Movies can be about most anything — and the Sight & Sound list is proof positive of that basic sentiment. The prehistoric battle royale of King Kong is worlds apart from, say, the psychological noir of In a Lonely Place or the kaleidoscopic view of everyday life in Man With a Movie Camera. But one theme that seems to enthrall filmmakers is the art and business of making movies — it’s a theme that, for instance, runs through all of the films in the previous sentence. And why wouldn’t filmmakers be obsessed with with both their craft and the business that makes it possible — it’s basically the movie-making equivalent of “write what you know”. And few people knew movie making better than Billy Wilder. A German emigré who arrived in the United States with hardly any English, Wilder managed to quickly become one of the top scriptwriters and directors in Hollywood, known for his barbed humor and sophisticated dialogue. After two decades in the business Wilder turned his focus on Hollywood itself. Sunset Blvd. (1950) is a savage look at the way Hollywood operates, particularly in its capacity for casting aside those who gave their all to the business. But while the film bears the hallmarks of Wilder’s caustic wit and subtle direction, Sunset Blvd. is truly dominated by one of the great screen performances of all time by former silent movie star Gloria Swanson — an actor who was decidedly ready for her closeup. (110 min.)
J. – Many, many years ago — so many that it actually makes me feel a bit old — I got really into Billy Wilder. I watched basically every one of his movies that my local video store had and would keep an eagle eye out for his films on Turner Classic Movies. There is something about his sensibility that I really love — the dark humor, the adult situations, the way he manages to merge Lubitsch-style sophistication with the less savory aspects of mid-20th century life. Films like Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Witness for the Prosecution are among my favorite movies — and they are all so radically different from each other while still feeling like a cohesive body of work. But all that said, I recall being a bit lukewarm with regard to Sunset Blvd. It seemed a bit overdone and strangely tedious to my younger self. Watching it again I find it hard to believe I ever felt that way, because I was very taken with it during this viewing. It’s enthralling storytelling and so wonderfully twisted. I think my younger self was just too immature to appreciate this movie. For all its wild flourishes — chimpanzee funeral! — Sunset Blvd. now feels to me like a very lived-in and genuine film. It’s the sort of film that benefits immensely from having enough life experience to feel the sorts of disappointments or even desperation driving the main characters. But even more so it is a film that all but requires you to be really knowledgeable about movies (particularly silent movies) to get the maximum enjoyment. I don’t think my 20-year-old self was equipped with enough of either to see why Sunset Blvd. is so damn excellent.
S. – I have to agree that having a few silent movies under my belt (thanks to the list, of course) was a huge help stepping into this film. It’s impossible to know for sure, but I suspect that without such a primer the larger than life Norma Desmond (played brilliantly by Gloria Swanson) would have struck me as more irritating than interesting. Instead, I was fascinated by this fiercely delusional actress who willed the world to conform to her ideal or else stay outside her doors. When hard-up screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) first stumbles into her orbit there can be no mistake that the decrepit mansion on Sunset Boulevard housed another reality. That first shot of Norma as she harangues Joe from a balcony is shockingly weird and, as soon becomes obvious, perfectly in character. The quirks of dress and exaggerated movements create a heightened atmosphere that throws things off balance. Norma should be ridiculous, yet somehow is not. I didn’t even need to get to the chimpanzee to know that new rules were in play. Swanson manages to be over the top, vulnerable and magnificent all at the same time. Poor old Joe, whose only defence is a generic crust of cynicism, was out of his depth long before he realised it. The shift in power as he switches from professional assistant to a kept man is done so deftly it is almost like watching a magic trick. Joe’s freedom disappeared even though you could swear he had a tight hold of it the whole time.
