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Sunset Boulevard

Directed by Billy Wilder with Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper, black and white, 110 minutes, 1950

"those wonderful people out there in the dark"

Sunset Boulevard vhs tape cover

Cover of Sunset Boulevard VHS tape

By Carter B. Horsley

When we think "Gothic," we conjure cavernous, resonant and dark spaces with mysterious images and powerful symbolism.

"Sunset Boulevard" is the most "Gothic" of films, a fascinating study of pathos, ambition, disappointment, and the netherworld between reality and dreams.

It is about life gone awry.

It is the black pearl of film noir, a macabre movie whose decadent glamour and despair are memorably haunting.

It is brutal at times but also gentle.

It is about fame and foibles, hubris and homage.

It is very sophisticated about Hollywood and the movie business, but it is also three interrelated love stories.

Everything about the film works - the direction, the casting, the music, the script and the sets.

The result is a masterpiece but not because all the parts work so well, but because of the transcendent performances of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a great star of the silent film who lives in a mansion on Sunset Boulevard where Rudolph Valentino once danced, and Erich von Stroheim as Max, her servant. Their characters are regally flamboyant and their performances are luminous and unforgettable. No one else could have played their parts so authentically, so authoritatively and so awesomely. (Although the movie has not been remade, it was the source for an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical of the same name with Glenn Close playing Swanson's role.)

Swanson was a great star of the silent era as was von Stroheim and their extraordinary performances are among the greatest in film history: histrionic, stylized, majestic, very forceful and mesmerizing. These are not common mortals. Their theatrical presences reflect not passion, but vision, albeit a vision clouded by the myths of self-importance, youth, and immortality. Swanson is all arched brows and crooked hands. She has a cigarette-holding ring and guzzles champagne. She imperiously gestures and commands. Her world is mostly confined to the exotic, lush interiors of her mind and mansion, but she has divorced herself from the real world and has been working on a screenplay about Salome for a comeback on the silver screen in a movie she expects will be directed by Cecil B. Demille, who had directed her years before and in fact plays himself in the movie.

In a remarkably bold stroke of casting genius by director Billy Wilder, Swanson and von Stroheim's real life careers reverberate in this movie as she had starred in "Queen Kelly," a silent film that was directed by Erich von Stroheim and in one scene in this movie a scene from it is played. At one point, von Stroheim's character, Max von Mayerling tells Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, that there were three great directors of silent films, D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and Max von Mayerling, but in reality Max von Mayerling was Erich von Stroheim. In his "jiminycritic" review of the film, Jon Kern notes that "The sly inclusion of Queen Kelly was not some sadistic joke by Wilde, but a suggestion from Von Stroheim." "Queen Kelly" was a notorious failure that pretty much ended the acting career of Swanson and the directing career of von Stroheim, who did continue in films but as an actor.

If Swanson's eccentric role is rather two-dimensional, albeit riveting, William Holden's is more perplexing and, true to film noir mores, his protagonist is far from perfect.

The film starts with titles that are slanted backwards and we hear sirens and see cars rushing into a driveway. There are many police and members of the press on the lushly landscaped grounds and the camera moves toward the swimming pool where a man in a suit is floating face down. The camera switches to a view upwards from the bottom of the pool to the drowned body of the man, Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, whose voice-over we have been listening to. It is a stunning visual image and a startling introduction to the movie, one of the best in film history. What then follows is a straight-forward, conventional flashback that becomes a long narrative that takes up most of the movie to explain how Holden got into the pool.

We quickly discover that Gillis is about to have his car repossessed and is desperate to raise $300 to keep it. He makes the rounds to hit on a few friends for a loan but we learn that his career as a screenwriter is not flying high. He eventually visits a producer, Sheldrake, played by Fred Clark, to try to pitch a story but when a "reader," Betty Schaefer, played by Nancy Olson, is summoned by him for her opinion she dismisses it quickly and decisively not realizing that Gillis is in the same room. Driving home, Gillis spots the car repossessors at a traffic light and they give chase and he loses them by pulling into the driveway of a mansion on Sunset Boulevard. He parks in the car in the garage of what appears to be an abandoned mansion but is suddenly confronted by a servant with a German accent who summons him inside where the owner mistakes him for an undertaker who had been called to take care of her dead chimpanzee.

Gillis explains that he is not the undertaker but merely a writer and is about to be summarily dismissed when Swanson tells him to stay and look at a script she has been working on. Holden, impressed by the surroundings, recognizes from a large portrait on the wall that Desmond was a very famous star of the silent films, Norma Desmond. "You used to be big," he remarks. "I am big. It's the pictures that got small," Desmond retorts. " "I knew there was something wrong with them," Gillis replies.

