Sunset Blvd. (1950)
“This is it .. the most compelling dramatic story ever unfolded on the screen .. a tale of heartache and tragedy ..love and ambition .. told against the fabulous background of Hollywood.”
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Synopsis: A hack screenwriter writes a screenplay for a former silent-film star who has faded into Hollywood obscurity.
In 1944, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity was narrated by a dying man who pretty much related the movie’s entire plot in his first few sentences. In Sunset Blvd., a study into the poisonous legacy of a stardom long gone, he goes one further by having the entire movie narrated by a corpse floating in the swimming pool of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent movie queen now living in a decaying mansion at the eponymous address. The corpse is Joe Gillis (William Holden), and we’re introduced to him with a great shot from underneath his floating corpse. He has an open-mouthed look of surprise on his face, as if he can’t quite understand how he found himself in this position.
Gillis is an unsuccessful screenwriter, just one of countless hundreds toiling unpaid in crummy little apartments, churning out potboilers with little success of ever seeing them reach the screen. He’s broke, and his creditors want to repossess his car. Gillis evades them by turning into a drive on Sunset Blvd and finding himself on the grounds of Desmond, now living in faded grandeur. Desmond’s mansion is large and rambling, but it’s neglected, falling into decay. It’s condition is a metaphor for Desmond herself, whose very sanity is threatened by her refusal to accept the reality of lost stardom and ageing, faded looks. She lives there alone, locked away from the world and surrounded by mementoes and photographs from her heyday, with only her faithful servant Max (Erich von Stroheim) for company as she works on a screenplay based on the story of Salome, which she believes will provide her with her comeback.
When Gillis stumbles onto her property, Desmond hires him to get her lumbering, poorly written, screenplay into shape. She has Max bring Gillis’s meagre belongings to the mansion, and installs him in an apartment above the garage. But she has other plans for Gillis, and over time initiates a tawdry sexual relationship. Already tormented by the way he has become Desmond’s toy boy, Gillis’s self-loathing becomes unbearable when he falls for Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), with whom he is secretly working on another script.
There’s something frightening about the way Gillis seems to slip into his life as Desmond’s kept man; it’s a similar descent to that of an addict, marked by mostly insignificant and un-dramatic milestones. For much of the movie he can leave whenever he wants, but never really gives any thought to doing so – it’s only when it’s too late, when Desmond’s influence is too strong to resist, that he finally makes an unsuccessful attempt to break free. You kind of get the impression that Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett didn’t really care much for their lead character. He’s weak, passive, the replacement for a dead monkey who’s referred to as a stray dog by the servant of the woman who keeps him. It’s a complex role that might expose the limitations of some actors, but Holden holds it all together nicely, never once tripping over into melodramatics.
Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma Desmond is more problematic. Herself a faded queen of the silent era with relatively limited experience acting in talking movies, the bombastic nature of her performance brings into question how much Swanson was acting the part of a deluded former screen siren who lives her life as if constantly in front of a camera, and how much was down to a naturally florid style. Perhaps Wilder directed her to act in that manner, or perhaps he simply chose to allow her to act in her own style. Either way, it’s a performance that is both frequently overwhelming and yet strangely appropriate to Desmond’s fragile state of mind. As a side note, it’s interesting that, in an era in which older actresses such as Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Helen Mirren are still in demand, Desmond, at the comparatively kittenish age of 50, is portrayed as a has-been whose chances of a ‘return’ are exactly zero…
(Reviewed 29th August 2012)