J. – I think it helps to be familiar with silent films to appreciate Gloria Swanson’s performance, but it’s certainly not necessary. It’s a performance for the ages, and one that finds an amazing truth in its extravagant outlandishness. Yes, Swanson’s silent movie movements and poses create a heightened atmosphere, but in the context of her character they don’t just feel believable, they feel downright natural. Swanson brings a remarkable amalgam of silent cinema histrionics and grounded authenticity to the role. It’s an amazing balancing act, and one that ultimately makes Norma Desmond a very human and very pitiable figure — not pitiable because she is forgotten but pitiable because she is so very unhappy and so utterly unequipped to address her problems.
But then, anyone who knows anything about Sunset Blvd. already knows that Gloria Swanson is the dynamo that powers the film. So I want to talk about the rest of the cast. I think it is hard to adequately explain how excellent William Holden is in this movie. Holden is one of my favorite Hollywood stars, in part, I think, because he never seems trustworthy. Many of Holden’s protagonist roles are of deeply flawed heroes or just straight up jerks — an interesting counterpoint to his (slightly weathered) matinee idol looks. Nobody does smarmy better than William Holden, and he uses that talent to the max in this movie. It must have been difficult prevent your performance being swallowed whole by Norma Desmond, but Holden’s Joe Gillis manages to be a strong foil for the aging star. Holden’s sly, underhanded performance and sardonic narration give structure to the other performers. Norma’s eccentricity seems that much more extreme when compared to Joe’s weary desperation, but more importantly you can feel the passion and earnest intensity that lies behind Norma’s affectations when you contrast them with Joe’s sarcastic bitterness (which is itself an affectation at a different extreme). The two performers are perfect complements in this regard, and I wonder if Swanson would have looked ridiculous playing against another actor.
But there are three more characters I’d like to talk about, S.: Max the butler (Erich Von Stroheim); wannabe screenwriter Betty (Nancy Olson); and Norma’s mansion, which is totally a character in this drama.
S. – The stoic and faithful Max is Norma’s greatest enabler. It is a mystery why he tirelessly meets every demand of his high-maintenance mistress even though his greater interaction with the outside world must surely make him aware that Norma Desmond’s stardom has become a farce. The revelation that he writes her fanmail shows the degree to which he is complicit in maintaining Norma’s delusion. I did really enjoy the scene early on where Joe is being ushered into the living room to view the screenplay Norma has written and both she and Max fuss about like an old married couple in their haste to open up the disused space for their guest. Perhaps this was an early clue to the later revelation of the prior relationship between Max and Norma, information that just makes Max and his motivations even more of a puzzle. It is a complex role, and Erich Von Stronheim brings to it the right amount of dignity and restraint that makes the absurd believable. By absolute contrast the character of Betty is the embodiment of modernity. When Joe sneaks out of the mansion and back into the real world to work with Betty it is like waking from a dream, it is hard to believe that both scenarios coexist. Where Norma is entitled and demanding, Betty is earnest, working hard to build something new. The mismatch between the two women Joe is spending his time with creates an engaging tension as you wait for something to give.
J. – There are many things I like about the Betty character, but I think one that stands out for me is that she isn’t a glamorous figure. Nancy Olson isn’t unattractive or anything, but she is grounded and professional in the way that a hard working, sensible woman would be. She’s appealing because she is a good collaborator and determined career woman — not a starlet hoping to make it big in Hollywood. I think a lesser film would have made the Betty character into an actress, a younger muse for Joe that would drive Norma wild with jealousy not just because of Joe’s growing attachment but because the woman is young, beautiful and on the rise while Norma is on the decline. Although writing that here I realize that this is basically the plot of All About Eve (also from 1950), so maybe it’s not fair to be using the word “lesser” but I do think there is much greater complexity and much more to enjoy in Sunset Blvd. because so many of the choices are unconventional. And Von Stroheim is a perfect embodiment of that path less traveled. I know we’ve been pretty fond of poo-pooing Von Stroheim’s directorial entry on the Sight & Sound list (Greed), but he’s been consistently excellent as a performer. His devoted butler isn’t as interesting a character as his aristocratic German officer in La Grande Illusion, but it’s a fantastically low key performance. At first glance Max appears to be something of a source of calm and order in a madhouse, but the way you slowly learn the extent of his dysfunction is very compelling. And Von Stroheim manages to inject his character with a certain pride that is strangely mesmerizing — Max seems highly capable and trustworthy, but he is also deeply sinister and that is a tough balance that Von Stroheim nails perfectly.
