SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)

  • Director: Billy Wilder
  • Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman, Jr.
  • Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, and Fred Clark
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#16), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 (#63), 3 Oscars (Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score), 8 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Billy Wilder, Best Actor – William Holden, Best Actress – Gloria Swanson, Best Supporting Actor – Erich von Stroheim, Best Supporting Actress – Nancy Olson, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to Amazon Prime or CBS All Access, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV

Sometimes movies feel more found than made. Those tend to be the movies most requiring some kind of visionary genius. Sunset Boulevard is not really in a genre. It’s kind of Film Noir, it’s sort of a black comedy, and it feels like a horror movie. Or maybe it just feels like an inevitable byproduct of Hollywood. But it wasn’t, it was Billy Wilder and his writing partner, Charles Brackett, who thought it up, and much of Hollywood didn’t think it was inevitable, they hated it. Louis B. Mayer was so offended he screamed at Wilder at the premiere that he had disgraced Hollywood. One former silent star, Mae Murray, complained, “None of us floozies were that nuts.”

The plot centers around a writer (William Holden), trying to make it churning out screenplays at a Hollywood studio. He’s a bit too mean and sarcastic throughout, but to the movie’s credit it is very clear in its own awareness of him being a hack and possibly a jerk. The movie opens with Holden lying face down in a swimming pool, dead. He narrates the movie, Noir-style, except from beyond the grave. That shot of him face down in the pool from beneath is quoted directly in the Bojack Horseman opening credits even today.

When the down-on-his-luck writer turns into the wrong driveway while fleeing repo men coming for his car, he finds himself at the huge, gothic mansion of aging silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Everything’s covered in spider-webs, like in Great Expectations. When he gets there, they’re having an elaborate funeral for her pet monkey. He thinks she’s completely nuts, but he talks her into hiring him as a “script-doctor” to punch up an old script she’s been working on. Over time, he becomes drawn into her own web, like one of the spiders. He’s invited to a New Year’s Party, but discovers he’s the only guest. One time he tries to leave and then gets a call from her butler (Erich von Stroheim) that she tried to kill herself, then goes back. The movie definitely implies, in 1950s terms, that he becomes something of her “kept boy.” But when he falls for a lady writer at the studio (Nancy Olson), things get away from him, and Norma ends up shooting him in the back to come back to the beginning of the movie. The vultures of Hollywood descend on her, but she just descends further into her delusion, leading to the famous final moments when Norma stares directly into a camera and announces “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Sunset Boulevard is obviously fiction, but some of its power comes from the ways it steers into its similarities to real life. Gloria Swanson really was a silent movie star, and several movie people play themselves in smaller parts. Cecil B. DeMille, perhaps the first famous movie director, plays himself, as do Buster Keaton and other silent-era stars. Swanson’s career foundered after she started her own production company, which went under after the flop of Queen Kelly, which ended up not even getting released at the time. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma shows the writer scenes from her old movie that never got released, which are actually scenes from Queen Kelly. Later, her butler confesses that he used to be a famous Director, but that when her career ended he couldn’t stay away from her. He ended up retiring so that he could be her butler. The butler is played by Erich von Stroheim, a famous silent movie director whose less successful films included, you guessed it, Queen Kelly.

Most of the famous 1920s movie stars turned down the role, but Swanson was talked into it by her close friend, George Cukor. She reportedly balked at doing a screen test for the movie at Paramount, telling Cukor that without her, “there wouldn’t be any Paramount.” Cukor told her that this would be the role she was remembered for, and if she refused a screentest, he would “personally shoot” her. The line about Paramount ended up being given to Norma in the movie. Swanson’s performance served, just as Cukor told her, as her big comeback. She received an Oscar nomination, but it was in maybe the best year for the Best Actress category ever, and both she and both leads from All About Eve ended up losing to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Swanson’s Norma is always performing. She seems almost embalmed. I have no idea what she’s doing.

As I said, Sunset Boulevard plays to me like a horror movie. It’s all in this haunted house that draws people in until they die. I’ve heard it discussed as a camp touchstone, especially Swanson’s arch performance. For me it is more of a cautionary tale. All glamour fades, but sometimes even faded glamour is irresistible. Any of us could end up as William Holden, floating face down in a pool, because we turned into the wrong driveway.

The critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes calls Sunset Boulevard “maybe the greatest movie about Hollywood.” If it is, that’s because it understands some essential truth about the town’s soul. One gets the sense that every star in Hollywood is just a little bit worried that some day they’ll turn into Norma Desmond, and some of them have. She started out acting for a living, but now she’s always playing a character, even when lying in her own bed.

So, does the movie still work for the rest of us? Clearly it does for a lot of people, given that it continues to be a cultural touchstone even today. Stephen Sondheim wanted to make it into a musical, but Billy Wilder talked him out of it. After Wilder’s death, there was no one to talk Andrew Lloyd Webber into doing the same thing. As for me, maybe I don’t connect with Sunset Boulevard the way many other people do? It is more as a state of mind, an experience, than it is an actual movie. I don’t know what it is, really, but it still works.

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