Film essay by: Witney Seibold
At first glance, Billy Wilder’s 1950 Hollywood Gothic “Sunset Boulevard” is an overblown waxwork melodrama of practically medieval proportions. One can easily glance at Gloria Swanson’s swooping claws, bulging eyes, and monstrous mugging, and accuse her of overacting. One can even accuse her put-upon boytoy William Holden as playing a pale noir caricature; a parody of more hard-edged genre movie types. Norma Desmond’s mansion is an enormous, cavernous spookhouse that is coated in dust, cobwebs, and half-forgotten bacchanalia of yesteryear; it’s practically taken directly from Universal monster flicks of the 1920s and 1930s.
I feel even these surface elements in themselves would have made for a fascinatingly lurid melodrama (along the lines of, say, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”), but I have heard some of the uninitiated accuse “Sunset Boulevard” of being nothing more than an orgiastic grand guingol of self-referential Hollywood indulgence.
What they don’t realize is how close “Sunset Boulevard” cuts to the bone. Not just in terms of the fickle system of Hollywood fame, and the ephemeral and illusory nature of Hollywood glamour, but to its specific references to the people involved. Audiences in 1950 would have been able to recognize Gloria Swanson as an ex-silent film star. When she goes to a backlot to visit Cecil B. DeMille, DeMille plays himself, and is actually working on his real film “Samson & Deliliah” (1949). Seeing as “Sunset Boulevard” takes place in flashback, this would have been exactly the film DeMille would have been working on. We’re asked to watch an old silent film of Norma’s at one point, and it is actually “Queen Kelly” (1929) starring Gloria Swanson.
Some of the more astute viewers would have recognized Erich von Stroheim in the role of Max the butler. Von Stroheim was the legendary director of such silent classics as “Greed” and “The Merry Widow,” and had a reputation in the 1920s of being a hardnose tartar. Von Stroheim would charge about his sets with a monocle, riding crop, and riding pants, barking orders to his actors and belittling assistants. While this image of the harsh taskmaster was self-manufactured (von Stroheim was actually a gentle man), it was an image that nonetheless led to the entire second half of his career, playing parodies of himself.
“There were three young directors who showed promise in those days,” Max tells Joe Gillis (Holden) at one point. “D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max von Meyerling.” We know the films of Griffith and DeMille. “Meyerling” is clearly just a replacement for “Stroheim.”
What’s more, “Sunset Boulevard” is no mere tabloid exposé of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood glamour; it’s interested in far, far more than exploding the cynicism behind writing Hollywood blockbusters. This is largely thanks to both William Holden, as painfully self-aware the put-upon writer, and the bitter and witty screenplay by Charles Bracket, D.M. Marshman, Jr., and the film’s own director, Billy Wilder. Thanks to their efforts, the mere surface types of the characters frequently crumble, and we’re given the pained, raw humanity underneath. Joe Gillis is no mere hard-smoking typewriter jockey, despite how much he would like to be seen as one. Joe Gillis is a romantic, who actually believes in the movies, and has had his faith all but shattered by low pay, soul-crushing commercial work, and pushy L.A. landlords demanding rent that he doesn’t have. And when he finds himself the kept man of the ghoulish Norma Desmond (Swanson), he jokes about wanting to be free of her, and actually feels he should be free of her, but in one honest and damning speech, admits that he is far too comfortable to actually leave.
Yes, it’s over-the-top at times (gloriously so), but “Sunset Boulevard” is actually underwritten by a strength of honesty, and a love that smart viewers can see immediately. Joe Gillis loves writing, he loves movies, and he loves Hollywood. It’s a n unconditional love that sometimes gives rise to crippling ambivalence, but a love that he cannot let go of. His love is made all the stronger by the presence of Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) in his life. Betty is a beautifully cockeyed optimist, and brings such a fresh breath into Joe’s life, that he begins to believe again. In her presence, all his cynicism melts away, and it’s largely because of her that he decides he must make a fatal final choice in “Sunset Boulevard.” The relationship between Joe and Betty is not a hackneyed love story by any means; indeed Betty is betrothed to Joe’s friend, and while they seem to be falling in love, they both know it’s impossible. But Betty’s overwhelming sunshine is still the brightest ray of hope in an otherwise wickedly dark film. Indeed, Nancy Olson had such a reputation in the ‘50s and ‘60s for being such a cheery person, that she easily found herself the leading lady in a lot of Walt Disney’s live-action efforts. She’ll be 81 this year.
