There’s a part of me that doesn’t quite know how to classify Sunset Boulevard. It’s generally classified as a noir, at least on Wikipedia, but there is a part of me that really thinks it could pass for a Hollywood satire. True, much of it probably based on the life of various silent film stars who couldn’t or wouldn’t make the transition to talkies, but the central idea, that actresses are often forgotten as they get older and pushed aside by a Hollywood that just will not tolerate actresses getting visibly older, is still sadly around today.
Plus, there are parts of this generally wonderful film that are so outright ridiculous, that I just have to question how much I need to take the whole thing seriously.
Why should I be a little uncertain if this is at least a little of a joke? It’s not because of director Billy Wilder. True, much of his best known work is comedic, but he did plenty of serious films too, so that’s not enough. However, like with actor George Raft playing a comedic gangster in Some Like It Hot, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson, an actual silent movie star here playing a forgotten silent movie star. Swanson hadn’t been appeared in much of anything for something in the neighborhood of nine years. When Swanson’s Norma Desmond watches her old movies, these were actual old movies of Swanson’s. The butler in Desmond’s home, Max von Mayerling, is played by Erich von Stroheim, a man with a somewhat similar name who in Sunset Boulevard is Norma’s enabler, former husband, and former director. Von Stroheim himself was also one of Swanson’s directors during her silent career. Norma’s bridge club is made up of other largerly forgotten silent movie actors, the only one I recognize at all being comedian Buster Keaton. And while Cecil B. DeMille may not have a film on the AFI list, he does appear here as himself, another director who knows Norma and doesn’t really want to deal with her again.
No one would blame him for that.
Norma is a compelling character, a true villain in many ways, but a potentially tragic one. When down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (reoccurring presence in this series William Holden) first encounters her, she is in mourning. One of her few companions in her giant, lonely mausoleum of a house has died. Who? A chimp. Joe gets to witness the sad, weird funeral of an ape, narrating it from above, watching Max and Norma carry and bury a small casket in her giant, overgrown yard.
It’s a good, solid clue that Norma isn’t right in the head, and considering that Joe is narrating the film as a dead man recounting his own murder, we get a good idea of who Joe’s killer is going to end up being. That opening crawl leading to Norma’s swimming pool and the image of Joe floating face-down from above is one of the most iconic shots in Wilder’s whole career, and considering how Wilder is better known for his dialogue, that’s saying something that he even has one. Heck, it’s been parodied many times over.
But then there’s Norma. She wants help cleaning up a screenplay that, it turns out, is outright awful even after Joe fixes it up from what other characters have to say. Joe just wants to make some money to keep his car from being repossessed. What he doesn’t want is to move into Norma’s house, sit in on her bridge parties, or let Norma dictate every aspect of his life. Norma does all that without even asking. Why would she? She’s used to getting her way.
Norma, furthermore, has no idea how bad she has it. Max has been writing and sending all her fanmail, and when the studio does call Norma, it isn’t to put her into a movie or to produce her script; it’s to rent her car. Neither Max nor Joe see the benefit of telling Norma the real reason for the call as she is simply basking in the attention of various older studio employees who actually remember her.
The fact that the younger people don’t quite recognize her is a moot point to Norma. She still thinks she’s youthful and beautiful. Heck, when she’s not putting on Chaplin skits in the living room to entertain her younger guest, she’s trying to seduce him.
But as much as Max enables her, Joe can’t or won’t. As it becomes more and more clear that Norma is not some sort of salvation for Joe, that her presence is getting in the way of his attempted romance of a young woman closer to his own age (and she’s engaged to Dragnet‘s Jack Webb playing a much jollier character that I was used to seeing him play), that she would control Joe’s life the same way she attempts to do everyone within her tiny orbit, and that she cannot recognize the fact that she is forgotten. And when Joe finally has had enough and tells her that she isn’t big anymore, that it wasn’t the pictures that got small, and he’s had enough so maybe he can get his old newspaper job back in Ohio, that would be when Norma finally shoots Joe and brings the film full circle, but ironically, Norma also gets what she wants when the press shows up to see her being hauled away by the police. She’s ready for her close-up.
So, after all that, I wonder how much I should take Sunset Boulevard seriously. It has a funeral for a chimp for crying out loud! It’s an excellent film all the same, truly Wilder at the top of his game, and as a reflection on stardom, the fleeting nature of fame, or even just the way Hollywood chews up and spits out all manner of artists, in this case being not just Norma but also Joe and Max, it certainly points an accusing finger at an industry that may make claims to the creation of art but perhaps only does so accidentally when it does so at all at the expense of all manner of dreamers.
NEXT UP: Well, that’s was depressing. Let’s try the best known Christmas classic after Die Hard, namely 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life.