Sunset Boulevard

Stories of Hollywood greed and excess are told all the time in those glossy schlock magazines from the 1950s like Confidential, or whatever its equivalent is today (no doubt I’ve seen it at the grocery store without knowing it). They’re as associated with Old Hollywood as orgies with the dynasties of Maharajas or debaucheries of silk and scented oil and STDs with the palaces of Caesar. Only the monarchs are different: we have for our old gods insouciant Errol Flynn by the pool, twinkly Chaplin on the piano, Gloria Swanson in a glittering castle.

The brilliance of Sunset Boulevard is that no matter what Norma Desmond does, director Billy Wilder gives the viewer her sense that this decadence is some lost paradise. No matter when you watch the film, the mythic pretension of those silent icons retains its indescribable allure, like a tale from Caesar’s palace retold in a medieval slum. Wilder focuses less on the excess itself, as he might today include elaborate flashback sequences, than on the desire to relive it in the gilded mausoleum in which Desmond buries her living self. “They took the idols and smashed them,” she says, as she rues the day the commandments of sound ended life’s greatest party.

Well, what did they replace them with? Joe Gillis (William Holden) makes a pitch to a producer mogul about a lame baseball movie with all the easy targets. “Trite,” someone calls it. Gillis gives us the context we need: “One of the message kids,” he says, weary but unsurprised to be so, “Just a story won’t do. You’d have turned down Gone With the Wind.” Wilder has something to say about Hollywood, and keeps finding more things to say. Sunset Boulevard was submitted for approval only a few pages at a time and one wonders if it’s because Wilder didn’t know where it was going or that he didn’t want the producers to know; filming began before it was fully written. Louis B. Mayer saw the film and called for Wilder to be tarred and feathered. “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” Wilder was in deep for this one.

Sunset Boulevard is a drama about the movies, but it comes to resemble a monster film as it goes on. Self-absorption is the monster and Hollywood is the evil scientist. Joe Gillis (William Holden) fulfills the role of the young damsel captivated by the creature’s dangerous allure, but he does so as a writer, owing to the nature of this particular creature. When viewed this way, we can more clearly see the pathos unfold from Gloria Swanson’s self-parody as the silent star, Norma Desmond. As in a creature feature, the ultimate hero is a man of experience, who allows us to see the monster for its true nature. Hers is to love herself.

And our man of experience is not Gillis but Erich von Stroheim as the butler, Max von Mayerling. His sad, idolatrous eyes and outbursts of fandom give us the Desmond that used to be. Through him, we understand how Gillis can become trapped in her spell, how this butler can go on loving her through service, how DeMille can’t bear to shatter her illusions, and even how Desmond herself can remain this charming, sleepwalking narcissus, like Rapunzel crossed with Miss Havisham. When Max recalls the Maharaja that begged for her silk stocking and strangled himself with it, when he says that, “She was the greatest of them all,” we believe him because we believe Wilder. It’s as emotionally justifying as when Carl Denham looks at King Kong’s monstrous body and says the famous line, “Twas beauty killed the beast.”

Swanson interacts with her own history. Cecil B. DeMille plays himself, both Desmond’s and Swanson’s director, as Wilder uses these old daguerreotypes to blur realities (we even see DeMille filming Samson and Delilah with Hans Dreier, the production designer responsible for Desmond’s mansion, playing his art director). Desmond plays bridge with “the waxworks,” as Gillis calls them, including H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton, who sold his soul to chew other people’s scenery in bad sound films for decades (now he’s even less: a parody not of himself but of that decision). In a scene that most literalizes the 16mm shrine Desmond has nested in, she leers at footage from a Swanson silent called Queen Kelly, in which a handsome prince vies for her love. Max, her ex-husband, runs the projector as Desmond, lit intensely in a villainous silver crackle, gestures to her past self as the acolyte of some unknowable myth (Max still knows).

This ends up being the most important scene in the movie. Here in a detail, Wilder throws the stage lights onto the whole Hollywood cabaret, for the director of Queen Kelly is Stroheim, and the tragi-comedy becomes too cruelly real.

