“All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up!”
— Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
First released in 1950 and nominated for Best Picture, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. It’s also something of a difficult film to review because, in order for one to truly understand its greatness, it needs to be seen. A description simply will not do. You have to experience, first hand, the performances of Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Eric Von Stroheim. You have to see, with your own eyes, the way that Billy Wilder perfectly balances drama, satire, and horror. I can tell you about how cinematographer John F. Seitz perfectly contrasts the empty glossiness of Hollywood with the dark shadows that fill the ruined mansion of Norma Desmond but, again, it’s something that you owe it to yourself to see. You need to hear the perfectly quotable dialogue with your own ears. You need to experience Sunset Boulevard for yourself.
And, while you’re watching it, think about how easily one bad decision could have screwed up the entire film. Sunset Boulevard is famous for being narrated by a dead man, a screenwriter named Joe (William Holden). When we first see Joe, he’s floating in a pool. Originally, however, the film was to open with the dead Joe sitting up in the morgue and telling us his story. Reportedly, preview audiences laughed at the scene and it was cut out of the film. And Wilder made the right decision to remove that scene. Sunset Boulevard may be famous for being a strange film but, when you actually watch it, you realize just how controlled and disciplined Wilder’s direction actually is. Sunset Boulevard may be weird but it’s never less than plausible.
Joe Gillis is a former newspaper reporter-turned-screenwriter. He may have started out as an idealist but, as the film begins, he’s now just another Hollywood opportunist. While trying to hide from a man looking to repossess his car, Joe stumbles upon a dilapidated old mansion. The owner of the mansion is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who has sent been forgotten but who still dreams of making a comeback. (When Joe tells her that she used to be big, Norma famously responds that she’s still big and it’s the pictures that have gotten small.) Norma has written a script and the opportunistic Joe convinces her to hire him as a script doctor.
Joe moves into the mansion and discovers a world that has never moved past the 1920s. Norma’s butler and former director, Max (played by Gloria Swanson’s former director Erich Von Stroheim) writes letters that he claims were sent by Norma’s fans. Norma spends her time watching her old movies. Occasionally, other forgotten silent screen stars (including Buster Keaton) drop by to play cards.
Encouraged by Joe’s vapid flattery and a mysterious phone call from a Paramount exec, Norma has Max drive her down to the studio. Greeted by the older employees and ignored by the younger, Norma visits with director Cecil B. DeMille (who plays himself). In a rather sweet scene, she and DeMille remember their shared past. DeMille obviously understands that she’s unstable but he treats her with real respect, in contrast to the manipulative Joe.
As for Joe, he’s fallen for a script reader named Betty (Nancy Olson) and wants to escape from being dependent on Norma. However, Norma has invested too much in her “comeback” to just allow Joe to leave…
Sunset Boulevard is a wonderful mix of film noir and Hollywood satire. And, though the film may be narrated by Joe and told from his point of view, it’s firmly on Norma’s side. As easy as it is to be dismissive of Norma’s delusions, she’s right in the end. It is the pictures that have gotten small and, as she proves towards the end of the film, she is still as capable of making a grand entrance as she ever was.
Joe may have been too stupid to realize it but Norma Desmond never stopped being a star.