But in some ways I think the best character in the movie is Norma Desmond’s crumbling mansion. Joe Gillis rightly brings us Miss Havisham’s house from Great Expectations as a fitting comparison (and also probably as a way for the screenwriters to acknowledge that they’ve basically borrowed the idea from Dickens). The mansion is a glorious setting, all over-grown and decrepit but still bursting with Norma’s former glories on the inside. I particularly like that the film makes it clear that Norma is still wealthy — she may not be a star but she made wise investments that keep the dough coming in. Again a lesser film would have posited her as a person who had fallen on hard times after Hollywood forgot her, but in Sunset Blvd. the disrepair of the house is solely due to her sense of isolation and her disturbed mind.
S. – I think it is the complexity that elevates Sunset Blvd. from a good film to a great one. Norma is more than some fairytale evil witch that has lured an innocent boy into her lair. Joe is not entirely without agency, he is making choices even though he finds some of the consequences distasteful. And Betty isn’t some femme fatale posited as a prize for the leading man once he escapes from the old lady. All of the characters have an emotional life that we are allowed enough access into to understand that the path forward is not clear. Even Norma’s decaying old mansion has begun to show signs of transformation back to its glorious best in parallel with its mistress. The scene where Betty finds Joe at Norma’s climatically brings all of these forces together and rather than this being the way out, forces the leading man to admit that he prefers the comforts of affluence to the uncertainty of freedom. It is unexpected, understated and plays out with superb pathos. Of course Norma has the final say, which is only fitting, and she does it to perfection.
J. – I don’t think Joe admits that he prefers the affluence, because he immediately packs up his stuff — and by his stuff I mean only those things Norma didn’t buy for him — and seriously makes to leave. To me that scene was about Joe coming to terms with himself and his situation, and realizing that he is not good enough for Betty and just one more enabler for Norma’s insanity. In keeping with his character he still acts like a complete asshole, but there are at least some noble intentions behind the posture this time. [S. — What I meant above was that, in speaking to Betty, Joe finally admits that he has stayed with Norma for his own comfort and not because he has been forced into the situation. / J. — Duly noted!]
But I think all of this soap opera stuff would fall flat without Wilder really stepping up his game with regard to the visuals. Billy Wilder is a very effective director but more with his sense of timing and his ability to draw out excellent performances from actors. He’s not much of a visual stylist, or at least not a terribly distinctive one, perhaps because he is so intent on the people that inhabit his frames. But because Norma’s grand mausoleum of a home is the main setting of the film I think it made it essential that the space take on a distinct feel and look, making it a place that casts a spell on the characters who reside within. I tend to like my noir to be black-and-white, at least with regard to the visuals, but Wilder doesn’t go that route in this film, instead running with the many shades of grey style that is more Howard Hawks than it is Fritz Lang. The thing is, it’s perfect for this setting. There is something clean and sharp about high contrast photography, but the grey world of Sunset Blvd. highlights the dust and decay of Norma’s mansion. That mold and disrepair finds a way of seeping into the performances and characters, giving this film a visual aesthetic that ranks with the sharp dialogue and marvelous acting.
We started this yammer talking about films about filmmaking — many such movies either speak to the magic of movies or dwell on the industry’s dark underbelly. Sunset Blvd. has it both ways, acknowledging all that make movies so special but recognizing the capacity that Hollywood has for lead-pipe cruelty and selective amnesia — which perhaps makes it one of the great ironies of the film that Gloria Swanson, one of Hollywood’s early, most important stars, only found true immortality by playing an actress the world no longer wanted.