Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a seminal masterwork of American cinema on several levels. First, it represents the director’s razor sharp, often caustic wit at its most acerbic. The poison from the pens of Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. managed to raise more than a few critical eyebrows when the film had its premiere. It is reported that afterward MGM’s L.B. Mayer rushed Wilder in the lobby shouting “How could you do this?” Indeed, Sunset Boulevard gave audiences its first unvarnished portrait of a town (Hollywood) and an industry (film-making) lovingly overinflated by the media pundits as an escapist paradise where beauty (manufactured or otherwise) reigned eternal and supreme.
Two decades earlier David O. Selznick’s A Star Is Born (1937) had attempted to illustrate the darker side of fame with the implosion of one man’s life and career paralleling the meteoric rise of his wife’s fame and popularity in movies. But even then the narrative maintained that glistening image of Hollywood as a mythical El Dorado steeped in perennial youth and beauty. In Selznick’s movie Hollywood wasn’t the villain, but a sympathetic compatriot unable to spare one of its own from a looming personal disaster. Wilder, however, puts the blame for his protagonist’s downfall squarely on Hollywood’s shoulders.
The backdrop of Sunset Boulevard lacks Central Casting’s surface sheen. Gone are the false impressions of benevolent moguls with their ‘family-esque’ atmosphere of looking out for one another, replaced by a manipulative, devious and deliciously cutthroat hierarchy of malevolent misfits, each looking for shameless advancement. Sunset Boulevard strips bare all of the manufactured mythologies Hollywood encouraged about itself, exposing a rather seedy underbelly of mutual contempt, backstage chaos and sexual/psychological aberrations that all but tear apart the sunny scenic edifice of this southern California Mecca.
Instead, we are shown an industry, and indeed a world in moral decline and social decay. The mansion where faded screen queen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) endures her imposed exile is hardly gay or glamorous, but rather a relic chocked full of elegant memories from an abandoned time, allowed to quaintly molder in all its dusty retirement. The exterior façade and courtyards are overgrown in wild vines that shield its grand dame; her beloved Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A raised on blocks inside a cobwebbed garage. So long as Norma remains absent from the spotlight her memory of that other time remains pleasurably intact – at least for her. It’s when she attempts to resurrect the past with a comeback that the malignancy of her own reality begins to intrude upon her sanctity and sanity in all sorts of self-destructive ways.
Yet, Norma’s demise is not entirely of her own doing. She might have remained just as she was; the forgotten diva from the silent era, protected by her ever-devoted butler, Max Von Mayerling (Eric Von Stroheim); oblivious to the fact that her audience had moved on without her. But Norma is re-introduced to the present beyond her shuddered wrought iron gates with the accidental arrival of Joe Gillis (William Holden); already considered something of a has been screenwriter even if his looks suggest that he might find a second career as a B-grade leading man. But Wilder’s impressions of Hollywood afford no such salvation for either Joe – who sees Norma strictly as his meal ticket – or Norma, who buys his services – professional and otherwise – in an increasingly desperate hope of reliving her past.
Sunset Boulevard is more than just a tragic noir melodrama where the malaise of its May/December romance corrodes all vestiges of moral decency to the point of total madness. It is a bitter and unapologetic exposé on Hollywood itself, laying the unromantic truth about fame at the audience’s feet – re-conceived as a devastating sickness on the human condition. Norma’s friends, whom Joe refers to as ‘the waxworks’ are a who’s who of once iconic and seemingly indestructible stars; like H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton whom the then present Hollywood of the 1950s had all but forgotten and deliberately chosen to ignore. Even Von Stroheim, once considered the preeminent director/star of his time, has been reduced to playing the part of a man servant in Sunset Boulevard; his illustrious past achievements (Greed, Foolish Wives, et al.) eclipsed by this stint as a supporting ham.
Wilder begins his story with its tragic finale; the discovery of a lifeless Joe Gillis, floating face down in Norma’s swimming pool. The scene of police and paparazzi savoring the moment is at once grisly yet ghoulish, even as Joe begins to narrate the circumstances leading up to his own murder; a rather ingenious way of subverting the awkwardness of the traditional flashback and effortlessly rewinding this sordid tale to a scant six months before. Then, Joe was bitter and practically penniless, shopping his screenplay ‘Bases Loaded’ around the majors but with no luck at all. His last ditch effort to sell Paramount producer and fair weather friend, Sheldrake (Fred Clark) on the concept reaches an impasse when precocious script reader, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) offers her own unflattering critique of Joe’s work – that it’s been written from hunger, but with absolutely no heart.
The next few scenes are a tour de force with Wilder illustrating the cold-shoulder isolationism of a very unfriendly Hollywood and how it can swallow a man whole and brand him with the scarlet letter of failure to annihilate even his very presence from the status quo. Attempting to outrun men who have come to repossess his car, Joe gets a flat tire and is forced to take refuge beyond the gates of a dilapidated Italianate mansion; its grounds forlorn and foreboding; overgrown and faintly smelling of rot and formaldehyde. Joe is mistaken for an undertaker and summoned inside the house by a mysterious female voice calling to him from one of the upstairs windows.
