US Release Date: 08-04-1950
Directed by: Billy Wilder
- William Holden, as
- Joe Gillis
- Gloria Swanson, as
- Norma Desmond
- Erich von Stroheim, as
- Max von Mayerling
- Nancy Olson, as
- Betty Schaefer
- Jack Webb, as
- Artie Green
- Fred Clark, as
- Cecil B. DeMille, as
- Buster Keaton, as
- Hedda Hopper, as
- H.B. Warner, as
- Anna Q. Nilsson as
William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
This film more than any other sums up the grandeur and decay of the silent movie era. This is Hollywood's classic tragedy and Norma Desmond its Lady Macbeth, made all the more ironic because she is played by real life faded silent movie queen Gloria Swanson.
William Holden is the struggling screenwriter (he can't even afford a chair but sits on the edge of his bed to write) who pulls into Norma's driveway on Sunset Boulevard to avoid having his car repossessed. Here, in the fading dusk, he comes upon a strange and macabre sight. The aging movie queen is laying to rest her cherished pet chimpanzee with all the solemnity of a real funeral. Her only companion is Max, her valet and first husband, played to perfection by Erich von Stroheim.
Sunset Boulevard is chock full of great lines.
"We had faces then."
"I am big! It's the pictures that got small."
And of course, "I'm ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille."
Directed by the incredible Billy Wilder and filmed in glorious black and white, Sunset Boulevard is pure melodrama. Norma Desmond's misty madness is so vividly depicted. She's "...still proudly waving to a parade that has long since passed her by." Gloria Swanson created the greatest original screen character in movie history for all of us "...wonderful people out there in the dark."
Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard.
This film opens with dramatic music, provided by Franz Waxman, and a close up of the street name, “SUNSET BLVD” on a curb. After the credits, we hear William Holden begin narrating, “Yes, this is Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles California. It's about 5 0'clock in the morning. That's the homicide squad…” We then see his dead body floating in the pool of a Hollywood mansion. What a very intriguing start to one of the greatest films to ever come out of tinsel town.
Through flashbacks we meet screen writer Joe Gillis who lives at Alto Nido apartments (which are still occupied today). He keeps his car at a parking lot near the world renowned corner of Hollywood and Vine. We follow him as he walks to the famous Paramount Gates to find a job to earn an income to pay off his car. With no luck he visits his agent at the Bel-Air Country Club, where you can still play rounds of golf. His agent is no help and he soon finds himself hiding his car in a random garage of a home that has the very pool we first saw his corpse in.
Sunset Blvd is a visit to a time long gone in Hollywood. One scene takes place at the famous Schwab's Drug Store. You know, the one where it was reported that Lana Turner was discovered. It unfortunately is no longer there. The biggest loss is that the home used as Norma’s Sunset Blvd mansion has since been demolished and the property sold for commercial use. It was originally the Getty Mansion and was not located on Sunset Blvd but at 641 S. Irving Boulevard. It was also the house used in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Joe Gillis represents so many thousands of young people who have gone to Hollywood with dreams of fame and riches. He is unfortunately not all that bright as he has purchased a car he can clearly not afford. He meets the very wealthy Norma Desmond and believes he has found his cash cow and the answer to all of his financial problems. He plans to get paid to help her write a script as well as get a free place to live and eat. Little does he know but he is in way in over his head.
Norma is a legendary star of silent films whose glory days have clearly passed. As Patrick wrote, she is lonely, with only Max to keep her company. Max is clearly in love with her and would do anything to make her happy. He lies about her fan mail, making him an enabler of her insanity. Look at how proudly he tells Joe, “She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn't know, you're too young. In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it!” Max and Norma could not survive without the other. He takes care of her every need and whim while she provides him with a reason to live.
Norma Desmond is such a strong character and Gloria Swanson does such an amazing job that we are easily drawn into her odd world. She is at first scary, then bitchy then seductive, turning Joe into her boy toy. She can put on the charm when she wants as easily as she can put on an act, such as the Charlie Chaplin impersonation. As the movie progresses, we see just how emotionally fragile she truly is. One of her best scenes is when she visits Cecile B. DeMille at Paramount Studios. We see a woman taken in by all the attention the actors and crew on DeMille’s set give her. She gets a bit emotional but then she regains her composure and turns on a dime into a diva.
Norma Desmond is quite simply one of the most iconic Hollywood characters of all time. She is so big that she almost swallowed Swanson. She complained that roles similar to Desmond were all she was offered afterwards. To movie buffs, Norma is a very real star and you will never forget her, or as Joe learned, leave her. After all, “No-one ever leaves a star. That's what makes one a star.”
Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard.
I don't generally like making lists of my favorite movies because that list changes frequently. If pressed I'd rather make a list of favorites by genre, but even that isn't something I particularly enjoy doing. Sunset Boulevard though, is one movie that will eternally be on any favorite movie list I ever make. It is quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made.
This is melodrama and yes Gloria Swanson's performance would be easy to dismiss as hammy. She would almost be comical if she weren't so tragic. Everything about her is so dramatic. She struts and gyrates her way through the movie; her arms and hands moving like serpents. Her eyes have a life of their own as they emote to the back row. Underneath her diva persona though, there lives an incredibly damaged and delicate human being whose sanity is hanging by a piece of celluloid.
Holden has the much less showy role, but he is the perfect foil for Swanson. Where Norma lives in the past, Joe is very of the time. He's witty, sarcastic, disillusioned and mercenary. Sure, he's fond of Norma, but throughout the movie he uses her just as much as she uses him. His from beyond the grave narration is just one of many great elements in this film.
Despite the stellar leads, you have to give Billy Wilder most of the credit for this magnificent movie. The script, which he co-wrote, is chock full of memorable lines. Norma's delivery makes her lines the most quoted, but Joe is given some great ones as well.
"There's nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25."
"She was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career."
"Oh, wake up, Norma, you'd be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left twenty years ago."
"So they were turning after all, those cameras. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her."
The script won an Oscar and never was an award more deserved. Rarely have humor and tragedy been so well intertwined.
Along with the screenplay, Billy Wilder directed this movie to perfection with the aid of some brilliant black and white cinematography. You mention the sense of decay Patrick and you're right, it permeates every aspect of the story. As Joe says in voice-over, "The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis - out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion."
I think the reason this movie remains a perennial favorite of mine is that I get different things out of it on different viewings. Sometimes the humor, both in Swanson's over-the-top performance and Holden's dry sarcastic delivery shines through. Other times I can become caught up in the tragedy of Norma's fall. Still other times I revel in all of the Hollywood in-jokes and self references. Always though, I am entertained.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1950)