1950. Directed by Billy Wilder.
As American cinema plunged into the heart of its noir period, transitioning from the golden era of silent films and historical epics, Billy Wilder’s tragic dissertation on the cost of fame threatened the foundations of the industry and shocked audiences by obliterating the divide between art and reality. Its opening sequence, with the title stenciled on a forgotten gutter, could not be clearer with its intent. Casually described as a poisoned love letter to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is an uncomfortable refutation of the insatiable limelight and a masterfully constructed satire on the craft itself.
The central theme of the film explores the consumption of idols by the masses, the discarded remnants of youth, sexual fixation, and uncanny melodramatics filling the crumbling manse in which Gloria Swanson’s ghastly starlet holds counterfeit court from a tabloid torpor. Her Norma Desmond is an animated apparition, moving and communicating as if she were a celluloid wraith given life. Initially her performance comes across as over the top, but as the film settles into its celebrity quagmire, her actions and delivery reveal themselves as the perfect representations of an appalling culture in which youth is a finite currency.
Self indulgent illusions are one of the film’s profane tenants. John Seitz’s abrasive black and white cinematography is both complex and synthetic, using elusive trickery to frame each composition as a series of waterlogged memoirs. The opening pool sequence was filmed by placing a mirror on the bottom of the pool and shooting the reflection. Swanson is always enshrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke, twirling her fingers through the vapors, signifying her desperate attempt to hold onto a dream that was never real in the first place. William Holden’s lascivious screen writer is framed in morose shadows and rigid compositions whenever he is within the mansion, contrasted by bright lights and open air wide shots whenever he sneaks away to a production set. Holden’s formidable talent is a boon in what is essentially a supporting role to Swanson’s planetary presence. He presents as the common man, the unseen face that provides the life blood for the silver screen behemoths, disenchanted by the truths of the business.
Wilder used actual directors for many of the roles. Eric von Stroheim, who plays Norma’s “butler” actually directed Swanson in a silent film. Cecil B. Demille plays himself and the legendary Buster Keaton makes an appearance as a “waxwork”, the dubious moniker Gillis gives to Norma’s archaic colleagues. Swanson herself landed the role because she was a silent picture star who never made the transition to talkies, a literal embodiment of Norma’s purgatory. The blending of on and off screen concepts was initially rebuked by Wilder’s fellows, garnering a disdain for the picture upon its debut. The film would go on to be nominated for eleven academy awards, signaling the industry’s surrender to the film’s accusatory allure.
The ambiance of the film doubles as throat clutching protest and a tragic love story. Stroheim’s butler protects Norma’s fragile sanity by penning fan letters and yet constantly appeals to Holden’s Gillis to end the charade. Gillis begins as a screen writing huckster, all to eager to take advantage of the glitz and then slowly, irrevocably, comes to loathe what he has become. There are glimmers of hope sprinkled among the shadows, with Gillis finding actual love in a colleague and Norma seizing upon the promise of a return (Never a comeback!) by subjecting herself to a menagerie of cosmetic transfigurations. The use of a dead man narrator subverts these kernels of respite, constantly reminding the viewer that there is no escape. The end result is a passionate, but ultimately bitter acceptance of the reality of American cinema.
Available now for digital rental, Sunset Boulevard is an exceptional film, evoking every aspect of an age where films were more than just entertainment. Featuring a legendary lead performance, vicious dialogue, and unforgettable set designs, this is truly one of the greats. Words cannot adequately explain this film’s importance or implore you to view. In the end, be it spandex blockbuster or a last minute Oscar contender, Norma’s ghost is a specter that haunts every theater and every bedroom streaming solution. Pyrrhically relevant and universally cherished, Sunset Boulevard is a landmark achievement whose corrupted heart quietly beats underneath the box office veneer, warning about dangers who have been ignored in the CGI and social media saturated landscape of modern American entertainment.
Highly. Highly Recommend.