Wilder: Sunset Boulevard (1950) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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The story, set in '50s Hollywood, focuses on Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent-screen goddess whose pathetic belief in her own indestructibility has turned her into a demented recluse. The crumbling Sunset Boulevard mansion where she lives with only her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim) who was once her director and husband has become her self-contained world. Norma dreams of a comeback to pictures and she begins a relationship with Joe Gillis (William Holden), a small-time writer who becomes her lover, that will soon end with murder and total madness.

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This is going to be the first time I've ever tried to describe my love for Sunset Boulevard, so if it's a little roughshod, please forgive me.

I've seen Sunset Boulevard dozens of times in my life by now. It's one of the most beautiful and downright acidic films ever put on screen. It waves an accusatory figure at Hollywood, decrying it for treating people like crap and exploiting their naivete. It mocks writers, pities has beens, and reveals just how far success can remove you from failure. No one looks good in Sunset Boulevard; it's just a world of piranhas.

The favorite thing I noticed watching it this time was a mumble. Joe Gillis heads into the drug store to pick up cigarettes for Norma, and he runs into Artie and Betty. "Where have you been keeping yourself?" Artie asks. "I haven't been keeping myself at all..." he mutters in return. It's a quick twist on words, quickly forgotten, but it says so much without either Artie or Betty realizing it: Norma's made him a kept man.

And that's what the movie is about: the limits to which we will prostitute ourselves to satisfy our dreams. Joe Gillis gets everything: money, security, the unfettered devotion of a woman (though that woman's sanity is questionable), a nice fur coat that the lady pays for, and even gets to hang around with some old movie stars. What doesn't satisfy him is his creative itch, and that proves to be his undoing.

There's a lot of attention lavished on Gloria Swanson for his role, and rightfully so-- she's chilling to the core. But it's such a magnetic performance that it can be easy to miss the fantastic work the rest do, especially William Holden. His rye narration allows his character to pull the wool over the audience's eyes: Willis may be just as deluded as Desmond.

In fact, despite Norma's streak of madness, she never calculated any real harm towards Gillis (except at the very end), whereas he was never completely honest with her. He's shady and manipulative, but she sees through him more than he cares to admit. I'd even say that Norma is shockingly much more normal and reasonable than most people seem to notice simply because how far gone she's gotten by the end of the picture. She knows the game, she just doesn't know how old it is.

Joe Gillis is a rat. He talks about the pool he wants more than any woman and more than any Academy Award. I think that's what I love about him: he's selfish, petty and cruel, and since he's telling the story as per his specialty, it's a tragedy.

These things blend into the background so masterfully that it's easy for them to get lost. The film functions as a web, where eventually everyone gets suckered in and eaten, with the final shot pointing the figure directly at whose fault it really is.

Now, this movie has a lot of brilliant details that make it so cool. People who've read plenty about this film (there's been whole books written about it, mind you) will certainly know the trivia that makes this film's fiction feel so achingly close to truth. First, there's the casting: Gloria Swanson was a big silent star whose career hit the skids when talkies hit, and while Swanson never went mad, she was certainly obscure by the time Sunset Boulevard appeared in 1950.

The butler, Max von Mayerling, is played by Erich Von Stroheim. He was a great silent director whose silent film Greed clocked in at 8 hours and was cut by nervous/sensible studio bosses. His career was in tatters after that, and made his living as a character actor in such films as Grand Illusion and Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo. He's a damned good actor, and his mixture of hostility and devotion is tangibly heartbreaking.

The movie that Desmond shows to Joe as she's demonstrating her power is what cinches this connection to reality: it's Queen Kelly, a 1929 movie that Stroheim directed and Swanson starred in. This was a bad step for Stroheim, who had the movie taken from him and edited to the bone again. It's on DVD for anyone curious, though there's obviously a lot that's missing.

There are copious other pieces (yes, that really is Cecil B. DeMille), but this film is a piece of art if ever a film was one. I won't stymy you, Ryan: what do you think?

