In Sunset Boulevard, writer/director Billy Wilder illuminates what lurks in the shadows of show business, hidden in the darkness between every burning spotlight, the gothic terrors of a town just as likely to crush someone as easily as it makes them a star. The film, therefore, stands as a masterpiece of gothic fiction as well as a cynical deconstruction of ‘50s Hollywood that has survived the test of time because of its fascinating characters and performances, intriguing attention to detail, and decisively unsettling atmosphere.
Writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) has talent but talent is not what Hollywood seems to want from him: he’s three months in arrears on his rent and the collection agency has come to claim his car—a fate in an urban sprawl like Los Angeles which he describes as equivalent to chopping off his legs. Determined to make enough cash to survive he makes one last pitch to Paramount—and the unoriginal script tanks. With the repo-men on his heels, Joe drives into what appears to be the grounds of an abandoned mansion on the eponymous Sunset Boulevard. Inside he finds a solution for his problems that drags him into deeper trouble than he could even have devised for a character in one of his failed screenplays.
The film introduces us to the dilapidated mansion that invokes the gothic motif of the decaying castle full of chilling secrets. The house does a great deal to establish the ominous mood of foreboding that pervades the story, its damaged spires and faded glamour intonate high times long passed into oblivion, like so many stars burned out in the public eyes, hiding in the shadows cast by spotlights now directed elsewhere.
The sumptuous indoor sets indicate that for some, those high times never ended—at least for some. A mistake leads Gillis into the house where he encounters faded 50-something starlet Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who simply cannot accept that Hollywood has forever abandoned the silent film era and plans a comeback with her self-penned adaptation of the story of Salome, which, once she discovers Joe is a writer, she intends to have him clean up in preparation for submission directly to Cecil B. Demille himself—the thoroughly delusional plans of a thoroughly delusional woman.
Salome is an intriguing choice for her adaptation because it mirrors Desmond’s succubus-like qualities: Salome falls in love with a holy prophet, but when denied reciprocity, she demands his head on a silver plate so she can kiss his cold lips without his objection. In parallel, Desmond draws Joe into her bizarre life, writing responses to fan letters really written by her butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), and watching her own films endlessly in her personal theatre, never giving him an inch to breathe, drawing him ever closer towards a dark fate Joe’s masculine code dreads more than all others: dependence.
As Glenn Close (who played the character in the Broadway musical of Sunset Boulevard) states in the quite informative documentary packaged with the DVD release, Norma Desmond is one of the great characters of fiction in any period. At once Desmond bestrides the parodic representation of a faded Hollywood diva and the pathetic reality of that representation. The success in Gloria Swanson’s portrayal is making the character frightening in how she jeopardizes Joe’s construction of manhood but sympathetic as a victim of a system which used her and then left her starved for the fame it now denies.
From that point forward, Joe becomes a “kept” man, a prisoner of his economic necessity and the cold grip of Norma Desmond. Although he at first resists her increasingly amorous advances and extravagant gifts, he eventually settles into exploiting his opportunity to escape economic servitude, but in doing so trades it for another slavery that leaves him devoid of creative drive and unable to assert independence. The film perpetuates the Victorian myth of male surrender of potency as a sort of punishment for sexual dalliance, yet nonetheless creates a compelling dynamic between the two stars as a result: Joe is a man unmanned by an aging seductress and Norma is a woman denied the gaze that enables her seductiveness. Issues of gender converge as Joe goes to bed with Norma, perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of necessity, but despises her as symbol of everything wrong and wronged in Hollywood.
Sunset Boulevard attacks the culture of success at all costs promoted by Hollywood, and shows how thoroughly unlovable it makes its participants, and by the end you care even less for the exploitative Joe than you do for the manipulative and arrogant Norma, although both suffer at the hands of an industry that has relegated them to oblivion.
As a film about the industry, Sunset Boulevard naturally overflows with self-reflexive moments. Gloria Swanson herself had not seriously acted since the early ‘30s, making appearance in the film as an actress trying to get on the comeback trail cleverly accurate. When Norma plays bridge with a group Joe refers to as the “waxworks”, one of them is silent film star from that forgotten era, Buster Keaton. Desmond and Gillis watch home-movies of her old films, which happen to actually be those of Gloria Swanson, directed by Erich von Stroheim, who coincidentally plays former director and butler to Norma, Max. Cecil B. Demille even makes a delightful cameo appearance as himself.
Wilder’s decision to foreground the apparatus of his medium in Sunset Boulevard serves to enhance the distance he desires us to feel from its corrupt values, but in doing so, simultaneously focuses us on the most human element of the story: the relationship between Joe and Norma that in the context precipitates the uncanny atmosphere of gothic disquiet. As the thankfully excised “Original Morgue Prologue” (included on the DVD) indicates, even the slightest deviation in tone could have potentially proven disastrous to the mood Wilder creates, in which he must carefully walk the line between satire and parody. Nonetheless, something humorous, if not dark, does underpin the entire film: the cleverness of turning a medium upon itself must surely have been done with half a smile from the director and a full frown from the studio.
The one flaw in the film perhaps rests with the narration. Wilder expertly places his camera to tell the story and the actors ably convey their character’s thoughts and emotions. Much of the noir style explication actually detracts from scenes which could have potentially rivalled Hitchcock’s work in Vertgio and Psycho as some of the best examples of pure visual cinema, and might also have contributed to the sense of loneliness and building suspense. Much of the film would have been silent, but perhaps appropriately so. When your work speaks for itself, do not interrupt.
Sunset Boulevard is nonetheless the best gothic film never made by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s iconic moments belong to Norma whose declaration of her readiness for her “close-up” burns itself into the viewer’s memory as deserving of true pathos and still resonates as a comment upon our obsession with celebrity and the price that obsession exacts upon our lives and the lives of those we perpetually idolize and, on occasion, have forgotten entirely.