No other motion picture about Hollywood comes near Billy Wilder's searing, uncompromising and utterly fascinating portrait of the film community. Beneath it all is vanity, madness, murder, and a twisted obsession with filmdom's past. Wilder's work is a sardonic portrait of an aging silent
film star and a cynical young man who is engulfed by the demented siren's delusions.
The movie opens with a jolt: the bullet-riddled body of a young man is seen floating face down in the pool next to a mansion. The ghostly voice of Joe Gillis (William Holden) recounts the events leading up to his death, which are shown in flashback. A hack screenwriter, Joe is hounded by creditors
and desperate for cash. After failing to sell a script--his last hope--he's driving aimlessly when he spots a couple of repo men who are after his car. He speeds off, gets a flat, and pulls into the driveway of a dilapidated mansion, where he hears an arresting female voice calling down to him,
ordering him into the house. Max (Erich von Stroheim), a severe-looking, bald-headed butler, waves Joe inside, where he is shown into the august presence of silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). After lamenting the current state of the film industry, she offers Joe a job writing a
reworking of Salome, which she plans to use as a comeback vehicle. Joe knows it's a pipe dream, but he needs the work. The creepily seductive Norma insists that he stay with her while working on the script. Observed by Norma and the somber, silent Max, Joe becomes a virtual prisoner of the actress
and her strange past.
SUNSET BOULEVARD is Billy Wilder's sour, insightful critique of showbiz nostalgia--the myths by which a tawdry, profit-driven industry has managed to define itself as a dream machine of unfailing glamour. Essentially satirical, the film works equally well for those fans who read it as
straightforward melodrama, largely because of Swanson's remarkable performance. This was a comeback for Swanson, who achieved what her tragic character in SUNSET BOULEVARD could not. Yet the attention she received upon her return to Hollywood still couldn't match the adulation lavished on Swanson
in the 1920s, when tens of thousands turned out to cheer her in mammoth parades. Swanson was thus in a singular position to empathize with her character's longing for Hollywood's past glories. As Norma says: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces then." There is much of Norma Desmond that is
Swanson. Not only did she allow Wilder to exploit her hard-earned image, but she let him incorporate her silent career, including footage of her work in von Stroheim's QUEEN KELLY, into the film. Swanson, however, was never the neurotic, mentally disturbed creature that Norma is off-screen. Before
Swanson was chosen, Wilder and producer-coscenarist Charles Brackett talked about the possibility of using Mary Pickford, Mae Murray, Pola Negri, or even Mae West as Norma. It is unlikely that any of them could have come close to the magnificent performance given by Swanson, whose penetrating,
courageous grasp of the character astounded critics, public, and peers. In 1989, SUNSET BOULEVARD was selected by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as one of 25 landmark films, leading examples of American cinematic art. leave a comment