The Hollywood of the 1950s was a fascinating time from the perspective of movie fans. It was a period of innovation, upheaval, recrimination and soul searching. The decade counts as my favourite (although the 1940s runs it a close second) due to the consistent quality of product that it rolled out. It was very much a transitional era, when television would mount a serious and sustained assault on the movies in its effort to become the predominant medium for mass entertainment. When combined with the increasingly paranoid political climate, the looming break up of the studio system, and the fact that a new generation of filmmakers were beginning to assert themselves a certain maturity could be seen developing. As in all aspects of life, maturity often brings reassessment, an examination of self. So it’s hardly surprising that the 1950s saw a number of pictures where Hollywood turned the lens back upon itself. Sunset Boulevard (1950) – along with later examples such as The Bad and the Beautiful and The Big Knife – saw Billy Wilder casting a jaundiced eye over the industry.
The Hollywood of Sunset Boulevard is a far cry from the glittering glory days of the 20s, despair and the fear of failure having replaced the opulence and optimism of the early years. This is the world Joe Gillis (William Holden) inhabits; both his apartment and car are beyond his means while his career as a screenwriter has ground to a virtual halt. With the debts piling up, his attempts at hawking his hackneyed scripts coming to nothing and the repo men breathing down his neck, a sudden blow out on a tyre sees him taking an unscheduled detour into the driveway of a crumbling mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Despite appearances, this isn’t just some derelict throwback. It’s the home of former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), living in decaying splendour with her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), as her sole companion. To a man like Gillis, faced with the humbling prospect of slinking back to Ohio with his tail between his legs, Norma Desmond represents a second bite at the cherry. Cocooned from the modern world by both her wealth and the careful attention of Max, she has allowed her delusions to run wild and convinced herself that the world is waiting with baited breath for her return to the screen. She even has a script prepared, a retelling of the tale of Salome with her, naturally, playing the lead. When Gillis is offered the job of editing her screenplay into something presentable, he senses an opportunity; he knows it’s ludicrous trash but a drowning man will grasp at anything. Thus he finds himself drawn ever deeper into a macabre world as Norma’s companion, plaything and muse. Yet despite the comforts of his new lifestyle, Gillis finds himself repelled by the parasitic, introspective existence he’s tangled up in. The more Norma’s dependence on and love for Gillis grows, the greater is his need to break free of his gilded cage and return to the living. The stifling, closeted world of Norma, Max and Gillis can be seen as a microcosm of Hollywood itself: a self-contained community whose members readily humiliate and lie to themselves in order to perpetuate a dream, ultimately losing touch with that blurred line between fantasy and reality.
I adore the films of Billy Wilder. His caustic take on life could strip characters and situations right down to the bone. Yet he also understood people, understood what made them tick and he sympathised with them. Even his grotesques and monstrosities have a human heart that can be wounded. For all the dark sourness of Sunset Boulevard, the main characters are all fully rounded people who earn our compassion at one point or another. Wilder doesn’t ask the viewer to stand in judgement of these damaged individuals but rather his criticism is levelled at the system that has brought them to this pitiful state. Even here, his vision of Hollywood is a complex one; on the one hand, he paints a depressing picture of the hazards of living in the past and subsisting on former glories, while he also takes merciless shots at the ephemeral nature of the motion picture business and its fondness for forgetting its roots and those who made it what it is. The film is full of innuendo and references: Norma sitting playing bridge with the ‘waxworks’ (Buster Keaton et al) and watching herself in Queen Kelly while Max runs the projector. The latter is a wonderful touch when you bear in mind that von Stroheim’s directing career came to an end when that film ran into difficulties – the irony becoming even more shocking when the true nature of Max and Norma’s relationship is revealed later on. And in the midst of all the tragedy and bitterness, there are moments of marvellous black humour too: Gillis arriving on the very day Norma’s pet chimp is to be laid to rest; one monkey coming to replace another.
Sunset Boulevard is one of those movies where almost everything seems to blend seamlessly. The script and direction are full of riches but the performances of the three lead players hold it all together. William Holden was a good choice as Gillis, the former golden boy whose career was just starting to languish must surely have identified with the character of the struggling writer. Superficially, Gillis may appear the least complex of the trio but there a number of sides to him. He’s both a chiseler and a dupe, initially weaseling his way into Norma’s household but then failing to appreciate how much she has come to love him. He’s also a cynic (his floating corpse’s narration is loaded with hard boiled idiom) while remaining a kind of noble innocent, his final actions being motivated by a sense of personal honour as much as anything else. Erich von Stroheim’s Max is a very restrained portrait of selfless devotion. I don’t want to say more than that in case anyone hasn’t seen the film – his conversation with Gillis in the shadow drenched garage is a powerful and quite shocking reveal that shouldn’t be spoiled. What I will say is that while all that stony Germanic reserve remains intact throughout the film, his eyes convey perfectly the depth of his feelings for his mistress. However, the real star of the show is unquestionably Gloria Swanson. Her features have all the dramatic expressiveness that befit a veteran of the silents and it’s entirely appropriate that she should make use of this quality in the context of the character she plays. Norma Desmond is a woman who’s never really moved on from her heyday in the 1920s, and Swanson’s incorporation of silent techniques into her performance captures that. There’s a larger than life theatricality about her because that’s the way Norma Desmond sees herself. Additionally, Swanson nails the brittle vulnerability of a woman who’s balanced on the very edge of reason. The final scene may well be a famous one, but it’s Swanson who ensures that its fame is justified.
Generally, I write about movies that I’ve been watching at home. In this case, however, I had the pleasure of seeing Sunset Boulevard projected on the big screen at an outdoor cinema in Athens last night. There’s always something that bit special about seeing classics presented the way they were supposed to be viewed, and it was particularly enjoyable to be part of a full house too. There was a very nice and clean print used – the old R1 DVD (I can’t speak for the newer Centennial Edition) from Paramount is said to suffer from compression issues, although I can’t say I ever noticed anything especially bad about it. The movie is easily one of Willder’s best in a long line of first class pictures – rewarding, satisfying and oozing class.