I think I am much more forgiving of Joe than you are. You call him a rat and accuse him of pulling the wool over our eyes, but I have always seen him as a man that could be good if not for his jaded view on the world. Gillis has the cliched background of a failed Hollywood story because he is a guy who came to the town to be the next big thing and only made it to the bottom of the food chain.

When the movie starts he is broke, desperate and fed up with the world of filmmaking. He's pitching movies he knows are crap just because he doesn't want his car to be taken away (I think he is much more concerned with the car as a status symbol than the pool), and he's so angry that he's close to going home with his tail between his legs. When you are broke, fed up with your job and at your last straw, wouldn't it be easy to be swayed by a rich woman giving you everything that you think you want? Shoot, I'm married and have two kids but there are some days that I think being a kept man doesn't sound so bad.

Like you said, Gillis has everything that he thinks he wants but yet it isn't enough. If he was as shallow as you make him sound he could go on living a lie with Desmond and looking good in new clothes and swimming in that pool, but his conscience won't let him do it.

What is even more striking is when he is going to leave Swanson at the end, he is not running into the arms of Betty but is leaving the town and everything in it. Joe knows he's damaged goods and doesn't want to ruin Betty either and he knows (like the audience) that she would be much better off with her nice fiance.

His goodness also comes out with Desmond herself. He was out of the house on New Years Eve but came back when he heard that she hurt herself and truly became a kept man that night. Sure he might have gotten things in return and it had to help the ego to have a star (as washed up as she is) fawning over a lowly writer but I think a big part of his actions were because he actually felt something for Swanson. Maybe not love or lust but he did spend a lot of time trying to wake her up to the real world as well as shelter her from the worst.

A question I want to ask you is what do you think would have happened to Joe if he would have stayed? Swanson had a pull and hypnotic quality to her that made a famous director fall for her so bad that he literally stops his life to become her servant. Would Joe have become the next Max after his death if he stayed longer? I think it is a possibility that is easy to see.

Haha, well I promise not to tell your wife about your urge. I see what you're saying, and perhaps I came down a bit too hard on Joe: he certainly has empathy buried under his layers of cynicism. I do think his desire for material objects overrides his better judgement for a good amount of time, and that prevents him from doing 'the right thing'.

Look how long he knew that Norma wasn't going to get Salome made before he finally tells her. Hell, most of that time he's also secretly collaborating with Betty-- using Norma for her money and comfort, using Betty for creativity and real romantic longings. He's not some grand manipulator, but his desires override his empathy at every point not involving Betty. He exploits Norma, and I wonder if her life would have been better if he hadn't arrived.

But your question is what would have happened had he stayed. After the messy split with Betty, I think Joe knew it was time to go. Seeing Norma taunting Betty over the phone had been the last straw, he saw that vicious cycle of backstabbing perpetrating itself again, and he couldn't stomach it any more.

That being said, if by some miracle he had let Betty down some other way and never saw Norma make that call, I don't think he would have become Max. His pride, while obviously embellished, would never let him sublimate himself to that level. Especially after discovering who Max really was, I think Joe could never allow himself to go down that route. That's where I think something like drinking would have to come in. Betty was his last connection to reality, and losing that would only further force him into himself. Norma Desmond with Joe around another decade may result her in being happier, but only in a delusional sense. She'd always know he wasn't happy, and he never could be.

There is one thing I wanted to point out and ask you Ryan. I know we've both read Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe, and at one point Cameron asks Wilder about the fade out on New Years Eve. Crowe assumes that Norma and Joe made love for the first time that night, while Wilder is a bit more effusive. Watching it this go around, I agree with Crowe: as Norma's spidery hands entrap him, it's obvious that Joe's last ounces of empathy and delusion are leading him to consummation of their twisted relationship.

Later on, after a heart to heart and some admittance of feelings on Betty's part, Joe and Betty kiss and again the film fades out. Do Joe and Betty make love? I don't think so. I think it's interesting that identical directorial techniques can result in different interpretations simply because of circumstances and composition. What do you think?