“There were three young directors who showed promise in those days,” Max says, “D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max Von Mayerling.” If by Mayerling we mean Stroheim, this isn’t far off. His presence keeps us on a perfect edge because he makes Desmond more than crazy. She was as good as she says. She was that beautiful. Her yearning after another age might even be justified. You leave Sunset Boulevard with a need to see a film about faces, and not just voices. If you look up Queen Kelly when you get home, you might be horrified to see its director: a sad, forgotten man who cared too much to work well with others, whose greatest film was cut up beyond recognition (those who saw his nearly eight-hour cut of Greed called it the best film ever made), whose best achievement now is perhaps the film in which he regrets himself.

Wilder hides tons of visual prowess beneath these self-references, which threaten to take over any discussion of the movie. The Desmond mansion seems to operate under different rules of lighting. Swanson, framed by a Gothic shimmer, harsh, wild-eyed, becomes a personality of such visual focus in her own house that it seems like the silent movies really do still exist in there. Outside, the focus is typical, the lighting real enough on Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) to allay any suspicion of an Expressionist’s influence, as she and Gillis walk the plain streets of a movie set against a canvas sky, a movie that feels like it’s trying too hard to be real (“I like it better than any street in the world,” she says). Then, Gillis passes back into the mansion as moving shadows swallow him up.

I’ve neglected to describe the star, narrator, love interest, and protagonist until now, because he’s a fulcrum in Sunset Boulevard against which the real personalities push and lift. Holden plays Gillis with self-loathing uncharacteristic of a handsome leading man (he was wilier even as the down-on-his-humanity prisoner of war in The Bridge on the River Kwai). Here he has a caustic certainty about his own worthlessness, seeing Desmond’s insanity as an amusing punishment for being himself. Even to Swanson’s innocent pantomime of a bathing girl or of her impression of the lopsided little Tramp (you may remember this scene being played for an age gap in reverse in Leon: The Professional), he’s not horrified by her self-parody but bemused, even drawn in by her blindly youthful spirit. At the beginning of the film, he refuses her money out of self-defiance; by the time he allows her to pay him, you know he’s already lost.

Swanson at 50 isn’t even that old. You catch yourself thinking she’s still beautiful in the lighter moments, even those hued by tragedy. She throws a gala for Gillis and herself on the polished floor Rudolph Valentino danced; momentarily, they even look good together. You have to wonder what that band is thinking, likely paid too much to turn waltzes into surreal funeral marches and ask no questions about the craggy butler, or the twenty year age gap or, indeed, where Valentino has gone.

Wilder might have written Hollywood a just comeuppance in a filthy tabloid of a film. Instead, he throws us the view of the spectral Mayerling, who directs one last picture for his fractured lover. He casts magnifiers on Desmond. He picks her self-obsession into farcical little fragments, but he can’t destroy her. By the end, she isn’t just ready for her close-up—we’re hauntingly ready to receive it. Her obsession with blowing money, printing things in leopard, finding a younger man to maintain her self-confidence, these are symptoms of the monstrous self-obsession that through Mayerling, Wilder reminds us is a reaction to beauty, even that which we’ve been sold to amuse ourselves with. Anyone could have disproved what Max said about her being the greatest at finding the emotion behind the beauty; only Wilder could have made us believe it too. You end up feeling like Barbara Stanwyck at the film’s private premier, who was around that time the highest-paid woman in the United States and one of the most bankable stars, kissing Swanson’s skirt in reverence. Swanson asked for Mary Pickford, the single greatest female star of the silent era. "She can't show herself, Gloria,” someone replied. “She's too overcome. We all are.”

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Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Billy Wilder

Charles Brackett

Billy Wilder

D.M. Marshman Jr.

Joe Gillis William Holden
Norma Desmond Gloria Swanson
Max von Mayerling Erich von Stroheim
Betty Schaefer Nancy Olson
Sheldrake Fred Clark
Morino Lloyd Gough
Artie Green Jack Webb

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