As the Oscar ceremony is still fresh in my head, I thought it’d be interesting to see this iconic film for this month’s Blindspot. It’s always fascinating to see a film about Hollywood and the narcissistic nature of that industry, and there’s not a better commentary of that than this timeless classic.
The story is told in a flashback, with the narrator telling his own story. As the film opens, the narrator’s fate is already revealed, I’m not going to say what happens just in case some of you still haven’t seen it. Let’s just say it instantly made me curious just why and how he got there. It’s a familiar story that’s superbly told. Two people on opposite spectrum met on a fateful day when a down-on-his-luck screenwriter had a flat tire whilst fleeing from repossession folks seeking his car. As luck would have it, Joe Gillis (William Holden) ends up in the mansion of a faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), immensely wealthy but desperate for a comeback. It’s a toxic relationship from the start, one that you know would not end well.
Apparently director Billy Wilder came up with the story as he was inspired by those grand Hollywood houses in L.A. with former silent film stars still living in them. He wondered just how they spend their time and how they deal with losing their celebrity and box office appeal. Well, I’d imagine this story could’ve easily been a biopic.
It’s really quite a tragic story as it starts off as a desperate situation and it goes on a downward spiral from there. Neither Norma nor Joe is exactly the most likable people, they basically use each other for their own personal gain. But you can’t help being drawn to their twisted story and feel pity for them.
It’s a thought-provoking tale of how far fame could corrupt people and drive them into absolute madness and self-destruction. Joe might seem as if he was only a victim but he too was driven by the desire of living a good life even if it’s based on a lie. The strength of Sunset Blvd. isn’t so much the plot twist or mystery of what’s going to happen next, but in the character study and psychology of the story.
Casting wise, it’s absolutely spot on. I can’t imagine anyone else but Gloria Swanson in the role of Norma. According to Wiki, she shared many similarities with her character. Not only is she the same age as Norma (around 50 when she made this film) she was once a famous silent-screen star who lived extravagantly in a Sunset Blvd mansion. Unlike Norma though, Swanson wasn’t obsessed for a comeback, but surely she must’ve been able to relate well with the idea of losing one’s fame. She is deliriously creepy here, chewing the scenery every time she’s on screen.
William Holden fits nicely into the role of the desperate screenwriter and he certainly has that matinee-idol look for the part. He handles the disillusionment of his character well, and there’s such an apparent fear in his eyes when he realizes Norma was
falling in love obsessed with him. His ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ expression when he’s looking all dapper in a custom-made tuxedo is palpable. His style of acting is very laid back here, I don’t know if that’s his style but it offers quite an amusing contrast to Swanson’s intense and decidedly over-the-top performance.
But it’s the cameos that adds an extra dose of realism and amusement. Buster Keaton and a few other actual silent-stars of that era had a quick cameo in the card game scene in Norma’s mansion. But it’s the iconic filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille extended cameo that’s the real highlight. Mr. DeMille played himself working in Paramount Studio in what looks like to be The Ten Commandments set. It’s a key revelatory scene about Norma’s diva reputation and her inability to transition into talky pictures. But the moment people recognize who she was, it feeds into her obsession of fame and being the center of attention.
This is a good looking film with fabulous dramatic lighting and elaborate sets. The B&W, German-expressionist cinematography by John F. Seitz adds that noir touch. He worked with Wilder previously on Double Indemnity. But what’s even more memorable are those iconic quotes:
“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!”
“All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,”
Those two from Norma are what people remember most, but I also love this one from Joe about the predicament of actresses that’s still being talked about today in contemporary Hollywood:
“There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.”
This film is quite a bold story to be told in that era as it doesn’t exactly paint the film industry in a flattering light. According to IMDb trivia, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer was upset by the film for that very reason. Big kudos to Billy Wilder for having the guts to do this, and for co-writing the marvelous script (with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.). Despite the tragic story, the film isn’t sullen or somber. It’s atmospheric and even eerie at times, but it also has some humorous moments and Holden’s narration has some snarky wit about it. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but certainly lots of moments that made you chuckle, especially that midnight chimp funeral scene. “It was all done with great dignity. He must have been a very important chimp, the great grandson of King Kong, maybe.” Ha!
There’s a subplot of romance between Joe and script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), as the two end up secretly working together on a screenplay. The love story is perhaps what gave Joe back his conscience, if you will, though it’s a little too late. I have to mention the shadowy figure of Max (Erich von Stroheim), Norma’s loyal butler who’s key in keeping Norma’s delusion of grandeur alive years after her audience had left her. The revelation about his character took me by surprise, I think that was one of the few moments that really hit me out of left field.
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.
I’m glad I finally saw this iconic and timeless piece of cinema. As the end credits roll, I was mulling over that this film defies genre convention. It’s a film noir that’s also a dark comedy and psychological drama. I love how Wilder’s films always deal with the human condition. It transports you into another time and place, whilst at the same time make you ponder on the themes and symbolism that’s relatable to us, whether we want to admit it or not. You could consider this Billy Wilder‘s magnum opus that will stand the test of time.
Have you seen Sunset Blvd? Well, what did YOU think?