Coaxed with champagne and the fact that he has nothing better to do and needs money, he agrees to say on to look at it. He quickly realizes that the script is a vehicle for the old star's comeback and remarks that it needs some work. She asks if he could do it and he agrees, but not before stating that he is expensive. She then arranges for him to stay at the mansion. He's not crazy about the idea of staying at the mansion, but heeds the money, which she obviously has. He works on the script and before long she buys him a new wardrobe. He is a little embarrassed and hesitant to accept, but give in, only to soon realize that his new patron may have romantic interests in him that he does not reciprocate.

He leaves one night in a huff, and a tuxedo, and visits one of his old pals, who is having a party and is delighted to see him. He asks if he can stay over for a few days and is happy when his friend, played by Jack Webb, who would go on a successful television career as the star of "Dragnet," agrees, but then is taken aback when he introduces him to his fiancé, who is the reader who had crushed his ego with her devastating critique of his script. Still irked by her criticism he is rather snide with her but stops short of being very rude. He returns to the mansion where he succumbs to Swanson's advances in an ambiguous scene that, given the censorship of the period, only suggests that they had an affair by having him not recoil from her embrace.

Detail of back of Sunset Boulevard VHS tape

Detail from back of VHS tape showing film poster and Gloria Swanson and William Holden

Gillis becomes a "kept" man, a gigolo. It is by accident and not intentional. He was not a gold-digger, but he was in desperate financial straights and had come to the sad conclusion that he was merely a hack writer of unimportant movies and should return to his former journalism career in the Midwest.

Interestingly, most critics concentrate mostly on the fabulous performances of Swanson and von Stroheim and tend to minimize Holden's performance, despite noting that it elevated him to major stardom. His character is blasé and bitter, resigned and remorseful, pained and panicked, but he still has humor, albeit often snide and sardonic, and the spark of romance has not flickered out.

When he realizes that Desmond's script assignment is his key to survival, if not salvation, he is bemused by this odd stroke of luck, but when he subsequently gives in Swanson's romantic overtures, he is exhausted, a condition rarely examined in the movies. His defenses are down. His resources are empty. His will has fled. He has no heart and is not searching for his soul. Circumstances have conquered. His destiny is in the hands of others. His Hollywood career has not flourished and he is wilting, quickly.

Many critics regard "Sunset Boulevard" mainly as a dark or black comedy, a biting parody of the paradise known as Hollywood and while it certainly offers an "insider's" view of the movie industry and its the perils of its "fame" machine, "Sunset Boulevard" is much, much more. It is a parable about the illusions of celebrity, the delusions of ambition, and the erosion of egoes. Holden, who would become the no-nonsense, sensible, capable, All-American hero of "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Stalag 17," "Executive Suite," "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," "The Wild Bunch," "The Counterfeit Traitor" and "Network," just to mention a few of his more famous subsequent movies, could match his extremely good looks with anyone but always was something of a reluctant hero, a man without a rigid agenda and rules. While one never doubted his strength, he had a puzzling, and very human, vulnerability. His persona would be inherited, to a large extent, by Paul Newman although Newman's personalities usually would have stronger motivations and drives.

Holden here is no match for the larger-than-life, big-screen characters of Swanson and von Stroheim and yet without him their stories would seem too contrived, too artificial, too surreal. Holden's performance treads the fine line between caricature and tragedy and Wilder's direction, along with the marvelous script by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., hold it all together marvelously to create a loving, resonant epic of human fraility and foibles.

Swanson is dominating, von Stroheim is subservient and Holden is laconic. Such descriptions, of course, suggest a negative temperament, yet these characters are not bereft of honor and nobility, at least in their pride, their memories, their dreams. They still aim for art, even if they often miss the mark.

While Gillis is sarcastic about Desmond's "waxworks" friends, including one played by Buster Keaton, he accepts her lavish gifts. In his fine review of the film, Roger Ebert remarks that "The thing about Norma is that life with her isn't all that bad. She isn't boring. Her histrionics and dramaturgy are entertaining , and she has a charming side, as when she stages a pantomine for Joe, playing a Max Sennett bathing girl, and then doing a passable version of Chaplin's tramp." Ebert observes that Gillis's character "at some subterranean level" is content to be a "prisoner," and perhaps even enjoys it.

It is easy to understand Desmond's interest in Gillis for Holden's looks were those of a "golden boy." While his interest in her is primarily financial, he is certainly beguiled by her life-style and one of the most brilliant aspects of the movie is its casual serendipity, life is full of surprises, not all of them bad, at least at first blush. Luck and chance do make a difference.

In his fine and lengthy review of the film, Tim Dirks notes that Desmond's mansion belonged in reality at one point to J. Paul Getty, but was on Wilshire Boulevard at Irving Boulevard and the site is now occupied by a Getty office building, but the mansion's pool was used in "Rebel Without a Cause" in 1955.

