BY ANDREW MOODY
When I was a young teenager in the early nineties, I used to tape old movies on VHS and watch them early in the morning before school. I loved most of them, but certain titles, like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), have stuck with me for decades. The first real example of a Hollywood movie about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard still retains its power to shock.
A struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) inadvertently finds himself embroiled in a doomed love affair with an ageing silent movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). On the verge of bankruptcy and being chased by the repo men to return his car, Gilles blows a tyre and pulls into a decrepit, enormous mansion on the corner of the titular boulevard, where Fitzgerald’s lost generation bought property and movie stars dined with royalty.
Joe: Hey, you’re Norma Desmond! You used to be in pictures. You used to be big!
Norma: I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.
The film opens with a shot of Gilles, floating dead in the swimming pool of Norma’s mansion. With Joe’s resigned, cynical voiceover, the movie carefully layers the dramatic irony, following flashbacks leading up to his own Hollywood murder, a truly bit player scandal. An original opening where Gilles and the corpses in a morgue sit up and start talking was quickly changed after test audiences gave it one of the lowest scores in Paramount test history. Billy Wilder who co-wrote the script with Charles Brackett intended to expose the dark side of Hollywood, and one of the reasons it has endured for seventy years, as author and critic Sam Staggs has it:
Sunset Boulevard is the great aberration: it’s a “women’s picture” where the tears turn to dust. It’s Mildred Pierce with a swimming pool through the eyes of Euripides… No other filmmaker dared paint Hollywood stark naked…they lacked Billy Wilder’s technique, his bravado, his genius.
The older I get, the starker the movie becomes for me. In a flat I had about a decade ago I had a full-length print of it framed in the hallway, Gloria Swanson leering with vampiric menace down towards her audience. There are many people who dream of Hollywood, fewer who have made it, and fewer still that can stage a comeback. By the time the film was written and produced, many in the industry could recognise the Bridge players in Norma’s parlour, silent film stars like Buster Keaton, looking miserable and undead. Not to mention the show-stopping performance by Erich Von Stroheim, himself a legendary director in the twenties, who has given up life in order to serve his mistress.
Max (TO JOE): Madame was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t remember, you are too young.
There is an unspoken kinkiness to the film, and its horror overtones of pain and submission, domination and fantasy. As Norma sits atop her spiral staircase unable to process her crime, reminds the audience of the mirrored corridor at the close of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) as Norma, now having lost herself, and unable to discern reality from the movies, is spurred into action as her servant Max commands a TV camera and captures her doomed Salome.
Sunset Boulevard was made during a transitional period in cinema, it is a post-war noir that emerged with the catastrophe and survivor cynicism of WW2. In many respects it’s a monster movie, with Norma Desmond taking her position next to King Kong and Dracula. During the chimpanzee funeral that takes place outside Joe’s waterlogged guest room, Wilder said that he was always of the intention that Norma Desmond was having sex with the chimp and wore him out.
If you have ever dreamed of Hollywood fame, beware of what you wish for. Some get the swimming pool, some end up face down in one.
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