aka Sunset Blvd.
Billy Wilder’s 1950s run got off to an unparalleled start with the trio of Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17. Sunset’s cynical view of humanity takes some beating, but Wilder would thrash it soundly with Ace in the Hole, Hollywood only outmatched by journalism for sucking any integrity from life. Out of his earlier films, this is, in such respects as tone and genre, closer to Double Indemnity – they share cinematographer John F Seltz – but Sunset Boulevard succeeds in casting a unique pall, that of a gothic noir with shades of outright horror. As commentaries on the Tinseltown go, it’s no wonder it still stands apart; fare like The Player simply seems smug, self-satisfied and superficial by comparison.
DeMille: You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.
Revisiting the picture, it occurred to me that its protagonist’s situation bears some similarities to the later prize pickle horror Misery. William Holden’s Joe Gillis may remain in this environment “voluntarily” and even escape it on occasion, but for much of the duration he is hermetically sealed, isolated within the mansion, his car taken from him, surrendering his agency (he has to be given money as if by a parent, at the store) and having his calls fielded by butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is easily as mad as Annie Potts.
Norma: Empty the ashtray would you, Joe dear.
But Joe’s psychology is very warped, in a classically Hollywood way (James Caan’s Paul Sheldon just wants to get the hell out of there). He bargains with the devil, prostitutes himself for an easy ride, such that, when he finally has had enough, it’s much too late. There’s an element of co-dependency there, such that, when Norma attempts suicide on New Year’s Eve, Joe sacrifices his bid for freedom and capitulates to a physical relationship with his keeper; Norma’s emotional blackmail suits his purposes, both self-hating and idle.
In his way, as Joe finally notes, Max may be a much more sympathetic character – his devotion is borne of unrequited love, after all – but he is equally complicit. He feeds Norma’s fantasy (writes her fan letters) and allows her to linger in her belief DeMille will oblige her with a comeback (“I hate that word! It’s return”). The only truly sympathetic character in this scenario is Betty (Nancy Olson), but Wilder, amid this nihilism and encompassing luridness, doesn’t allow her to register. She isn’t the kind of girl who beckons the passion of heading off into the sunset together. Rather than an oversight on Wilder’s part, this is a shrewd piece of judgement; without her tepidness, we’d be far less willing to accept the inevitability and irremediability of Joe’s fate.
Betty: I’d always heard you had some talent.
Joe: That was last year. This year I’m trying to earn a living.
While he wears the front of antagonism towards his plight, Joe is opportunistic and spineless. Norma, as counterweight, is spoiled, narcissistic and demanding. Gillis’ narration is self-consciously florid, as might be expected from a writer swimming in cheap prose. Indeed, the area in which he and Desmond form a perfect match is the mask of mannered communication with the world. He has a quick line – some of them strained to the point of strangulation – ready for every exchange, while she, buried beneath the over emphasis of silent-era performance, emotes at a pitch permanently poised on hysteria.
There’s no consoling light – only the harshly oppressive California sunshine – or respite from this suffocating environment, as even the distractions underline how debased this interior world is. Wilder fills the mansion with lurid grotesquery, almost cartoonish – the dead chimp, the rats in the swimming pool, the waxworks that are old movie stars come to play bridge, Desmond’s entertainments (her own old movies, her “shows” including a Chaplin impression that makes even Buster Keaton sit up) – and the effect is mordantly compelling. The later interludes of meeting Cecil B at Paramount – mired as it is in the need to deceive Norma – and Gillis and Betty working on a script together fail to offer relief, underscored as they are by betrayal and deception.
Max: Madame has moments of melancholy.
The horror aspect is there in the design; Hans Dreir’s sets reek of stultifying decay (a Wilder regular, he’d won twice before and would receive 23 nominations in all – he was also working on the movie DeMille was actually directing at the time, Samson and Delilah, and won the Oscar for that too). It’s also there in the reveal that Max was a movie director who discovered Norma and her former husband (von Stroheim had directed Swanson, in the unreleased Queen Kelly). And in the unhealthy, diseased domestic scene (and, if we are to believe Wilder’s coarse explanation, the reason the chimp was present at the mansion was because Norma was “Fucking the monkey”. I guess it’s all on a sliding scale of Oscar-winning fish men). The horror would have been front and centre, had the original framing not been cut; Sunset Boulevard opened on corpses in a morgue and Gillis recounting his experience to them. It was dropped due to test audiences’ mirth, it seems.
Morino: Don’t you know the finest things in the world are written on an empty stomach.
Further, initial response to the movie as a whole was mixed. The director told Louis B Mayer to “Go fuck yourself” after he accused Wilder of disgracing the industry. Sunset Boulevard was mainly a hit in the cities (not so surprising, as it’s very specific). So basically, they didn’t love it in Pomona. Wilder stopped working with screenwriter Leigh Brackett following a dispute over the Norma facelift montage (Brackett didn’t like it).
Hollywood nevertheless loves to shower itself with attention, however grim the depiction, hence eleven Oscar nominations (Alex Cox called it “perhaps the best film about Hollywood ever made” in his Moviedromeintroduction). Consequently, it lost Best Picture to All About Eve, difficult to argue, but won Best Story & Screenplay and Best Art Direction-Set Direction – Black-and-White. Holden, nominated, would win three years later for another Wilder movie, Stalag 17 (for all the talk about Desmond, a mere fifty-year-old has-been, the real eyeopener is Holden transforming from this guy to Pike Bishop in less than two decades. I guess the booze will do that).
Norma: I AM big. It’s the PICTURES that got small.
Sunset Boulevard received rare nods in all four acting categories but won none (Olson is a bit of a stretch anyway; Stroheim would have been my pick of the four for actual recognition). Holden won the part after Montgomery Clift withdrew. The character name Gordon Cole (who has been calling Norma to rent her antique auto for a Bing Crosby picture) would be appropriated by the now ex-David Lynch for his FBI director in Twin Peaks; Lynch loved the movie. Gremlins 2: The New Batch would parody the closing move of Norma towards camera, but with a girl (or transgender, per Jay Dyer) Gremlin. It’s easy to see the picture as purely Hollywood specific, but it’s merely writing large themes of selling one’s soul and living a lie and/or in the past. For any other director, Sunset Boulevard would be a proud peak, but Wilder would outdo himself the following year…