Also shining through the bitter Hollywood murk is the love Max has for Norma. Max was her first husband. He cares for her every whim, serving her and her mansion, learning her strange rules, and never once batting an eye. He spends his nights writing reams of fan letters to keep Norma’s illusions alive. A once-promising director, one with his own riches and own future, has put it all aside to cater to the childish, insane whims of his ex. That displays a level of simultaneous pathos and dedication most people cannot fathom. Max has seen the highs of Hollywood, and is now tenderly nursing his ex-wife through the lows. He knows exactly how Hollywood operates, what is truly glamorous, and what is illusion, and is putting his knowledge to help another human being.
And now I come to Norma. She is also infected by love. Love of romantic, abstract things. Things like “the spotlight,” “the little people,” “the cheers,” and, most of all “the fame.” As a teenager, Norma Desmond was taken under the wing of Cecil B. DeMille. She was a lovely doe. Ready to display her beauty and charm to audiences the world over. Her films were hits, and she became very, very rich. But, as happens so often with teenage stars (from Judy Garland to Britney Spears), the fame went to her head. When she began to fall out of the public eye (due to dwindling roles and the inevitable onset of age), she as no prepared to live life a rung down. She went mad. In her mind, the fame never faded, and the world still wants her, needs, her, adores her, awaits with baited breath her great comeback.
“I am big!” She insists in all seriousness. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
Even if the world did desire a comeback, this would be a horrific tragedy. Here is a woman who bought the hype. Read Timon of Athens sometime, or even Macbeth or King Lear, and you may see a bit of Norma Desmond in each. Proud, popular men whose popularity is largest in their own minds.
This is probably assumed by every one of you readers, but I’ll write it out just top be clear: Hollywood advertises itself as the Place Where Dreams Come True. The city where streets are paved with gold, and all it takes is a single famous director to recognize you, and you are instantly transported into a world of luxury, adoration, large mansions, swimming pools, and endless money. Not in any ad copy, mind you; it’s just the grand illusion of the place.
(Grand illusion. See what I did there?)
Countless young writers and actors have moved to Los Angeles over the decades in the hopes of cashing in on this dream. The joke goes that, to this day, you can go into a restaurant in Hollywood, and ask any given waiter or waitress for their resume and 8×10 glossy, and they may have it for you. Just convince them that you are a legit producer first.
Does the world of high-paid acting really offer more than money? Does it truly offer that ineffable thing we call glamour? Well, to a degree, yes it does. In the minds of the people who still want the dream, and to those who have bought into it, it still lives on. But it’s easy to see that “fame” and “glamour” are fleeting things at best, and completely false at worst. Hollywood does not care for you, it only cares for who is most bankable at any given moment. The movie biz is where ineffable things like dreams, glories, and art, mix the most closely with the callous world of high-profit business.
It’s easy to take the glamour seriously. It’s comforting and plush and beautiful. The smart ones prepare for when the paychecks begin to whither. The rest either sink into lower tiers of fame, or they go mad. Going mad is, I think, more common than we assume.
I don’t want “Sunset Boulevard” to sound like a depressing resignation of personal tragedy though. Despite the tragic elements, “Sunset Boulevard” is refreshingly alive. The cynical witty barbs may be darkly truthful, but are also genuinely funny. We may feel the emptiness in Norma’s soul, but Swanson is able to take this strange woman and make her into a full realized character who is interesting to watch. The truth may be what’s best for her eventually, but we kind of want Norma to have her illusions; we’re on her side.
It helps that the characters (and filmmakers) are all so knowing of the Hollywood system, and are willing to discuss it openly.
So that’s what “Sunset Boulevard” gives us: A stirringly trashy melodrama, a satire of those very same trashy melodramas, a wry examination of Hollywood fame, a funny black comedy romp, a witty screenplay, an amazingly-made film from a skilled director, and an analysis of most people’s inability to give up on their dreams. It’s a wicked black comedy, a deeply moving tragedy, and a hugely satisfying film experience. There’s even a kind of irony in that it’s currently held to be a famous Hollywood classic. Hm…