Gillis sees rats playing in the empty pool, but Desmond promises to fill it up and to open up her beach house as well, all an effort to accommodate him.

Gillis sneaks out and goes to a party at his friend's apartment only to find that his fiancé is none other than the reader, Betty Schaefer, who turned thumbs down on his screenplay. She tries to encourage him and decides to help him on one of his former scripts that she liked and he begins to sneak out of the Sunset Boulevard mansion to work with him, albeit not without some mixed feelings about the fact that they are attracted to each other.

He decides to call the mansion and tell Max to pack his bags only to learn that Desmond has slit her wrists. Gillis returns and tells her "What kind of a silly thing was that to do?" "To fall in love with you - that was the idiotic thing," Desmond replies. "It should would have made attractive headlines - Great star kills herself for unknown writer." "Great stars have great price," Desmond remarks. Gillis then tells her that he had made up what he had told her about having a girl firend and tells her that "You've been good to me, you're the only person in this stinking town that has been good to me."

Gillis continues to work on Desmond's script, but also on his own with Betty. Desmond thinks that DeMille, whom she visits on the Paramount set, is interested in her script but he and Max hide from her the fact that his office had called to ask to use her very impressive Isotta-Fraschini touring car.

Gillis tells Max that they are not "helping her any, feeding her lies and more lines...What happens when she finds out?" "She never will," replies Max, adding that "That is my job and it has been for a long time. You must understand, I discovered her when she was sixteen. I made her a star and I cannot let her be destroyed...I directed all her early films. There were three young directors who showed promise in those days: D. W. Griffith, Cecil B.Demille, and Max von Mayerling." Gillis, somewhat taken about, remarks that "she's turned you into a servant," but Max says "it was I who asked to come back, humiliating as it may seem. I could have continued my career, only I found everything unendurable after she had left me. You see, I was her first husband."

The viewer had earlier learned that Desmond had had three husbands, but this astonishing revelation - on which the picture could have ended - is completedly unexpected. It is so strong a shock that the viewer needs to rethink all that gone before and begin to realize that both Max and Desmond are far deeper and more complex personalities than had been supposed.

This shock is not dwelt on by Wilder, however, who quickly moves along with the romance between Joe and Betty. Betty tells him that she is no longer in love with Joe's friend but with him. "What happened," Joe asks. "You," she replies.

Joe proceeds in his voice-over narration:

"There is was - Betty Schaefer's future right in the palm of my hand. Betty Schaefer engaged to Artie Green, as nice a guy as ever lived. And she was in love with me. Me! She was a fool not to sense that the was something phony in my set-up. And I was a heel not to have told her. But you just can't say those things to somebody you're crazy about. Maybe I'd never have to. Maybe I could get away with it, get away from Norman. Maybe I could wipe the whole nasty mess right out of my life."

This is the film's lazy morality and it is very honest and one that must people not only don't own up to but don't even recognize. This is not a larcenous morality, but an optimist's dream that "things will work out, somehow." We know from the beginning of the film, however, that they don't.

Nancy Olson, who would make another film with Holden, was very beautiful, a Grace Kelly type but without the society accent. Her wholesomeness shines through and it is understandable that Joe would fall for her.

When Joe returns to the mansion, however, he discovers that Desmond has called Betty to reveal his role as gigolo. Joe invites Betty to come to the mansion and explains to her that it is "a very simple set-up: An older woman who is well-to-do and a younger man who is not doing too well." Although Betty pleads with him to leave with her, Joe tells her, "Look sweetie, be practical. I've got a good deal here."

Joe decides to pack up and leave but Desmond beseeches him that she can't face life without him. "Oh,wake up, Norma, You'd be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left 20 years ago," he replies, adding that the studio was only interested in her car and that Max was written all her fan mail. Max enters and maintains that "Madame is the greatest star of them all" and she repeats it, "I'm a star....I'm the greatest star of the all." Joe leaves and she says that "No one ever leaves a star. That what makes one a star." When Joe doesn't stop, she shoots him and he falls into the pool.

This could have been the end of the movie, but Wilder is not finished.

Desmond is dazed and disoriented. The police and the press, including columnist Hedda Hopper arrive. At the top of a staircase surrounded by press photographers, Desmond asks Max where she is. "Quiet everybody," he answers as he takes over one of the cameras, and asks "Are you ready, Norma?" He tells her the scene is the staircase of the palace. She is now Salome and she descends, very grandly. At the bottom of the staircase, she stops and says she can't continue because she's "too happy."

"You see, this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else - just us - and the cameras - and those wonderful people out there in the dark."

"All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up."

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This film is ranked 12th in the American Film Institute's top 100 American films, 36th in the Internet Movie Data Base's Top 250 Movies as of Feb. 14, 2002 and 22nd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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