Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) is one of the biggest and most luscious of film noirs, set in Hollywood among the decaying splendor of days gone by. It's a cynical celebration of the grand old days of movies, as well as an implication that they may not have been so grand after all. It was one of the first movies to take on filmmaking as anything other than a novelty or a profession (Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels was arguably the first.) The movie deals with some unsettlingly dark material, but Wilder treats it with just the right hint of black humor, but also lightens it up with images of "normal life," i.e. scenes with a pretty girl (Nancy Olson). It's an enduringly popular movie, and fairly easy to see at revival houses. Paramount released it on DVD in 2002 and again in 2008.
What It's About
Joe Gillis (William Holden) begins narrating his tragic tale while floating dead and face down in a Hollywood swimming pool. As a workaday screenwriter, he tries to avoid some bill collectors by pulling into the driveway of a dilapidated mansion. There he finds faded silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) still holding court. She draws him in, hiring him to write her big "comeback" script, Salome. He becomes her "kept boy," enjoying the money, but also having to endure her grotesque attempts at seduction. Her world is a stately and bizarre place, with her wheezy organ, her dead chimpanzee and her Austrian butler. He has some contacts with the outside world, but Joe may be in too deep to ever reach the outside world ever again.
Behind the Scenes
Writer/director Billy Wilder (1906-2002) was one of the most celebrated directors of his day, and remains so now. He began as a reporter in Vienna and moved to Berlin, where he made the transition to screenwriter. Like many with Jewish heritage, he escaped to the U.S. when Hitler came into power, and -- though he spoke no English -- he learned quickly and became a screenwriter in Hollywood. He helped write such classics as Ninotchka (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941), but -- like many screenwriters -- hated watching what other directors did to his work. In 1942, he made his directorial debut with The Major and the Minor. He's probably known primarily for comedies (Sabrina, Some Like It Hot, etc.), but he also made films noir, and almost everything he made had the same dark streak running through it, i.e. the crime films had a sense of humor, and the comedies had a slight cynicism. Wilder received a Best Director Oscar nomination for this, although he had already won once (for The Lost Weekend) and would win again (for The Apartment). He did win for Best Screenplay.
William Holden was the star of Sunset Boulevard; before this, he was young and considered a little on the "stiff" side, but this was a breakthrough for him, and he received an Oscar nomination. Over the years, he loosened up and became more comfortable onscreen, especially in movies like The Wild Bunch and Network. His love interest Nancy Olson had just broken into movies, and also received her first Oscar nomination on this movie. She appeared with Holden in another movie the same year, Union Station. Later, she merged more into television work, and apparently appeared just this year on Big Love.
Star Gloria Swanson was indeed an actress in many silent films. (Wilder reportedly went through a whole roster of aging actresses before settling on Swanson.) Her most noteworthy silent-era films include Cecil B. DeMille's Male and Female (1919), plus a few other films for DeMille, Sam Wood's Beyond the Rocks (1922, with Rudolph Valentino), Allan Dwan's Manhandled (1924), and Raoul Walsh's Sadie Thompson (1928). There's no question that Sunset Boulevard remains her most famous role, and that she might have been forgotten without it. She received her third Oscar nomination for it. Afterward, she worked mostly in television, until her death in 1983. Oddly, she was only 50 and playing 50 when she was cast in Sunset Boulevard. Nowadays there are plenty of famous actresses that age, and still looking good.
Swanson's most famous silent-era credit now comes as a direct result of Sunset Boulevard: Erich von Stroheim's Queen Kelly (1929). It's the film that Norma Desmond screens for her trapped writer Joe Gillis. It was a typical troubled Stroheim production, over budget and a clashing of egos. The finished product was never released in the U.S.A. and a compromised version opened in Europe. In the 1980s, Kino released a restored version (using photos and other archival materials), which is now available on DVD. Erich von Stroheim, of course, plays Norma's former director and butler in the film, and even he received an Oscar nomination for his performance. Stroheim had many famous roles as an actor, including in Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, but his greatness lies in his mad, expensive, volatile, directing career. It consisted of nine films, almost all of which were butchered or lost or compromised in some way. Greed (1924) remains the most famous and celebrated of these.
Wilder's co-writer Charles Brackett was his partner on thirteen films, Sunset Boulevard being the last of them. Cecil B. DeMille turns up, playing himself, and still at the top of his game, making his most expensive movies and biggest hits at Paramount. The great silent-era comedy director and star Buster Keaton turns up as one of Norma's "waxworks" at the card table. He has two lines: "Pass" and (sadly) "pass." Finally, a young actor named Jack Webb appears as Joe's pal Artie. Webb would go onto lasting fame a year later as the creator and star of the TV series "Dragnet."
The film was not listed among the top 20 box office earners of the year, though it's certainly a hit by today's standards. It received 11 Oscar nominations and won three (for Black-and-White Art Direction, Music and Screenplay). The big winner that year was All About Eve.
There's a small controversy over the actual title. A street sign is used for the title on the film itself, which reads "Sunset Blvd." Some purists insists that this is therefore the official title of the film, but I insist that it's Sunset Boulevard, which is the title Wilder chose for his script.
The Lure of the Underworld
Usually, a noir hero makes a bad choice that sends him running irrevocably down the wrong road, and it usually has something to do with either money or women. Joe's motivation is definitely money, and for him the lure of cash is so strong that he chooses the old harpy over the young cutie-pie. This is indicated early on, in one of my favorite scenes, as he tries to sell his latest script at a producer's office. Reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells him that she thinks a script should "say a little something," whereas Joe is just writing for the money. When he finally gets money and comfort, it's at the expense of his soul, and finally, his life.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. Norma is technically a femme fatale, although she may be the only one in history that lures with money and the promise of comfort rather than sex. She expects sex in exchange for her favors, but Joe is not lured by Norma's sex appeal. He could easily do without it.
Sunset Boulevard is unique in that it takes place in big, cavernous spaces, as well as the sunny streets of Hollywood, rather than cramped apartments and shadows. Norma's house is truly glorious, with its fancy ballroom, foyer and swimming pool. There are no shadows here, but there is a sense of decay and rot, a sense of age, cobwebs, disuse and disrepair. These kinds of things creep in at the edges of the film, and they're usually never more apparent than in the "real life" scenes of Betty and Cecil B. DeMille.
"I am big. It's the pictures that got small." - Norma
"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." - Norma
"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." - Joe (narrating)
"Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along." - Joe
What Was Said
"A great motion picture, marred only slightly by the fact that the authors permit Joe Gillis to take us into the story of his life after his bullet-ridden body is lifted out of Norma Desmond's swimming pool. That is a device completely unworthy of Brackett and Wilder, but happily it does not interfere with the success of Sunset Boulevard." - New York Times
"[A] stunning mixture of mannerism, smooth construction, and cleverly camouflaged hot air." - Manny Farber
"This brittle satiric tribute to Hollywood's leopard-skin past -- it's narrated by a corpse -- is almost too clever, yet it's at its best in this cleverness, and is slightly banal in the sequences dealing with a normal girl (Nancy Olson) and modern Hollywood." - Pauline Kael
"Billy Wilder's searing, funny, morbid look at the real tinsel beneath the phony tinsel... a tour de force for Swanson and one of Wilder's better efforts." - Don Druker, Chicago Reader
"Sunset Boulevard remains the best drama ever made about the movies because it sees through the illusions, even if Norma doesn't." - Roger Ebert
"Still the best Hollywood movie ever made about Hollywood." - Andrew Sarris, 2005