Sunset Boulevard - 1950
Sunset Boulevard is directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, tells the story of struggling Hollywood screenwriter caught in the fantasy world of a faded silent film scarlet. Despite this movie being told from the perspective of the screenwriter, this movie is the story of Hollywood’s star-making machine and how they toss them aside once someone else comes along.
I want to get to Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma Desmond, since it’s by far the best part of this entire movie in my eyes, but I will leave it towards the end and focus on so of the other elements that round-up this classic.
This movie is narrated by William Holden, who plays Joe Gills, Hollywood screenwriter desperately trying to land a writing gig, so he can pay his accumulating bills. I normally don’t like voice over narration, since it’s typically used to force-feed the audience expositions, but wasn’t the case in Boulevard. Yes, Wilder utilized this tool to give the audience some exposition, but it also helps explore our protagonist and his views regarding Hollywood. Holden’s line delivery also brought a lot of weight to his narration, creating a balance between snarky remarks and deep personal confessions of his character.
Wilder not only trusted Holden with the narration, he also trusted him to play a shady character that makes questionable decisions throughout the movie and you somehow manage connect with. If I told you that you would be rooting for a guy that takes advantage of an older (debatably crazy) woman, constantly lies to people around him and tries to hook-up with his friend’s fiancé, would you call me crazy? But Holden, thanks to Wilder and Brackett’s writing, pulls off a great character arch, that by the end he is the “hero” of the story.
What once was considered glamorous and prestigious in our society can be easily forgotten and replaced through time. This theme is represented in both her career or lack thereof and her almost abandoned mansion. Her house during their heyday, was probably worth a few millions and during the 1950’s that’s an impressive amount of money. Now, just like her career, the mansion is barely hanging on to its foundation. When Joe stumbles upon the house he immediately assumes the house has been abandoned. Everything from the pool to the tennis courts are a shade of their former-self and the heart of this mansion is Norma. But my favorite use of symbolism employed by Wilder, comes from her car. The car that Norma used was a 1929 Isotta Fraschini, the very same year Hollywood produced the last silent film.
Last thing I want to touch before going to Swanson is the cinematography; this movie is gorgeous. The lighting, especially during all of Swanson’s close-ups are meticulous and not a single shadow was by mistake. I was watching this movie on my phone at an airport and I still was in awe of the set design and shot composition. I could screenshot many of the scenes and put them up on my wall, because they are true works of art.
Now, let us not keep avoiding talking about the powerhouse (first time I have used that term…) performance of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. A faded silent movie star stuck in the past, living secluded from the world, that’s now filled with too much sound. Swanson being herself a former silent movie star, played-up her character’s facial expressions as if she had no dialogue to deliver. This made all her lines feel like prepared speeches made for her adoring audience. She chewed up every single scene she was part of, never letting the spotlight wonder to far from her. Her character ironically hates the talkies despite having one of the most quoted lines in movie history (#7 in AFI’s Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time): “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”. The runner-up being (#24 in AFI’s Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time): “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small”.
Sunset Boulevard’s ending is 100% on her shoulders and my god does she delivers. Swanson sold her character’s complete psychotic break, through her facial expression and over-the-top hand movements. The shot of her going down the stairs as the cops and the press stare at her is so polarizing and eerie, that it has played over and over in my head. Honestly, it’s been such a long time a movie or a scene has gotten so stuck in my head, that I was pleasantly surprised that this classic delivered on its promise.
Sixty-seven years later and a first-time viewer has fallen completely in love with Sunset Boulevard, and that’s why I love movie... very few things are this timeless.
Sunset Boulevard is currently streaming on Netflix, watch it.
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