“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
I knew almost nothing about Sunset Boulevard when I came across it on Netflix today, but the title struck me. I knew this was a film with a lot of buzz, and I was pretty sure it ranked highly on many greatest film lists. Sure enough, Sight and Sound rankings, the AFI 100, the Library of Congress, and of course the 1001 List all give considerable nods to this film. I’ve always been fascinated with movies about movies, and it’s always neat when a film can make commentary about the industry itself. Time Magazine called the film “Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best,” a fascinating blurb which I feel perfectly describes the alluring gravity that Sunset Boulevard holds in my mind. It’s a uniquely magnetic film that suckered me in early and kept me engaged for every second that followed.
The film tells the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter scrambling his life together amidst his recent failures in selling a story. He stumbles upon the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former Hollywood star from the silent film era. Norma lives a delusional life, believing her star power hasn’t faded a bit since she’d left the silver screen, and she convinces Joe to help her make a comeback with a new story she’s been working on. Seeking monetary gain, Joe agrees to help Norma with her script against his better judgment, and their relationship builds into a horribly tragic dilemma as Joe soon seeks a different sort of life in response to Norma’s way of living. (Erich von Stroheim also brings a noteworthy performance which I just had to mention as Norma’s butler, Max.)
I quickly found myself comparing Sunset Boulevard to All About Eve, one of my absolute favorites which I’ve viewed this year. Both films came out in the same year, and they explore similar themes of stardom, aging, and the cost of success. It’s inspiring to see such complex screenplays coming out of 1950; you can’t really say that films this clever were the norm at this time, and I wish we’d see the same sort of innovation more often in Hollywood today. Sunset Boulevard takes a subject matter ripe with fascinating concepts and explores them relentlessly. Norma Desmond is hard to root for, but the film allows her sympathy, pointing the mirror not only at Norma herself but the environment that created her. Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve seem to transcend simple stories of arrogant women in show business and instead make important observations about the industry itself and the types of monsters such a business creates.
I really enjoyed Joe Gillis as the film’s protagonist, and I feel he was perfectly cast as William Holden. It’s easy to view the film as a sort of character study where we allow Gloria Swanson to chew the scenery and delight audiences with this performance piece of hers, but this is still Joe’s story, and he reflects another important other side of Hollywood. Along with his love interest, the spunky story girl Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), Gillis represents a younger generation: the starving, desperate kid with something to prove. While Norma has her legacy, Joe Gillis has only his stories. He makes some questionable choices and some truly noble choices throughout the film, but everything he does feels honest to his character and true to his goals. He grounds the viewer with his poise and cleverness, but he’s also flawed and playful enough that he’s easy to relate with. It’s not as flashy of a role, but it’s crucial to the film’s sucess.
Sunset Boulevard feels like a very personal film, a passion project for director/screenwriter Billy Wilder and producer/screenwriter Charles Brackett. These men had something to say about Hollywood: perhaps a message about vanity, or perhaps they wanted to explore what really happens to the washed up icons? Gloria Swanson’s presence adds layers of reality to the film, as she was once a silent film star whose stardom had waned by 1950 as the medium had changed. I also enjoyed other elements of realism in the film’s depiction of Hollywood, such as the precision by which the “film set” scenes are shot, and even having a big name director play himself in the film; Cecil DeMille was one of the biggest names in both the silent and post-silent film era, and he even made Gloria Swanson into a star back in the day. Seeing his presence in the film was really neat for this reason. It’s these behind the scenes elements that demonstrate the passion, the fervor behind this film as a necessary commentary on the way Hollywood operated and those who it ultimately turned its back on.
I would wholeheartedly recommend Sunset Boulevard to anyone interested. It surprised, excited, and delighted me with its story, and it left me with a lot to think on moving into the future. The film is packed with innovative ideas and powerful thematic exploration which have earned it such a prominent legacy, and it’s one I feel is well deserved. I’d pack it back-t0-back with All About Eve, and you’ve got yourself a whammy of a double feature.
Films Left to Watch: 907