Film review by Jason Day of Sunset Boulevard, the classic Hollywood film noir about a failed screenwriter and his tangled relationship with a reclusive former star of silent movies. Starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson. Directed by Billy Wilder.
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Down on his luck and with the creditors yapping at his heels, struggling movie writer Joe Gillis (William Holden), previously a hot ticket in LaLa Land, calls in every favour to prevent him from returning to a poor job at a low rent newspaper in his native Ohio.
Whilst escaping the finance men, he happens upon the neglected, mouldering home of a former Hollywood Goddess. But Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has been waiting for someone such as him to help her spring back to her 1920’s heyday. She latches on to Joe to fine hone an epic comeback script she has nurtured for two decades. The scene is set for tension, manipulation and death.
Review, by Jason Day
I’ve waited 20 years for this call. Now DeMille can wait until I’m good and ready!
Sunset Boulevard made me fall in love with cinema when I first saw it as a 15 year old. It practically shaped me.
So why has it taken more than 20 years to write a review of it, when I’ve critiqued so many lesser efforts?
In short, so many great words have already been written by so many greater critics, and the film means so much to me personally, it felt criminal to put fingers to keyboard.
Still, here I go!
I’ve seen it umpteen times and forever talk it up when occasion arises, so forgive for quoting the dialogue in the sub-headings of this review.
I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!
First viewing Sunset as a guileless teen, I was gripped by the power, wit and imagination of the storyline, dumbstruck and dazzled by it’s visual beauty, my ears thrilled by the emotional quality of the music, amused and deeply moved by the acting.
But first and foremost Sunset had a wider influence on me. It formed a love for movies that were capable of transporting me out of the humdrum, grey existence in a grey Midlands town in England and, in some part, made me fantasise about the possibilities out there.
I too, wanted to be a screenwriter eking out a romantically impoverished existence in Los Angeles, struggling against ‘the man’ and the Hollywood machine. After all, movies get written by someone, so why not me?
Although that wasn’t to be, despite many attempts at screenwriting (and that’s another series of blogs!), my interested was piqued enough that I went on to study film and became a jobbing film critic and press officer. So, in a round about way, writing has gainfully employed me since first seeing Sunset and for that, I’ll forever be in its debt.
It was all very queer. But queerer things were yet to come.
So, with every other critic and his dog giving their pennuth on Sunset, what extra insight could I possibly add? Again, here I go!
There is perversity in this film too. When Joe first meets Norma, she mistakes him for the undertaker who will dispose of her dead chimp, the only real friend she has had for the past few decades. The ape’s arm drops from her massage table, as lifeless as his mistresses career.
Despite its surface glisten, this is a nasty, sour, penetratingly sarcastic film. Despite the use of irony to highlight the hypocrisy of modern-day Hollywood and the prejudice of the older set, the film revels and glories in abusing them all, using both to make a point.
Right from the start, we get a full-on visual taste of how disgusting it all is – appropriately enough, the first shot is of a roadside gutter. The film is thus primed to be laced with devastating, acidity throughout.
Take the use of wicked irony employed, most notable in how the film is cast and the characters portrayed.
We already know that in real life the following happened and mirrors Sunset‘s narrative and characters:
- Gloria Swanson, who plays faded silent movie star Gloria Swanson, really was one of the biggest actresses of the period. Returning from a sojourn in Paris where she made a movie in 1925, she telegraphed to her studio to ‘arrange an ovation’. Several thousand happily turned up
- Swanson became famous after making films directed by Cecil B DeMille. In Sunset, DeMille plays himself, as Norma’s former mentor
- Swanson’s career stalled shortly after the advent of sound (but, unlike Norma, this was not because of it)
- William Holden plays a struggling screenwriter formerly lauded for his talent. In reality, his Hollywood careers had been faltering since a stunning debut in 1939’s Golden Boy. Sunset revived his reputation and fortunes.
We also know that the unnamed silent movie Norma Desmond settles down to watch with Joe is the notorious Queen Kelly (1929). This legendary debacle was debauched that Swanson (as its producer) had to drastic action. Firing the director, she had to re-film the ending and hastily edit-out the tastier footage (part of it was set in a brothel…filmed with real prostitutes. I’ll let you imagine why she was so concerned on viewing the ‘rushes’).
Its inclusion in Sunset then is almost incredible because the director who was fired is cast in this film as the man who takes charge of the screening – Erich von Stroheim. Yes, Norma/Gloria’s butler. And it was von Stroheim who suggested, almost ordered Wilder used a clip of it.
Stroheim had a reputation for excess, perfection and hedonistic spectacle during his brief but monumental stint as a director of note in the 1920’s. Its strange that Swanson, hardly an angel herself in her personal life at that time, would be swayed to think a man such as he would deliver a pure, old fashioned, royal romance, but trust him she did.
Stroheim suffered a cataclysmic fall from grace after their film went on a limited release, only fully directing one other movie, so why want those memories resurrected, now he was back in the big time?
