I kick off the 50′s with a so called classic, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a film that I’ve heard much about but never got round to watching so let’s see if the 1950′s can clear the very high bar set by the decade that preceded it.
When struggling writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) flees from some Bailiff’s trying to take his car because of debts he hides in the driveway of what seems to be a desolate mansion. As he investigates the grounds he finds out that the house isn’t deserted after all and in a case of mistaken identity gets invited into the house by a mysterious woman. Joe quickly realises that the aging woman is actually Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), one the biggest stars from silent cinema. Norma, who urges to be back on the silver screen and the centre of attention, asks Joe to rewrite her screenplay.
Needing the money to pay his debts he agrees to the assignment but when Norma’s servant Max (Erich von Stroheim) moves all of Joe’s possessions into the mansion he begins to feel trapped. Joe thinks the attention Norma shows him is a tad unsettling and the relationship between them awkward but when he leaves one night to see an old friend Norma hits rock bottom and in a twisted sense of pity Joe sticks around to keep the old star company.
After seeing Sunset Boulevard I think it’s what you would call the quintessential ‘old Hollywood’ picture, in 1950 Wilder pulled back the curtain to the Hollywood machine. It showed audiences the dirty truths and secrets to the way things worked; it wasn’t the fantasy of the silver screen no more. It was a look at the fickle egos that come with celebrity; especially of those who were once a cinema royalty but whose star persona doesn’t now shine so brightly. Presenting filmmaking as a dog eat dog business had never really been done and I’m sure it would have been a tad shocking for the public of the day and great insight of how Hollywood treated its aging stars back then, letting them disappear into obscurity.
The script from Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M Marshman Jnr. is nearly flawless, its paced perfectly and even when we know the outcome of the film (it’s revealed in the first shot) it never lets you’re interest waver for even a second. It’s a plot that doesn’t rely on twists or big plot revelations; it’s just about the characters and the relationships between them. The centre of which is the very confusing love story between Joe and Norma, we know Norma is besotted with the writer but it’s the strange loyalty that Joe has for Norma that’s the interesting part. He at times feels completely comfortable with being the ‘toy boy’ but when the personality of Norma gets too intense for Joe, which happens often he feels the need to escape but always has the guilt of if he did leave there would be a possibility of Norma taking drastic measures against herself.
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is a freight train and blows everyone off screen, don’t get me wrong William Holden is great in the lead and the supporting cast are all very good but there’s just something about Swanson in this movie. Without a hint of hyperbole it could possibly be the best performance by a leading lady that I have had the joy of watching. So grand and wonderfully dramatic you get to know her personality just through her movements, but her characters story is a sad one, a fall from grace of a Hollywood star trying to secure her faithful return to cinema that will never come. I think Swanson must have brought a lot of her own experiences to the role as she was at the time in the same boat as Norma and Sunset Boulevard was her glorious comeback. The confused ego, the confidence, I’m not sure this is what Wilder was going for but you could see Norma as a woman with a bipolar disorder, which when looking at Hollywood today is rather relatable.
The film looks and sounds spectacular, Wilder’s direction as in most of his movies is spot on but its only made better by John Seitz’s photography and Franz Waxman’s score, Waxman went onto deservedly win the Oscar.
The final scene is cinematic perfection, Swanson is mesmerising and her monologue at the end actually sent shivers down my spine. When she delivers the line ‘and those wonderful people out there in the dark’ and looks straight into the camera, a connection is made that gives that line so much power as if saying to the audience this is all for you, the lies, the deceit, the pain, the movie star lifestyle may have perks but not everyone is who they want to be and there is a sadness that comes with that.
Sunset Boulevard has an automatic place in my Top 10 of all time; there is just so much to take away from it. I have no idea how I could sum this film up as I don’t think I could do it justice. So I’ll just leave it to the films tagline ‘This is it .. the most compelling dramatic story ever unfolded on the screen .. a tale of heartache and tragedy ..love and ambition .. told against the fabulous background of Hollywood.’
If you haven’t seen this film yet don’t make the mistake I did and wait, get it watched now you won’t be disappointed.