Friday Film Noir: Sunset Boulevard at 70
In cinema, as in life, the past informs and shapes the present, which in turn does the same for the future. One cannot concentrate too much on the present or risk losing sight on the changing times. One cannot always be looking ahead, otherwise, they may fail in the ‘now.’ Staying firmly planted in the past means missing out on both the present and the future and perhaps not even comprehending either. At the risk of coming across as a little too metaphysical and putting too intellectual a slant on this article, everything in time and space functions as a whole, like a continuous evolutionary process. The unwillingness to accept this either leaves people in a bad mood (dislike of change, unwillingness to accept the past) or, particularly for people who work within the industry, in ruins. Few films have ever tackled this issue as passionately as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a film that both expresses its love for film as well as setting an unflinchingly critical eye at the industry which produces it
Writing screenplays is what Joe Gillis (William Holden) does for a living, or, perhaps more accurately, it is what he would like to do for a living. While he does have a few films to his name, Hollywood and been less kind to him as of late. His latest project, about a baseball player mixed in gambling troubles, leaves Paramount’s reading girl, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) unimpressed, and Joe still without a job for the time being. The day only worsens once, while driving back home, the collection agency on his trail spots him on the road, thus setting off a wild little chase along the famous Sunset boulevard. When his car gets a flat tire, he pulls into the nearest home’s parking garage, which helps him evade his pursuers. Exiting the garage, Joe surveys his surroundings and discovers an old, decrepit mansion, a place that anyone would guess is abandoned but isn’t. It is the home of silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who has not been seen in the spotlight for years. While their initial encounter is touchy, Norma is intrigued by the fact that Joe is a writer, as she has been working on a project herself for some time in the hope of returning to stardom. Soon enough, Joe is getting paid high dollars to help rewrite her script, although Norma’s conviction of a return to Hollywood may be driven more by delusion than talent…
Billy Wilder’s film is frequently lumped into the category of noir despite that the general plot outline does not correspond very directly with what one typically understands as film noir. That much is true. In fact, for some rather obvious story-related reasons, Sunset Boulevard is more interested in the business of movie-making and the effects it has on people operating within it, both on emotional and psychological levels. Nevertheless, there are some very familiar character story beats which harken to the traditions of noir, most notably a protagonist scheming to find the light in his life after a dark passage, only to discover that despite his best tactical maneuvers, there is no escaping inevitability, in this case being his own doom. The more he tries to make something of himself and flee hard times, the more the variables seem stacked against him. The ‘past’ is also a common theme in noir, usually because it comes back to haunt a character hoping to escape it. In the case of Joe Gillis, he is lured into helping someone continue living her past, quite an interesting twist on the genre.
Sunset Boulevard is a Lament About the Film Industry and a Great Story
Watching a movie such as this, with a story concerned with the changing cycles in Hollywood, is a very special experience in the early 21st century, what with how the industry has morphed since 1950, the year of Sunset‘s release. One can appreciate and analyze the story on face value for the richness of the characters, which the article shall get into momentarily, yet also recognize some remarkably prescient notions about the studio system and the art of filmmaking. Although released in the middle of the twentieth century and dealing with the state of movie making at that time and comparing it to the style of the 1920s when Sunset star Gloria Swanson was indeed a silent movie icon (which is admittedly some pretty cool casting), the ideas expressed throughout and the trials and tribulations of a character like Norma Desmond, even though she is fictional and an exaggeration, are all too real when one observes the shifting trends in film throughout the decades. Actors and actresses release less starring roles as time elapses. Filmmaking techniques change as technology evolves, thus requiring that employees adapt to the times or see their work less in demand, something miniature and creature design artists might know a thing or two about, or those who used to make a living off of painting one-sheet poster designs. That’s right, posters used to be made by hand on paper with pencils and brushes. Shocking, I know.