Was this an act of cinematic self-flaggelation? Did he want to torture himself a little bit, a punishing remembrance of things past?
Or was he just PR savvy, thinking of the publicity and column inches, his reputation mauled again, but gaining extra box office perching in the process?
Did he want to sock it Swanson, make her squirm whilst she settled herself, resplendent in the Oscar winning costumes designed for her?
Whatever the reason, as mournful butler Max, sad and depressive as the pipe organ in Norma’s gaudy living room, he is perfectly cast and achieves something that had eluded him in real-life for the past 20 years – a bona fide Hollywood hit.
Reduced to the role of a servant whom vainglorious Norma still has a use for, he is impeccably morose but hints at deep secrets throughout.
I’ve never looked better in my life. You know why? Because I’ve never been as happy in my life!
Despite such wicked insight, Sunset still holds on to touching moments of sensitivity.
Norma meets real-life epic movie director Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) who refers to her as “young fella”, as DeMille might have done in real life to during the years when he directed Swanson in a series of smash-hit social sex comedies (1919-1921).
There is an ocean of friendliness and respect between them, spanning the decades of estrangement, to make you wonder what type of movie DeMille would have made of the Salome script she peddles to him? Despite Joe’s caustic, dismissive review of it, it doesn’t sound any worse than the others DeMille made a mint from.
Wilder said in a later interview that there was a lot of Norma in Gloria Swanson and although the actress went on a gruelling road trip to promote the movie (in no doubt ensuring its box office success) she was also at pains to distance herself from the embarrassing nature of Ms Desmond.
She gives a performance of awesome physicality and vocal perfection, another irony. When roused, she fully utilises what seems like every piece of herself: her expressive eyes flash and glower; she raises her shoulders and points her head up at full tilt (belying her 4ft 11″ stature); the voice at first bellows, then softens to a girlish flirt, finally distanced, maddened.
She uses this awesome arsenal to moving and strange effect during the infamous “Close-up!” finale. As Norma finally waves goodbye to the sanity she had only just clung on to, she glides down her wending staircase, apparently toward her mentor on the movie set, but actually toward ravenous TV crews, reporters and police custody.
Despite her character being written as going gaga and living in a warped remembrance of the past, her psyche has some hold on the modern day. She dresses in modern day clothes (costumer Edith Head reasoned Desmond would have kept up with fashion trends. She later won an Oscar for her work) and knows the trendiest menswear shops in L.A.
There are further, superb performances. Joe’s sardonic, cutting humour, sharp observations and insights, continues the tradition in Wilder films of his screen character’s mirroring their creator. Holden’s rasping delivery perfectly suits the sarcasm that oozes from Joe’s mouth.
Turn around darling. Let me dry you!
The film’s eye on human sexual peccadilloes is wry and all observing. Wilder apprenticed under producer/director Ernst Lubitsch, former Chief of Production at Paramount and who made a name for himself with classy, innuendo-riddled comedies.
Forgive some Freudian slipping, but does Joe fuck Norma’s brain over the edge and into insanity? They make love for the first time after she attempts suicide and it’s a downhill spiral for her after that.
We find out much about Max and Norma’s former life toward the end of the film, making Max’s involvement in Joe’s installation as Norma’s younger stud uncomfortably bizarre and ‘cuckoldish’.
How could she breathe in that house, so crowded with Norma Desmond. More Norma Desmond. Still more Norma Desmond.
Production Designer Hans Dreier succinctly mirrors the script about how Norma’s Hollywood palazzo should look. Faded on the outside, “all satin, ruffles and silk” inside.
But the smaller aspects of the design are also noteworthy. The doors with no locks, essentially to keep people from ending Norma’s suicide attempts.
The dripping shower at the New Year’s Eve party signifying that Betty’s love for Arty, the Assistant Director who lops after her in the next room, oblivious as his pal Joey makes a move on his girl, is slowly fading out.
Costume designer Edit Head, like Dreier, also stopped an Oscar for correctly visualising Norma. Her clothes show that Norma, tellingly, has kept up with what were then modern fashion trends. So much for her hiding from the world for the past 20 years.
All right Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close up!
Much has already been written about the design of the film, Production Designer Hans Dreier’s use of “all satin and ruffles” in Norma’s bedroom and her living room stuffed to the chandeliers with publicity portraits of her.
As for the ending of the film, as Norma tumbles deep into the madness of her mind and Swanson steps into the firmament of Hollywood legend, diving into the camera for the most famous movie close-up of all time.
Can there be a movie where everything starts, proceeds and ends so tragically, miserably for everyone? We deal with madness, mayhem, murder, deception, delusion and death.
Is this a film I should recommend people see? Absolutely. Without a shadow of a doubt. If you haven’t already, see Sunset Boulevard. It could change your life, too.
Cast & credits
Director: Billy Wilder. Paramount.
Producer: Charles Brackett.
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr.
Camera: John F. Seitz.
Music: Franz Waxman.
Sets: Hans Dreier, John Meehan.
William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Franklin Farnum, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nillsen.