Sunset Boulevard (1950) Revisited
There’s a reason why some actors/actresses decide to steer clear of living in Hollywood, it’s full of crazy people who have lost touch with reality. Out there to chase their dreams that may never happen. Taking a normal job, going to auditions, writing scripts, following any lead that could be their big break. It stinks of desperation and dreamers who have lost the plot, or are driven and won’t be pulled back into the world of the living, the sane with us who know to stay on the right side of the silver screen. Only the lucky few are picked, get the call and go over and make the big time. Then you have to apply the old saying “whatever goes up, must come down” tell that to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) one of the victims of the introduction of sound. The screen didn’t get smaller, in fact its blown wide open by those early talkies as everyone began to rush to that “gimmick” with all they could, seeing actors old and new change in a matter of years. You can see the effect of progress crystallised in a few films, but none of created a victim of that progress as frightening as Billy Wilder in his chilling take on Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard (1950). Having been in tinsel town for almost 20 years he had he own fair share of stories to tell, but they would be true, and that would be unfair on those who have given him all he has made in this foreign country he calls home.
It’s been a few years since I first caught this striking film, a dark comment on an industry that Wilder was more than willing to use as material. My thoughts on the film have had time to mature and change over that time. I’ve taken in many, many more films, a small portion commenting on the industry that produces them. We’ve just seen a film briefly win Best Picture before being snapped away due to an admin error. Hollywood loves the praise itself, but sometimes the ego’s been stroked a little too often and a conscience for the better film to be honored props up, declare Moonlight (2016) the winner over La La Land (2016) which was a front-runner for what seems a year since it was first premiered.
However if we go back to 1950 it’s a very different time and the golden age is starting to crumble after the studio system was being broken down by both Washington and the stars who made the studios so powerful. The only real power was censorship, which was skirted by Wilder. American cinema was entering a new age of the psychological, the fear of the Soviets, the first decade of peace, after WWII was still uneasy with the war on communism being fought in Korea. With all this going on Hollywood is ripe for he picking.
If we go back to the dawn of sounds we see numerous careers being ended, the fear of rejection and uncertainty in an industry of replace and progression. Culminated here in Norma Desmond, one of the first film stars to be let go or forgotten, or as we learn simply too much to handle, one of the first diva’s. Of course the dark twist is that she’s played by Gloria Swanson one of those much forgotten once celebrated actors whose own fame had since faded. Was this a version of herself, a pastiche of the silent era stars, would the audience be able to tell the difference. A dastardly piece of casting, of course Swanson knew exactly what she was doing. A heightened version of what her generation could now be. The self-awareness she brought, the history which could still be hers if she hadn’t found another career, whilst also having a minor acting career was all but forgotten. The fact she carried on, shows how she adapted to the introduction of sound. Just where did she find the unhinged Desmond that is very much part of that desire to be famous, once the attention has gone, how does the individual adapt to life post-fame? Desmond is the ultimate forgotten star.
Add to that a version of Wilder and Charles Brackett who co wrote this film, their view of the system for an aspiring script-writer. Is Boulevard a culmination of their experiences, did the encounter a Greta Garbo or Mary Pickford who was lost in the transition now living in a delusion of grandeur in the Hollywood hills. The writer and the narrator here is Joe Gilles played by William Holden an actor of the new confident age of sound, two generations sharing the screen. Gilles the struggling writer is knee-deep in debt, he can’t get a script green-lit for the life of him, his cars threatened with repossession. When will he get a break? It’s only when he gets a flat during a car chase does he find a mansion that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Citizen Kane (1941). Shelter was the storm that is his collapsing world. On meeting Desmond a has-been, his life’s being turned on its head, both using each other to their own ends, nothing new there.
So who has the upper hand here? It starts out as Gilles who takes on Desmond overblown untamed screenplay meant for the silent screen rather than a contemporary audience, OK maybe the arty world might like it. A script that relied more on the eyes, the facial gestures rather than dialogue to progress the plot. Relying on titles of varying length instead. It’s Gilles’s task to adapt and tame this beast of a script, without upsetting the original writer’s ego. Of course this soon gets out of hand, the writer finds that he’s been moved in to the house now. His life is no longer his own, in a trap of gifts and love of an older woman who see’s him as her way back to the big or small screen – depend who perspective you look at it. He want to use her script for his next big film, can he make it work for both.
It’s a film ultimately of professional back stabbing, who can walkover who first and hardest and still prosper. We see from the beginning that it hadn’t worked out too well for someone who is hovering dead in the swimming pool. A classic trope of Film noir, start at the grizzly demise of someone and work backwards, just how did this guy end up in the pool, I don’t think he tripped? What we see in the course of the film is two figures hungry for fame eat away at each other. One with step in the door, whilst another is just a shadow. Littered with figures from a forgotten age of cinema, a nod to them and a reminder that they were still around, they just be playing cards had to carve out a life post fame.
Last it also works perfectly as a comment on an industry, Paramount Pictures included that released the film is ultimately a business that will pick up and drop the next big thing to make a few bucks. The kind of cynicism that Wilder is known for. It’s a method that still works to this day, one day your hot, then you make a flop and out you go NEXT!! That’s show-business for ya.