When we think "Gothic," we conjure
cavernous, resonant and dark spaces with mysterious images and
"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.
In the beginning...
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.
Stroheim, Holden and Swanson
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
fiancÚ, 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.
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
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 blasÚ 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,
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 fiancÚ 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,"
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