Entering the once proud villa, Joe is greeted by Max, the austere and very mysterious butler, and shown to a room where the remains of a chimpanzee have been laid out for the mourning. Joe reveals his true identity, temporarily incurring Norma’s discontent. But his recognition of her past reputation tenders her contempt moot. Moreover, Norma becomes mildly intrigued when she realizes that Joe is a screenwriter. Perhaps their accidental meeting is kismet after all. Norma has been plotting her return to the movies; her immense script of Salome in dire need of a cunning rewrite.
Joe has little interest in the project until Norma offers to pay him handsomely for his efforts. Even better, she quickly and quietly absolves all of his outstanding debts and sets about to remake Joe into the very image of that young dapper stud he wishes he were. Appealing to his greed, Joe willing abides this transformation – at first. But very soon he begins to realize that Norma is luring him away from his own dreams and worse, she is quite mad in her lost pursuits of resurrecting her own career. Ensconced in the apartment above her garage, Joe feverishly works on his rewrite of Norma’s screenplay, determined to escape her suffocating allure before it’s too late. The tragedy for Joe is, of course, that he fails to acknowledge it is already too late for him.
Max tells Joe that he will not allow anyone to intrude on ‘madam’s’ self-inflated opinion. In fact, he has been solely responsible for writing Norma all of her fan mail these many lean years, sustaining Norma’s delusions about her own enduring fame. Joe also learns that Max was once Norma’s husband. Since their divorce he has kept rather sycophantically vigilant watch over her various affairs – staunchly determined to keep Norma from succumbing to her regular bouts of extreme melancholia.
Over time Joe begins to resent Norma’s patronage, particularly as it seems inextricably coupled with her dispassionate patronizing of him as her boy toy. Norma eventually confesses to Joe that her affections for him run much deeper than anticipated. To ease his own mind and regain some sense of self as a man, Joe escapes the mansion to go slumming at a New Year’s Eve party at his friend, Artie Green’s (Jack Webb) apartment. There he is reintroduced to Betty who also happens to be Artie’s fiancée. Betty comes to understand Joe, despite being unaware of his present predicament, and offers to help him rewrite a screenplay they will market to Paramount. But as Joe decides to break free of Norma he is informed by Max that she has attempted suicide at the thought of losing him. Bitterly reluctant, but still feeling a sense of obligation, Joe returns to comfort her.
Upon her recovery, the two drive over to Paramount after receiving a call from the studio – Norma with a renewed sense of optimism to propose ‘Salome’ to Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) who she has erroneously assumed shares her interests on the project. Too late, Joe learns that the studio merely wanted to borrow Norma’s car for another movie shoot. But DeMille - sympathetic - at least on the surface, affords Norma every luxury of an old time star. Her reappearance on the set of his Samson and Delilah draws out admirers from both cast and crew who vet their superficial fascination at the spectacle of one time Hollywood royalty on display.
For Norma, this faux adulation proves she is still every bit queen of the lot. She returns home invigorated to endure an exhaustive regiment of exercise and beauty treatments that will help get her back into shape. In the meantime, Joe quietly sneaks off at night to work on his screenplay with Betty at Paramount; the two falling in love and commencing with an affair that breaks Artie’s heart. When Norma discovers a copy of the script with Betty’s contact info in Joe’s room she telephones Betty in a deliciously devious attempt to destroy her naiveté about the man she loves. But Joe overhears the conversation. Determined to come clean once and for all, he tells Betty to come to Norma’s house to see for herself what has become of him.
Joe is deliberately cruel to Betty upon her arrival, convincing her that he would rather live off of Norma than be with her. But as Betty leaves the mansion in tears Joe plots a more crushing revenge. He tells Norma that he never loved her. But most destructive of all, he reveals to her that she has no fans left in the world; that her career is a thing of the past, and that the studio has no intension of ever resurrecting her bygone glory. Traumatized by this reality, Norma retreats into madness of her own design. She retrieves a pistol from her vanity and menaces to Joe. Ignoring her threats Joe is shot to death in the courtyard, stumbling into the pool where his body was discovered at the start of our story.
We return to the present, with Norma – completely mad - descending the stairs as newsreel cameras capture the moment for posterity. Assuming that this is the first scene to be shot for her new movie, Norma thanks DeMille, the police and photographers for their ‘support’, concluding her macabre epitaph with a rather sinister salutation to “all those wonderful people in the dark” – the fans who have unceremoniously abandoned her so many years before.
In these final moments Sunset Boulevard achieves a rather morbid celebrity of its own; a foreshadowing of the high cost of fame on those whose fragile egos are incapable of sustaining the inevitable abandonment of their own popularity. The moment is at once gruesome yet heart-rending, forever altering our perception of Hollywood as that idyllic paradise where nothing bad could ever happen to either the bold or the beautiful.
