Sunset Boulevard (1950)
When Billy Wilder unleashed his satirical masterpiece Sunset Blvd. on an unsuspecting audience in 1950 he was still coming off a career high with two Oscar wins for The Lost Weekend (1945), his tale of a chronic alcoholic. This time around, however, the Polish auteur dared to delve into the dark side of Hollywood, providing a tragicomic glimpse of the emotional toll the industry took on its fading stars — particularly its former female leads.
Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself trapped in a series of misadventures involving creditors, the last of which is a car chase that culminates in the accidental discovery of a ramshackle mansion. Once inside the oppressive house, Joe meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging former silent film star, and her solemn German butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). When Norma shows Joe a script she hopes will revitalize her career and act as her triumphant “return” to the silver screen, she enlists him as her screenwriter in exchange for money to pay off his numerous creditors. Lost in her delusions and inflated sense of self-worth, Norma showers Joe with money and finery — lavishing the man she believes will be her gateway back to fame and the open arms of Hollywood. Sunset Blvd.‘s themes of opportunism and fame — and its consequences — narrows in on what the world of movie-making is capable of doing to people whose entire sense of identity is enveloped in the business.
Often touted as one of the most accurate depictions of Hollywood ever put on film, Sunset Blvd. provides its viewers with a wealth of industry inside jokes and celebrity cameos. It’s a mercilessly black comedy that will make you cringe with discomfort mere moments after having made you laugh. Despite being released back in 1950, its musings on fame and the “immortality” of film stars is as relevant today as it was during Hollywood’s golden age. We see a variety of Norma Desmond’s in tabloids and via social media every day — people lost in a myth of their own creation.
Witnessing Joe Gillis fall victim to both Hollywood and the strange allure of Norma Desmond — and her promises of wealth and success — provides a gripping peek at the corruption of fame. He goes from sad-sack, struggling screenwriter looking to pay off debts, to well-groomed playboy luxuriating in the new opportunities that have come from his association with the former silent film star. When Joe once again feels that impulsive itch to construct his own original screenplay, he finds it’s difficult to pry himself from Norma’s ever-tightening grip. It’s the toxic relationship shared between these two leads that is most compelling. Both use the other for their own selfish purposes; their supposed friendship simply a smokescreen for their true motivations. Norma may be an unconventional femme fatale in the noir genre, but femme fatale she is, entrapping Joe in her narcissistic web. Despite both of their inflated egos, it’s Norma and her Hollywood upbringing that ultimately brings about both her own downfall and that of Joe. Sunset Blvd. is an old-fashioned morality tale centred on the corruption found behind the scenes in Hollywood. The fact that its message is still as resonant today as it was upon its initial release speaks volumes about Wilder’s expertly crafted study of the pitfalls of fame.
In the end, however, it’s not the fractured relationship between Norma and Joe, but the indelible image of Norma Desmond, descending that grand flight of stairs, draped in jewels, that becomes the physical embodiment of the dark side of the Hollywood machine. She creates her own mythology, recreates her long-forgotten successes. “The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her,” Joe reveals in his posthumous narration. The sun had set on her career long ago — for Norma, living in the past was still her current reality.
This seminal work in Wilder’s canon rightfully remains a revered piece of cinematic history.
Sunset Boulevard is available from Amazon.