Where this comes into play for the actual story is how Norma Desmond cannot let go of the past. Granted, the film eventually reveals that she is not entirely right in the head and, when triggered, she becomes dangerously perturbed, but the story at its core is powerful and emotionally gripping. It operates effectively even beyond the parameters of Hollywood’s tendency to ditch what does not make money anymore. Norma, by no longer making movies, is no longer with the people she loved working with, nor can she satisfy her fans anymore. There is a critical scene in the film when Norma, under the assumption that director Cecile B. Demille is interested in the atrocious script she penned, heads off to Paramount studios to reconvene with her old colleague and friend. It is there that the true core of Norma’s struggle is revealed. Yes, she is full of herself to an almost obnoxious degree at times, yet there is a love for the craft of film and a love for working with people she admires that drove her throughout her entire career. She explicitly mentions that the money means nothing to her, only the ability to work and be with old acquaintances again. That is the whole tragedy of Norma Desmond. She cannot see past the fact that her time has elapsed, refuses to acknowledge the progression of time and it kills her inside because she has a true passion for the business. Gloria Swanson’s performance is very much in the spirit of the silent era of acting. Faces, not words, were of the utmost importance and Swanson really swings for the fences while still retaining a sense of humanity. In fact, the antics and exuberance in the performance make the character all the sadder because of what everyone else, including the viewer, knows.
There is much more happening in the story of Sunset Boulevard however, starting with the troubled relationship between Norma Desmond and the audience’s eyes and ears into this proverbial lost world, Joe Gillis. Gillis’ own arc is worthy of mention as well, given how he comes from a place of desperation, stumbles upon what he believes shall be a temporary solution in working on Norma’s script, only to feel that the entire situation is eating away at him. He originally had no intention of whipping up a great script for Norma’s script. A little brush-up, if that was even a possibility, which would see him earn some good money and he would be off. However, Norma is intent on keeping him there is long as she sees fit and, after showering Joe with gifts, in particular the pool he wanted, he becomes less inclined to leave despite his occasional outings into the real world and eventual blossoming relationship with Betty, with whom he begins to write different script and falls in love. The more time he spends at the mansion, the more Norma takes a liking to him, treating him as something of a pet perhaps, but nonetheless attracted to him in some capacity. Whether it is pure love or a shamefully desperate desire for attention (a combination of both is the most likely possibility), there is something peculiar happening between the two. Joe himself never takes too great a liking to Norma, but nor does he ever her. There is pity, distant respect for what she accomplished in her career, and arguably a small amount of understanding for what Norma is after.
William Holden excels at playing the part of the slightly aloof, distant, troubled yet witty Joe Gillis. He is the quintessential down on his luck protagonist who is actually heading in the wrong direction just when he thinks he is digging himself out of a hole. By the time he has fallen in love with Betty, he comes to understand that being with her would be a betrayal towards his close friend Artie who is set on marrying her. Additionally, upon coming to terms with the fact that not only is he incapable of helping Norma with her career but that by staying at the mansion he is complicit in the charade which feeds Norma’s delusions of popularity, enough has been done to psychologically trouble Norma even further. By scheming to make some money off of her and possibly offer a band-aid solution to her unfeasible film project, he was the spark that sets off even worse things, both for Norma and for himself.
If all that is not enough to capture the sad state of affairs these characters have driven themselves into, there is the character of Max, played by the incomparable Eric von Stroheim. Max is at first understood to be Norma’s butler yet later revealed to be her first husband (she married three times) and the director with whom she began her silent career. Their failed marriage was too much for him to bear, compelling him to forgo a career in Hollywood and serve his beloved for the remainder of his days. There is a sense of pride when recounting her exploits and the popularity she gained all those years ago. He is now Norma’s last line of defense against the reality of the outside world, a reality she could never accept. Yeesh. Whereas Norma is a warped version of a star clinging to her past, Max is more emblematic of regular people who wish things could remain stagnant and cannot bring themselves to stay along for the ride as the times change.
Despite receiving a solid amount of Academy Award nominations, Sunset Boulevard was somewhat controversial upon its release, namely for its less than flattering depiction of the studio system. Such criticism was insufficient in hurting the reputation it eventually and deservedly earned, that of a true masterpiece of storytelling. Wilder’s film is both entertaining for its lively performances and sad for the nature of the story. This is a must for anyone interested in exploring some of Hollywood’s classic films.
- Edgar Chaput