Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich Von Stroheim
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Director: Billy Wilder
I’ve always wondered what happens to actors and actresses who are no longer relevant. There are some who have managed to stay pretty current throughout the years. But a few of them like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence fall into despair if they are not careful. It has happened before. Look at John Travolta for example. In the 70’s the man had a slew of hits like “Grease” and Saturday Night Fever“. Only to be forgotten about for several years. He had a resurgence in the mid 90’s with movies like “Pulp Fiction“and “Get Shorty” which brought him some sort of a resurgence, but what if he never made those films. Would he have fallen into the same hysteria like mindset as our silent movie star does in this movie. Very doubtful, but it’s easy to see someone in that profession becoming slightly off hinged.
The story of “Sunset Blvd” is not just about the downfall of one such actress. It’s also about a murder. Our Main narrator in this guide to Hollywood is Joe Gills(William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who just cant catch a break. He can barely pay his rent, and most days are spent hiding his car from various repo men. While on the run he finds what he thinks is a garage at an abandoned house, but soon discovers that it’s the home to silent screen star Norma Desmond(Gloria Swanson). When movies began using sound in their pictures. The stars of silent ones start to become obsolete, but not Norma. She still believes that she is the same big star as always.
“I am big” she says to Joe when she first meets him. “It’s the pictures that got small”
Once Miss Desmond finds out that Joe is a screenwriter, she invites him to stay and help her out with a screenplay that she’s been writing. He’s reluctant at first, but soon accepts when the promise of money becomes easily available. As time moves on, Joe discovers that Norma is becoming more and more unstable. Her friendship with him is one that I’m sure has been based with others and that is money. She buys him all these things, but never gets to know him personally or his life outside her home. It’s like she wants to treat him as a token of her early glory years. She is using him because of his connections with the new Hollywood. At the same time he is using her for her wealth and lifestyle. They are for better or worse, whores of the system. Her butler Max(Erich von Stromheim) sees to Norma’s every whim and helps keep the fantasy about her alive. He has a quite disturbing secret which I will not share, but it does help explain her state of mind a little bit more. It wasn’t uncommon for many actors and actresses who were big in the silent era to not have much of a career when movies started using sound. Gloria Swanson herself was at one time a big silent screen star and to see her play this role of an actress who in actuality has been forgotten about. That had to be tough for her. There is one scene where she is playing cards with a few of her friends and one of them looked like Buster Keaton. At first I thought it was just a look alike. But I remembered seeing his name listed in the opening credits. The man who has beeen reguarded for years as a comedy pioneer has now been reduced to a small non speaking role in this movie. That too is a brave bold choice for an actor and I can’t imagine most today would do that without a hefty price being attached. Even director Cecil D. DeMille( who plays himself in the movie) as well as Mr. Von Stroheim(who was also a well known filmmaker) I’m sure had to feel a bit surreal that they were playing these parts in a movie that was fictional but also felt realistic. If you are not familiar with movies or television from this time period. You may think that some of the performances are over acting just a bit. I think that it went well with the nature of melo dramas that were used constantly during that time. Also a character like Norma Desmond would be over the top because she had to use a lot of high levels of emotion during her silent era because they relied on just her face.
Next to “Sunset Blvd” the only other movie that I would recommend that does a good job with satirizing Hollywood and it’s stars was Robert Altman’s “The Player“(click link to read the review over at Your Face). However that one is more about a murder then this one is. I did mention earlier that this story does feature one, but it’s not the main appeal. You already know what happened right from the start, and the enjoyment could be figuring out why. Yet it’s the story about Norma Desmond that makes it captivating. She is both a villain and a victim. The system that helped create this woman, has also damned her as well. It’s an entertaining and disturbing look into the lifestyle of fame and the price some will pay to obtain it.
A nice write up. I once went to a screening with my daughter at the Archlight in Hollywood, afterwards we pulled out of the parking lot, drove two blocks north and there was Joe Gillis’ Apartment building, looking exactly like it did in the early scenes of the film. Only in Hollywood.
That would have been pretty cool to see.I forgot how many set pieces were actual landmarks. Thanks for the comments
I finally saw this film back in November as one of my Blind Spots as I was blown away by it and I hope to do more Billy Wilder in the years to come. It’s a film that is full of style and not afraid to take shots at Hollywood.
I completely agree.
Thank you both for the comments . Movies today dont poke fun of Hollywood like they use to. Its like they are afraid to do so.
I haven’t seen this one. Like so many other classics. But it is on my list of flicks to catch someday. Hopefully I like it as much as you. Sounds like I probably will. Comedy. Scene chewing exaggeration. Interesting characters. Feels like my sort of movie. 🙂
Great review, Vern.