“She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know, you’re too young. In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it!”
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a wonderfully dark and cynical film about the relationship between a struggling hack screenwriter and a faded silent film star delusionally anticipating her return to the silver screen. Joe Gilles (William Holden) is becoming more and more desperate to sell his stories. He’s behind on car payments and in an effort to run from the bill collectors, he turns into the driveway of a decaying mansion and finds an empty garage perfect for hiding his car. Inside, a woman calls to him, “You there, why have you kept me waiting so long?” Having nowhere else to be, Joe goes inside and meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her faithful butler Max (Erich von Stroheim).
I’ve always interpreted the events in Sunset Boulevard to be wonderfully simple. Joe was mistaken to be the funeral director for Norma’s pet chimp who has just died. We don’t realize it yet, but Norma’s new pet has just walked in the door. Throughout the film, Joe becomes Norma’s boy toy, she lets him live there while he works on an excessive screenplay Norma has written for her return. Norma gladly towels him off as he exits the pool, buys him the clothes she wants him to wear and holds a grand New Years ball just for the two of them. The mansion is his cage, all Joe is missing is a leash.
The film won the Oscar for art direction easily. All the sets in or around the mansion are beautifully creepy with lavish detail. As Joe describes, “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.” Inside the mansion is a grand staircase, a projection screen hidden behind an oil painting and beautiful classic furniture. There are dozens, perhaps near a hundred pictures of Norma all over the house. One of my favorite sets is Norma’s bedroom full of satin veils and ruffles hanging from the ceiling and her bed looks like a viking ship.
Joe provides the perfect narration for this film about the dark side of cinema. When we first hear his voice, it’s the cynical, ironic perspective of a man floating dead in a pool. Somewhere along the story set in the past, the perspective changes from dead-floating Joe of the present to Joe in the shown scene. The change isn’t that important and nearly impossible to detect because Joe’s style of speech is so consistent. He’s obviously a writer, and some of his descriptions do teeter on the verge of hack (“She sat coiled up like a watch spring.”), but with this macabre style of story it fits. He’s the perfect candidate to be thrown a story that feels like Edgar Allan Poe resurrected to write about Hollywood.
Nominated for best actress, Gloria Swanson steals the film with her oh so creepy Norma Desmond. I always get a little shiver when she puts her fingers she moves like claws on Holden. Her over expressive facial expressions of a silent film star, make it seem like she’s never left the screen. Her eyes are so fierce, her painted mouth never has a real smile, but twists into sneers of repressed rage. I love the way Norma gives me the creeps, “Stars are ageless aren’t they?”
There have been some complaints about me ranking Sunset over the official Best Picture winner, All About Eve. I do so thinking about what most of today’s viewers would appreciate more and relate to better. Sunset has the more striking visual elements and more iconic characters. The cynical and ironic narration by Holden is more understood by our modern age. I’m not knocking Eve at all, that film does it’s own thing wonderfully, I just see more people loving Sunset and simply liking Eve.
And I do love Sunset Boulevard. I love Norma’s desperate attempts to keep Joe, the scene at Paramount studios and Cecil B. DeMille’s cameo. That shot with Joe floating in the pool blew me away and when he said, “Shh, you’re going to wake the monkey” I couldn’t get enough. For this film to survive so well after sixty years, there must be more out there who also deeply love Sunset Boulevard.
“You don’t yell at a sleepwalker – he may fall and break his neck. That’s it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career.”