This summer marks the sixtieth anniversary of the release of Billy Wilder’s classic film, Sunset Boulevard
, which in my mind is the best film ever made about Hollywood, in large part because it simultaneously holds both an acidicly cynical view of Tinseltown, and a nostalgically romantic one. I’ve spent the last few days watching the film and the many extras on the Paramount Centennial Collection DVD, and it holds up as if it were made yesterday.
Wilder long had an affection for the lore of the Silent-Film Era in Hollywood, and with his partners Charles Bracket and D.M Marshman Jr., crafted a tale steeped in the romance of old Hollywood, while also as caustic as lye, with a self-hating screenwriter at its center, narrating the story from beyond the grave.
That lead character is Joe Gillis, played by William Holden. We first see him floating dead in a swimming pool (he had always wanted one, we are told) and then the story plays in flashback. It starts as film noir, with Holden evading repo men as they try to take his car, and use of extensive voice-over in wise-guy patter, such as telling us that the shoeshine man doesn’t talk finances, he knows your status by the look of your heels.
But while being chased by those repo men, Holden blows out a tire and pulls into a driveway on the eponymous boulevard. It is here that the story turns into a kind of horror film, as he meets the monster, a has-been silent-film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She is first viewed in a long-shot, through venetian blinds. When we do see her she is something out of Grand Guignol, her hands frequently twisted into claws, clutching an absurd cigarette holder. She mistakes Holden for an undertaker who has come to tend to her dead chimpanzee (“He must have been an important chimp,” Holden says, “The great-grandson of King Kong, maybe”). Little does he know that he will be the replacement for that chimp, as Swanson, served faithfully by her creepy butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim) draw him into their world just like Dracula. In fact, her house, a decrepit mansion in the Italian Renaissance style, is a bit like Dracula’s castle, with rats in the swimming pool and Max playing haunted-house music on the organ.
But as with the best monsters, Norma Desmond is sympathetic. She was a huge star, now reduced to wallowing in her memories, surrounded by the trappings of her past life and living in a lie, fueled by Max, who duplicitously sends her fan letters. She’s been working on a script telling the story of Salome, and wants Cecil B. DeMille to direct. She offers Holden a job to help her finish it, and being desperate, he takes it. Even when she has all his belongings moved in, starts buying him expensive clothing, and he realizes he’s something of a prisoner, he stays. He hates himself too much to do otherwise.
Enter Betty Schaefer, played winsomely by Nancy Olson, a reader at Paramount who believes that Holden is capable of writing a good script. He starts collaborating with her on the sly, and they fall in love. But the controlling Desmond gets jealous, and does her best to break them up.
It’s interesting to watch this film and realize how edgy it really is. Wilder could have used fictionalized much of it, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t use a fictional student–it’s Paramount, and the recognizable Bronson Gate is used prominently (as is Schwab’s Pharmacy). Several real names are used, and several people appear as themselves, from Buster Keaton to Hedda Hopper to DeMille himself, who has an extended cameo in a great scene where he hosts Swanson as she appears, like Cleopatra on a barge, at her old stomping grounds. In fact, the casting of both Swanson and von Stroheim were both very close to the bone. Swanson was a huge silent-film star, but though her film career had been dormant, she had continued to work on stage and in radio. She was hired after Mae West, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri all passed. Von Stroheim’s situation was even more eerily similar, as we learn that not only did Max discover Desmond and direct her great pictures, but he was even her first husband. In one scene Max screens for Holden and Swanson one of Norma’s old pictures, and it is an actual Swanson film, Queen Kelly, that von Stroheim directed. It was a huge flop and helped end his directorial career. It was von Stroheim that suggested that Wilder use it.
The film has a great legacy, mostly in Swanson’s performance. It’s a very tricky business, as she must be totally over the top but rooted in some kind of reality, and she manages it brilliantly. Of course she has given drag queens everywhere material for a lifetime, mainly in three memorable lines: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small;” “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces;” and then her famous last scene, when she slowly moves down the staircase, surrounded by cops and gawkers, her mind totally gone, and she looks straight into the camera and says,”You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!… All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Incredibly, Swanson did not win the Oscar. She may have lost because in the same category was Bette Davis, playing a similar type in All About Eve, and they both lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. Holden, von Stroheim and Olson were all nominated, but the film won only three awards: for Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Musical Score (Franz Waxman). It lost Best Picture to All About Eve, a worthy competitor and surely there are no excuses necessary, but one wonders whether there were movie people who found Sunset Boulevard just a little too disturbing. The cynicism drips, mostly in Holden’s dialogue and voice-overs, such as when he remarks that he once wrote a picture about Okies in the Dust Bowl, only it ended up being played out on a torpedo boat, or when he pitches a baseball movie to an executive and he wonders aloud if it might be turned into a Betty Hutton vehicle. Of course, there was also the fairly obvious tawdry relationship between Norma and Gillis, most seedily exemplified by a scene in a men’s store in which Norma is outfitting him with expensive clothing. A salesman, who knows exactly what is going on, suggests that Gillis get the vicuna coat–after all, if the lady is paying for it, why not get the most expensive coat?
Though the film is about Hollywood, like any great film, a layer can be peeled back to reveal a greater and more universal theme. Swanson and Holden are figures locked together, doomed to destroy each other. But in the end, each of three characters gets what they want: Norma Desmond gets her return to film, even if it’s a slow descent into madness in front of newsreel cameramen; Max gets the chance to direct again, though it is Desmond’s mad scene; and Gillis gets that pool he always wanted.