Sunset Boulevard is a multi award winning 1950 melodrama which turns the camera on Hollywood and tells the story of a faded silent movie star’s relationship with an ambitious but unsuccessful young writer. Nominated for eleven Oscars it is often regarded as one of the greatest films ever made and appears on numerous Top 10 lists. In 1989 it was selected as one of the first films to be preserved in the National Film Registry and today, over sixty years after its release it continues to stand up thanks to its excellent writing, direction, performances and Noir sensibility.
Joe Gills (William Holden) is a struggling writer in search of a job. He has little success and with debt collectors on his tail he drives into the seemingly abandoned driveway of an old Sunset Boulevard mansion. He soon discovers that the decrepit house is in fact occupied by a former movie star called Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her mysterious butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). After initially being mistaken for an undertaker, Joe announces himself as a screenwriter and the former star puts him to work rewriting her screenplay with the hope that it will rekindle her career. Desmond, it soon turns out, is living in a delusion and cannot grasp that her time has been and gone while Joe uses his time in the house to further his career.
Sunset Boulevard looks great and I loved the ending but it took me a long time to get into. I was fascinated by the behind the scenes look at Hollywood and the story is certainly wonderful but for some reason I wasn’t able to ride along with the movie. Despite this it is obvious to see why it’s considered such a classic and I’m glad that I finally got to see it. I watch more silent and golden age movies than anyone I know and was able to appreciate the story, era and guest appearances. The movie is littered with references to both the silent era and golden age in which it is set and names such as D.W Griffith, Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert and Mabel Nomad are remarked upon. This gives the movie an air of authenticity and helps the audience to imagine Norma Desmond in her heyday, working with directors such as Griffith and DeMille and playing tennis with Pearl White or Greta Garbo. There are also notable cameos from the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, H.B. Warner and one of my favourite screen actors Buster Keaton who appear as themselves. I was totally convinced by Desmond’s history and the fact that Gloria Swanson was herself a former silent star who had indeed worked with the names above only added to the realism.
Many of the scenes are shot within Desmond’s mansion, a typically plush house built at the height of her fame in the 1920s. It looks exactly as you’d imagine and matches what little I’ve seen of the insides of the likes of Chaplin and Keaton’s houses. I think it must have had some influence on the design of the house in The Artist too. The house is filled with photos of Desmond in her prime and relics of her career now long behind her. The walls and in particular bars over the door help to give the house the feeling of a prison and this becomes important late on. The lack of locks also somehow adds to the prison feel and creates a creepy atmosphere where no one can escape the attention of others. The bars, shadow and femme fetale as well as one of the best voiceovers I’ve heard put the film firmly in the Noir genre. Joe Gills ends up a tortured man, torn between love and a certain way of life while Norma Desmond is cooped up in her house, convinced she is still a star. Both central characters it turns out, have quite sad lives. The dramatic and beautiful lighting mark Sunset Boulevard out as one of the most attractive films I've seen recently.
Madness and difficulty in adjusting to reality are at the centre of the plot and are very well executed. The final scenes were my favourite and were tremendously well shot and acted. It was nice to see von Stroheim ‘behind’ the camera in these scenes too. Another facet of the plot is the narcissistic nature of Hollywood, an industry that eats away at you, taking everything you’ve got before spitting you back out and leaving you to rot. There are many areas of the film making process which were explored and the walks around the Paramount lot and look inside movie sets were some of my favourite scenes. I love to see the process behind a movie and there are plenty of opportunities to see that here. Although made within the Hollywood studio system the film isn’t afraid to show Hollywood at its worst. The film is very clever in its depiction of what the industry does to those on the outside, both those trying to get in and those trying to get back in.
The performances are all quite excellent. At first I thought that Gloria Swanson’s over the top and overly dramatic performance was out of keeping with the movie but in reality it is spot on. For her the whole world is a stage and she keeps up her performance within a performance throughout. The character is always acting for the cameras even though they stopped rolling twenty years earlier. Swanson is terrific and projects subtle frailties in amongst her confidence, bravado and fantasy. William Holden is great too and although already on his way, the movie propelled him towards stardom. He is tormented and ashamed by the way he is being ‘kept’ but is also slightly conniving and happy to keep the charade going for as long as he can. Erich von Stroheim is fantastic as the creepy and mysterious butler. One is never quite sure as to where his intentions lie but the film ekes out some interesting detail in his character which causes surprise. Nancy Olson has perhaps the least to do of the central quartet but like the other three received an Oscar nomination for her role. She is solid and her wide eyed enthusiasm for being in the movies makes her probably the most relatable character.
I personally don’t rate Sunset Boulevard as highly as perhaps most other people would but I’m so glad to have it in movie history. It’s fascinating for its depiction of two Hollywood eras and it brings together an incredible cast in a great tale of madness and jealousy. It’s a real gem and I’m sure will continue to be remembered fondly for the next sixty years.
- The role of Norma Desmond was offered to Mae West and Mary Pickford before Gloria Swanson took it.
- The Desmond Mansion wasn't actually situated on Sunset but was actually on Wiltshire Boulevard. It was once occupied by Jean Paul Getty and torn down in 1957. An office block now stands in its place. The fee for renting the property was to build a swimming pool, the one that features so prominently in the film itself.
- "All right, Mr DeMille. I'm ready for my close up" is one of the most famous lines in cinema history and is ranked 7th on the AFI's top movie quotes.
- As a practical joke Director Billy Wilder didn't yell cut in the Holden-Olson kissing scene and let the two continue for minutes. It was eventually Holden's wife who happened to be on the set who yelled 'Cut!'