Billy Wilder‘s poison-pen valentine to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, could easily be made today without much modification. There’s always another generation of former stars clinging to their lost fame and a new generation on the make. Instead of simply pining her years away awash in faded glory, Norma Desmond might be doing info-mercials at two in the morning, but the basic story could be reused today.
One of the greatest conceits of Sunset Boulevard is in the casting of the three main roles. Gloria Swanson, like Norma Desmond, was a silent screen star who hadn’t worked in almost twenty years. Erich von Stroheim was a silent-era director and had in fact directed Swanson in Queen Kelly until she had him fired, effectively ending his career.1 While not a writer, William Holden had, like Joe Gillis, seen some success years before but had fallen on lean times when Wilder cast him in the role. Further blending film and reality is the presence of silent film icons Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anne Q. Nilsson as members of Norma’s bridge club. Finally you have Cecil B. DeMille, playing himself, directing Samson and Delilah, which he was actually shooting when Sunset Boulevard was filming.
The film opens to find the police arriving at a Sunset Blvd mansion to find the body of a man floating in the pool, as William Holden narrates. We jump back several months to find Joe Gillis as a struggling screenwriter. He hasn’t sold anything in a long time and is ducking the repossessors who are after his car. He needs three hundred dollars and his isn’t particular about how he gets it. He’ll beg, borrow or do any kind of hackwork the studio can give him. For his trouble, he gets to hear Betty Shaefer (Nancy Olson), a pretty young script reader at Paramount, trash his last screenplay. What he doesn’t get is the money and soon the repo men spot him and give chase. When he blows a tire, he is forced to duck into the garage of a decrepit mansion “on the 10,000 block of Sunset Boulevard.”
Living there with her former husband, director and now butler, Max (von Stroheim), is silent-era star Norma Desmond, who thinks Gillis is the undertaker there to help her bury her deceased pet chimp. Gillis, realizing that Norma is several bricks short of a load, just wants to get as far away from her as possible, but she has another offer for him. She has a script for her big comeback movie that she plans to send to Cecile B. DeMille when it’s finished. She just needs someone to clean it up a little, which, we gather, is a little like cleaning up Hiroshima after the atom bombing. With no illusions about doing quality work, Gillis is willing to pander to the woman’s delusions in exchange for a fat paycheck.
It’s not long, however, before the line between script doctor and gigolo becomes extremely blurred, especially after a bizarre New Year’s Eve party in which Norma and Gillis are the only two in attendance. Initially repelled, he flees to a party thrown by his old friend, Artie (Jack Webb), who happens to be engaged to Betty, the pretty young script reader who hated Gillis’ work. She has, however, found something of his she likes and wants to help him develop it.
Gillis returns to find that Norma has attempted suicide (and it’s not the first time). He realizes that he is willing to do what it takes to keep this gravy train rolling, even if that means being Norma’s boy toy for a while.
So Gillis begins dividing his time between feeding Norma’s fantasies and doing real work with Betty on the sly. Things get complicated when Betty starts to fall for Gillis. That’s a tightrope that Norma won’t let him walk for long. Nothing is going to stand in the way of her return to the screen.
You can’t leave Sunset Boulevard without mentioning Gloria Swanson’s performance. Norma Desmond is the ultimate drama queen, always giving a broad performance, even alone within the walls of her mansion. Playing her and not going past the line where it descends into unintentional comedy was a delicate balancing act and Gloria Swanson pulls it off almost effortlessly, especially when you consider that she really hadn’t worked since the early thirties.
With the exception of Betty Shaefer and her relationship with Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard is cynical about everything to do with the movies, the business and fame, a cynicism that drips out of every line of William Holden’s hard boiled narration. Everywhere it looks, it sees the damage that stardom can do and how people are willing to exploit each other to get it. That’s probably what makes it as relevant to the present day film industry as it was in 1950.
- This movie was produced by Joseph P. Kennedy while he and the actress were having an affair, so it is not surprising that Swanson got her way. [↩]