the poison-pen look at Hollywood that is deeply satisfying for audiences. The movie is an acknowledgment of the power of the dream factory, but also a cautionary tale of the rickety scaffolding behind the gleaming soundstages; it’s a movie that answers the question posed by the title of the original version of A Star is Born: what price Hollywood? For all those people in Joe Gillis’s Midwestern home town, who dream of going to the city of angels and drinking of the milk and honey, the movie reassures them that their own ordinary lives may not be so bad, after all. No one can miss the curdled tone of Norma’s final demented speech: “This is my life. It always will be. There’s nothing else. Just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark….” It may be Norma’s mad delusion, but we’re implicated too: she’s looking right at us.

I put together a book-length collection of Billy Wilder interviews; check it at the publisher’s website. Sunset Boulevard is one of the ten best movies of 1950, listed here. – Robert Horton

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