Sunset Boulevard (1950): Wilder’s Satire of Hollywood Improves With Time

Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” is one of his three or four masterpieces, a seminal Hollywood black satire that improves with time.

Benefiting from a glorious and iconic cast, the film concerns a faded silent film star, played by Gloria Swanson (in a variation of her own onscreen persona), who lives in the past with her butler (and former husband), while sheltering a young hack screenwriter as a kept lover.

Produced by Charles Brackett and co-written by Billy Wilder and Brackett, “Sunset Boulevard” was nominated for several Oscar Awards, but the big winner in l950 was Joseph Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve,” which also offers a biting look at showbusiness, this time the Broadway theater.

With this film, Wilder mixes a psychological melodrama with a dark comedy for the first time. Indeed, at once bitter and satirical, the film provides a fascinating look at the Hollywood film industry at a crucial time of its history.

“Sunset Boulevard” symbolizes in its style the transition from the already decaying old glamour of the movie capital to a more cynical and world-wise “New Hollywood.”

The idea is clear from the opening sequence, which reverses the convention of “meet cute” of most romantic comedies and dramas.  In the first scene, we view the body of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating face downward in a swimming pool, as the dead man’s voice directly addresses us (“Poor devil–he always wanted a pool!”), as though viewing himself from a distance.

Joe then takes us back to the beginning of the strange series of events that led to his own demise. A down-and-out Hollywood hack writer, Joe left his comfortable spot on a Dayton newspaper in the naive belief he’d make it “big” in California. Now, he has to fast-talk the men from the collection agency (Larry Blake and Charles Dayton) in order to keep his car, and beg his contact (Fred Clark) at Paramount to get him a third-rate job as script doctor. While there, he meets an idealistic young would-be writer, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who believes in his talent and likes him, but before their relationship can even develop he finds himself pursued by bill collectors and makes his getaway by hiding on the grounds of a seemingly abandoned mansion.

A voice from within the house calls to him, and Joe finds Norma Desmond, a garish, middle-aged woman (perfectly cast with Gloria Swanson), readying a funeral for a recently deceased chimpanzee. “I know you,” he exclaims. “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be big!” “I still am big,” she insists. “It’s the pictures that got small!”

Out of desperation, Joe accepts Norma’s offer to help prepare a “comeback script” which would have Norma playing the youthful Salome. The money is good, but Norma insists that Joe move into her house, thus gradually becoming one of her possessions. Filled with mementos of her career, the house is Norma Desmond, still statuesque and impressive from a distance but on closer look, it’s cracked, faded, and wrinkled.

The swimming pool where Clara Bow once relaxed is filled with rats (though Norma has it repaired for Joe). Guarding both the mansion and the faded star is Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), once Norma’s director and husband, now a waiter-valet-chauffeur dressed up in a monkey suit.

Former movie greats Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nillson appear as what Joe snidely refers to as “the waxworks,” Hollywood has-beens, who visit on bridge night. Yet the focus remains on Norma’s decadently and deadly fascinating love-hate relationship with the wisecracking writer.

In the film’s central scene, Max shows old Desmond movies as Norma and Joe sit on the couch and watch. “We didn’t need dialogue in those days,” she sighs wistfully. ‘We had faces then!” At an elaborate New Year’s Eve party that Norma throws just for the two of them, Joe tries to break off the relationship by trying to move in with his old buddy, bohemian writer Artie Green (Jack Webb), the screen’s first suggestion of the fifties beatnik. But Norma’s attempted suicide brings him back.

Finally, Max gets out the old limousine and escort Norma to the Paramount lot, where she visits with old friend Cecil B. DeMille, trying to persuade the embarrassed director to do her next picture. Shortly thereafter, she learns that Joe is secretly meeting Betty in the deserted studio at night to work on a screenplay and that the girl, though engaged to Artie, has fallen in love with Joe.

Betty’s freshness and talent represent Joe’s future redemption as a writer and as a man. When he tries to walk out on Norma, she fires the fatal shots and the picture comes full cycle. Norma finally gets her wish. As she is escorted out of the house by the police, the news cameras are rolling, she makes her exit as a grotesque caricature of an old star.

Gloria Swanson played Norma with such conviction that people refused to believe it could be anything but autobiographical picture. Holden, formerly a rather bland leading man, emerged as a new kind of star, and would win an Oscar for another Wilder’s black satire, “Stalag 17.”

Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket experimented with innovative styles in dialogue and camera work, but it’s love-death angle of Norma and Joe that people remember the most, reflecting the self-destructive mood of Hollywood as it entered a new, uncertain decade.

Credits

Paramount

Produced by Charles Brackett.

Directed by Billy Wilder.

Screenplay by Brackett, Wilder and D. M. Marshman, Jr.

Cast

Joe Gillis (William Holden)

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson)

Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim)

Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson)

Sheldrake (Fred Clark)

Morino (Lloyd Gough)

Artie Green (Jack Webb)

Undertaker (Franklyn Barnum)

First Finance Man (Larry Blake)

Second Finance Man (Charles Dayton)

Cameos by Cecil B. De Mille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H. B. Wamer, Ray Evans, and Jay Livingston