I never had any doubt that the two consummated their relationship on New Year's Eve... Maybe it's just the romantic in me.

That is a very interesting thing you bring up on how he can do the same thing twice but interpret two separate meanings. I never thought that Joe and Betty had a physical relationship and that was because their love was supposed to be "pure". But maybe Wilder is just that damn good.

Speaking of how damn good he was, a thing I was thinking about while watching it this time was how this movie could never be remade. I am not saying this because I don't think Wilder films could never be remade (it would be really hard to do it right though), but because Sunset Boulevard is a time capsule as well as being one of the greatest films ever. This movie not only captures Hollywood in the late 40s/early 50s perfectly, but also shows the dying embers of what was left of the silent stars.

30 years past their prime, we're treated to what happened to silent film stars and directors where any other place these years would be a footnote or concluding chapter in the book. Many films have tried to savagely swipe at Hollywood but no film has ever done it as well or as vicious as Sunset Boulevard. Having a star as big as Keaton, a man who would become a legend and call him a waxwork while he is in the scene took some big balls for Wilder to do, but he never stops jabbing. How could this movie be remade today?

All these stars have been gone for at least 50 years and no time in history was an interesting in film as when a whole group of artists were swept aside for something new. Sunset Boulevard is a wonderful film for countless reasons but this aspect of it I think is overlooked too often.

I may have chuckled when you said that Sunset Boulevard couldn't be remade. Not that I disagree, but because Wilder basically tried to do it himself with Fedora about 20 years later.

But you're correct, there's so much material to mine for tragedy here and Wilder works that for everything he's got. I don't know if it would have the same impact if we couldn't see the camaraderie between DeMille and Swanson, or if anyone could have portrayed the same level of pathos they obviously really had as Von Stroheim did.

Now, Ryan, there's something important I wanted to talk about, and I'm about to get a little crazy here, but it's an important Wilder motif: staircases. I bring it up now because Norma's descent at the end of Sunset Boulevard is probably the most iconic of all of his. We can go back to Double Indemnity and see Phyllis with her anklet, or Five Graves to Cairo with Mouche's transformation. Those moments are all vital to the stories they're telling, and a common theme.

Here it's a thinly veiled meaning meaning: Norma literally descends into madness. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. There are so many moments that work and come together here: we get Gillis' final wry lines, and the climactic notes of Franz Waxman's wonderful score. There's also Max, at the bottom of the stairs, his stiff lip hiked up to prevent tears from streaming down his face. And in my favorite bit of momentary acting comes from real-life gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, as she gasps in terror while Norma makes her way down. She sees what's happening, something that all of the stone faced and motionless journalists and police officers simply don't comprehend.

It ends with Norma's speech, one of the most wonderful and misquoted from any movie. Norma points out into the audience and hisses her appreciation and gratitude. The writing here is spot on, as it carefully explains without a word towards the message that we're the ones who made her the monster. Affection isn't something that can just be cut off; we're at fault, all of us. We created her and countless more. The tagline for the movie is "A Hollywood Story" and it's scary in its implications.

But that brings us back to the particular of the situation. We've talked about Joe and Max, but neither is much in this film without the dynamism of one figure. So, Ryan: what makes Norma Desmond so interesting? And is she still relevant?

I don't think I am exaggerating when I say Desmond's voyage down those stairs is one of the greatest scenes ever put on film. Everything you said about this scene I agree with and it gives me chills every time I see it. The music, lighting, actors are all great but one of the moments I love most about this scene is how no one on the stairs moves until Desmond passes them.

Of course by doing this it makes Desmond the character to focus on 100% but it also gives the scene more of a dream feeling that nothing can function in this space without the great Norma Desmond gracing them with her presence. I could watch this moment on repeat for a full 24 hours and never get tired of it and probably catch something new each time.

