A screenwriter develops a dangerous relationship with a faded film star determined to make a triumphant return.
Sunset Blvd marks Billy Wilder’s fourth appearance on the American Film Institute’s “100 Greatest Films” list, and rightfully so. I’ve argued repeatedly that there are too many Western’s on this list, but I would also argue that there’s never enough Billy Wilder. That man, time and time again, has proven that his films should be on this list. I can’t think of many directors who understood drastically different genres the way that Wilder did. From Noir, to Drama, to Comedy, to Romance, that man knew what he was doing. He knew to play to his actor’s strengths and 1950s Sunset Blvd is no exception.
Starring William Holden as Joe Gillis, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, Erich von Stroheim as Max von Mayerling and Nancy Olsen as Betty Schafer, Sunset Blvd is as relevant today as it was back in 1950. Joe Gillis is a down on his luck screenwriter who is desperate for a project. He meets Norma Desmond, by accident, and she shows him the screenplay she wrote for her big return to the silver screen. Gillis, being flat broke and being chased down by creditors, sees this as not only a career opportunity, but a personal one, as well. Norma won’t allow the screenplay to leave her vast mansion, so Gillis’ belongings are promptly moved in. Rather quickly Gillis notices the large attachment Norma has to him, and it begins to become dangerous when Gillis starts to work with one of the Studio Script Readers, Betty Schafer. Turns out Norma is a jealous woman.
The true nature of the film industry is commented on in Sunset Blvd. Even in the 1950s, they knew that it was a toxic environment. There’s a line in the film regarding how old Norma Desmond must be, with Cecil B DeMille himself responding:
First assistant director: [about Norma Desmond] She must be a million years old.
Cecil B. DeMille: I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father.
In the realm of the film, which borders between fiction and nonfiction as real life silent film icons play themselves, Norma can’t get a job. Nobody will hire her because she’s “old” now. The irony is that this very thing happened to Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma. Even worse, Gloria Swanson was only 51 years old when this film was released. The character of Norma Desmond is only in her 50s and can’t get work. Meanwhile, DeMille, who was the very reason for Desmond’s career, was still working. The industry still wanted him. Things have gotten better now, but by no means are they great. I mean, for goodness sake, when Meryl Streep turned 50 she was offered three different witch roles. What does that say about what the industry thinks of women?
Sunset Blvd.’s other staying power is the remarkable writing. With lines like the one below to describe Norma Desmond’s sprawling mansion:
Joe Gillis (as narrator): The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.
Or even the line by DeMille, explaining Norma’s mental state: “You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”
And those aren’t even the most well known lines from the film. Writers Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr, and Wilder just filled the script with clever dialogue and genius descriptions.
“Coiled up like a watch spring”
Gloria Swanson clearly pulled from her own experience as a once huge silent film star to fully bring Norma Desmond to life. Most impressive, I think, is how Swanson shows Desmond becoming more and more unhinged. It truly becomes hard to see where Gloria Swanson ends and Norma Desmond begins. Her performance is truly iconic and timeless.
It’s the small character touches that truly make this film, like Norma showing distaste for the microphone that hits her feather.
Billy Wilder is a director who’s countless films have stood the test of time and I don’t see his films being off this list any time soon.
Now, please join me in watching one of the sadder, more unsettling classic film endings there is: