THE 28: #20, SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
William Holden: Joe Gillis
Gloria Swanson: Norma Desmond
Erich von Stoheim: Max Von Mayerling
Screenplay by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett & D.M. Marshmann, Jr.
Directed by Billy Wilder
Some of the best movies are the ones about movies. THE PLAYER, THE STUNTMAN, THE PLAYER, ARGO, BOWFINGER, and TROPIC THUNDER are just a small sampling of films about Hollywood and the film industry. The best of these remains Billy Wilder's dark, unsettling SUNSET BOULEVARD, a movie about a faded silent film star looking to stage a comeback. As Norma Desmond, the forgotten star of silent cinema replaced by talkes, Gloria Swanson gives one of the grand performances of American movies.
The core of the story is the relationship between Norma and a screenwriter some 20 years younger than her, Joe Gillis (William Holden). He is dead broke when Norma asks him to stay at her estate and work on a screenplay that will serve as her comeback. Soon, he becomes a kept man. He accepts gifts from her such as a cigarette case, a watch, and expensive suits. Joe comes to accept this lifestyle because it is better than the alternative. Also living at Norma's estate is her ex-husband and director of many of her films, Max Von Mayerling. Out of work, too, Max has become Norma's butler. This one of the oddest love triangles you'll see in a movie.
Norma is a woman who casts over the men in her life. Certainly, Max is still under it if he's willing to serve as her butler while she woos a much younger man. Joe allows himself to be a gigolo in exchange for a life of luxury and develops an odd affection for her. He develops a friendship with a screenwriter named Betty and the two sneak off to write a project. When Betty falls in love, Joe rejects her. He is prepared to make this life permanent.
What makes SUNSET BOULEVARD all the more compelling is the willingness of director Billy Wilder (one of the best ever) to have film legends play themselves. Cecil B. DeMille pops up. Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nillson, and H.B. Warner come over for a game of cards. Even Max is portrayed by Erich von Stroheim, a noted director of the silent era who directed Gloria Swanson in "Queen Kelly." Swanson was a major star of the silent cinema, which adds another layer of realness to the proceedings. Wilder's pictures always had brilliant dialogue and this one is no different. The lines have a cut to them, even a cruelty. Joe says of Norma, "Poor devil. Still waving to a parade which had long since passed by." This movie has a lot to say about how quickly we discard those we call stars and how lonely that life can be.
The whole movie hinges on Swanson's performance. It's big, broad, and audacious. Perhaps this choice is meant to suggest Norma herself is a character to be played. She's not a real person anymore. The fun is watching this movie is the way Gloria Swanson owns the screen. Norma is 50 in the movie (Swanson was 53 when she played her), but there is a sense she is to be seen as even older, an ancient relic of dead era no one cares about anymore.
In 1998, I taught a film class at a small college. I carefully selected which movies I wanted to screen. We watched CITIZEN KANE, SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE SHOOTIST, and E.T. They admired CITIZEN KANE as a piece of history, but it left them cold. They couldn't connect. They enjoyed SOME LIKE IT HOT, especially Jack Lemmon's performance. We also watched SUNSET BOULEVARD because no one in the class was familiar with it. I worried it, too, might leave them a little underwhelmed, like KANE. The vast majority of those students were blown away.
If you've never seen SUNSET BOULEVARD, or, it's been years since your last viewing, it's streaming on Netflix.