While looking at the big picture of the staircases in the three films mentioned above, the staircase was prominently featured in some of the most memorable moments on three of those films. Five Graves to Cairo it was the march of the damned, Double Indemnity it was the introduction of Phyllis and Neff's descent into darkness and I would add The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland taking a dive down the steps at his lowest point. To boil it down so simply in this manner does a disservice to those moments but that it the way I see it.

To answer your second question, hell yeah is Desmond relevant. People who have not scene Sunset Boulevard or classic movies in general still know of her character and can quote some of the famous lines in this film. The easy explanation into why this character is still in the popular culture 62 years after its debut is because it is such a great performance in a wonderful movie but I think it is something more.

This movie and the character taps into the great fear that many people have of being forgotten or thrown to the side. Who will remember us when we are gone? Within a generation will anyone ever know our name? Here we have a character who overcame anonymity and became the biggest star in the world and then had the fame be quickly taken away from her, only to become a footnote in Hollywood. How would we handle going from the height of fame to forgotten relic?

I know that I imagine many actors who seemed to have faded away from popularity dealing with it the same way as Norma Desmond. Now that I think about it, I take back what I said about there not being anyone who could remake this, bring on the remake with Christian Slater in the lead role as Norman Desmond. Hollywood I just gave you a billion dollar idea!

Oh poor Christian Slater. It wasn't bad enough he starred in Alone in the Dark, now you're trying to put him in Gloria Swanson's massive shoes.

Hell, if you're dying to do a sort of remake, make it about a guy who stars in a viral video, makes a million licensing, and disappears into the dark. That's happening all the time now, and we're seeing stuff like Winnebago Man that looks to capitalize on that sort of fleeting fame.

Speaking of, there's one thing that gets under my skin, and I bring it up every time I talk about this movie: it didn't win the Best Picture Oscar the year it came out. The film All About Eve took home the statue, which is something that gets under my skin even if it makes total sense. All About Eve is also a bitter, cynical film, but it's centered on the world of theater rather than film. I imagine that Boulevard, a better and more daring movie in my opinion, lost simply because it so nakedly pointed its finger at exactly those who would vote for it.

One final note. This is the last screenwriting and production collaboration between Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. They'd been partners for over two decades at this point when Wilder choose to dissolve it without an explanation. The excellent book Close-Up On Sunset Boulevard goes into this and discusses both their working relationship and their careers afterward.

While I think the book may be a little fawning, it definitely paints Wilder's career into two separate periods. With Brackett, and Without Him. What do you think, Ryan?

Although Sunset Boulevard is a slightly better film I love All About Eve and think a double feature of aging stars with these two movies is great with a chaser of Singing in the Rain to watch a happier version of the changing of the guard in Hollywood. That said I have to agree with your statement because Sunset Boulevard would have never won because the Academy Awards are there for the industry to pat itself on the back and not to criticize itself.

One last mention about All About Eve, it saddens me that Wilder never worked with George Sanders (who won the Oscar that year for the great role of Addison DeWitt), think what those two could have done together!

This film is at the "sunset" (see what I did there?) of the partnership of Brackett and Wilder and you asked if I saw his career as with Brackett and without. I don't see it quite like that, I see Wilder's career is with Brackett, with Diamond and everything in between.

I used to think Wilder's better match was I.A.L. Diamond because the two made a pair of wonderful films back to back with Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. When I started thinking about it more I don't really know if that is the case anymore. Diamond was also responsible for the movies made while Wilder was not, to put it gently, at the top of his game, while the only blemish that Brackett had on his slate was The Emperor Waltz.

I don't think there would have been a "Billy Wilder" without the steady presence of Brackett, and he might not the credit deserved sometimes. I love many films Wilder made after the break-up, but it's sad the partnership had to die at all. At least there is consolation in knowing that the two went out on top, making the definitive film about Hollywood and a movie that will be many people's favorite for generations to come.

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Next Week: Ace in the Hole (1951)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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