In retrospect the casting of William Holden and Gloria Swanson seems apropos. Yet neither was a first choice for their parts. Wilder had initially thought of casting Mae West and Marlon Brando in the leads. But both actors refused to partake in the exercise; the former unable to consider herself playing a ‘has been’; the latter fearful that his participation on the project would ruin his then fledgling movie career. Swanson had been one of the legendary silent stars whose career derailed with the disastrous debut of Queen Kelly (1929); ironically directed by Von Stroheim. Holden too was down and out by 1950, considered washed up before Sunset Boulevard reinvigorated his fame. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Sunset Boulevard is that although it restored Holden to his rightful place among the stars, it did absolutely nothing for Swanson who was nominated, but lost the Best Actress Oscar to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.
Swanson’s performance is undeniably the flashier of the two, and to be sure the actress does indeed play it for all its worth with all the exaggerated grand gesturing and mannerisms of a silent movie queen decidedly out of season in the era of the talkies. Yet Swanson is far more subtly nuanced than critics of the day gave her credit. She runs the gamut of emotions: from commanding diva to anxiety ridden cougar, and finally, absolute psychopath, her mind as cluttered by memory as it is eaten away with a maelstrom of sagging inner tumult.
Billy Wilder’s best movies are glib affirmations of the fundamentally flawed male/female relationship; the woman pretending to be a child in love with a soldier (The Major and the Minor); the seemingly trustworthy man driven to self-destruction by a notorious mantrap (Double Indemnity) or the virtuous woman passionately in love with a hopeless alcoholic (The Lost Weekend). In hindsight one can see the amalgam of these worrisome liaisons fully fleshed out and carried to their extreme in the toxic rapport between Norma and Joe in Sunset Boulevard.
Wilder’s commentary on men, women and the havoc their interplay of emotions and hormones play on each other reveals a dire impasse that Wilder’s filmic protagonists either ignore or seem grossly unwilling to acknowledge until it is too late. This theme is regurgitated by Wilder throughout his career, culminating with its most playful resolution at the end of Some Like It Hot in which Jack Lemmon, in drag, reveals to his millionaire boyfriend (Joe E. Brown) that he is also a man, resulting in the riotous rebuttal: “Well…nobody’s perfect.” If anything, Some Like It Hot’s last few moments seem like a modest apology for Sunset Boulevard’s grand guignol finale with Joe left for dead in his watery grave, yet caught in a strange purgatory to forever retell the dirty little story of his very short life.
At long last Paramount Home Video debuts Sunset Boulevard on Blu-ray. Honestly, it’s about time – especially since this year marks Paramount’s 100th anniversary in film-making. But the studio has always been rather lax where its catalogue is concerned. Indeed, they were one of the first studios to sell off their rights to pre-1950 titles to TV, most eventually becoming orphan wards of the Universal library. More recently Paramount announced the selloff of its remaining history on home video to Warner Bros. distribution; a move that may stifle future product reaching the hi-def marketplace in a timely manner. After all, WB owns not only its own library, but also MGM’s extensive canon, part of the David O. Selznick catalogue and all of RKO’s holdings. Just what this means for the future of Paramount titles on home video remains open for discussion. But I digress.
Paramount’s 1080p Blu-ray easily bests its 2008 Centennial DVD with a more subtly nuanced gray scale that preserves John F. Seitz’s moody dim-lit cinematography. Sunset Boulevard is a problematic movie to preserve. Most of its original nitrate is lost and its preservation master made on the more stable acetate is gone too, leaving only a dupe negative to work from. That could spell disaster, but in Sunset Boulevard’s case the results are more impressive than anticipated and, in fact, quite good and very solid throughout. Fine detail pops. We can see for the first time the ever so subtle distinctions in tonality that tended to blur into a messy grayness on the DVD. There’s both clarity and consistency to the image that preserves its grain structure very well while ever so slightly improving the overall crispness without any obvious digital sharpening. The audio gets more punchy too, particularly Franz Waxman’s marvelous main title.
The extras are mostly imports from the Centennial DVD; including a series of featurettes produced by Laurent Bouzereau and featuring interview styled recollections from A.C. Lyles, Nicholas Meyers, Ed Sikov, Andrew Sarris and Nancy Olson to name but a handful. Compartmentalizing these comments into brief featurettes is a disconcerting practice on home video these days. It’s done primarily because the studios want content for practically nothing and featurettes have a different pay scale for their participants than full blown documentaries. But there’s a lot of overlap in the sound bytes that could have been avoided if a more comprehensive piece had been prepared instead.
In addition, we get Sikov’s academically dense but highly intellectual and thoroughly fascinating audio commentary, an interactive ‘map’ that shows us where all the real locations are, the outtake original opening of the film and the same tired old featurette on Paramount’s output during the 1950s. The one new extra is “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues” – an outtake sing-a-long from the party sequence at Artie’s apartment. Ho-hum! Bottom line: this is Sunset Boulevard – a certified classic by any barometer one chooses to measure cinema greatness. It belongs on everyone’s must see/must own list. Get it today. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)