“You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big,” says Joe Gillis. Norma responds, “I AM big! It’s the pictures that got small.”
Billy Wilder has made many classic films during his long career. Some of those classics were in the film noir genre (such as 1944’s Double Indemnity and 1945’s The Lost Weekend). One of his most memorable was Sunset Boulevard, which heavily involved the film industry (in both star power and storyline). It featured a former silent film actress in the leading role as well as cameos from a few other silent film stars. I had seen some clips in a few of my film classes when I was in college, but I didn’t get to see the film in its entirety and on the big screen until 11 years ago at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of their “L.A. On Film” series. I also got to see it again on the big screen last month in a beautiful black-and-white DCP, and I enjoyed it even more than the first time I saw it. This 65th anniversary review of Sunset Boulevard is my entry in the Billy Wilder Blogathon hosted by Outspoken and Freckled & Once Upon A Screen.
1950’s Sunset Boulevard follows an unsuccessful screenwriter who accidentally encounters a former silent film actress who is attempting to make a Hollywood comeback. She hires him to polish up a screenplay she’s written for herself to star in, but she soon grows dangerously obsessed with him. Wilder assembled an excellent cast that includes William Holden (as Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (as Norma Desmond), Erich Von Stroheim (as Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (as Betty Schaefer), Jack Webb (as Artie Green), Fred Clark (as Sheldrake), and cameos from Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. Best Actor Oscar nominee Holden is terrific as the struggling screenwriter who is drawn into the world of Norma Desmond and finds that he cannot escape without dire consequences. Holden gives a restrained performance, especially when his Gillis is somewhat emasculated a couple of times during the film. Best Actress Oscar nominee Swanson is the show stealer as the former silent film star Desmond. By the time she meets Gillis she has already been living in a delusional state for quite some time (a situation aided by her servant Max). Swanson brings a larger-than-life attitude to Desmond (which is reflected in her behavior and how she lives). Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Von Stroheim shines as Desmond’s servant Max, who holds a number of secrets about himself and Desmond.
Best Director Oscar nominee Wilder draws strong performances, especially from Holden, Swanson, and Von Stroheim. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr., and Wilder explores delusion and obsession as well as the ups and downs of Hollywood (it also contains a lot of humor made at the expense of the film industry). The Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography by John F. Seitz complements the dark tone of the film, and the Oscar-winning production design by Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer, and Ray Moyer is fantastic (the interiors of Norma Desmond’s mansion are my favorite sets). The Oscar-nominated editing by Arthur P. Schmidt and Doane Harrison gives the film a good pace, slowly building to its famously chilling finale. Edith Head’s costume designs were gorgeous (especially the costumes worn by Swanson). Franz Waxman delivered a chilling, Oscar-winning score with a tango-inspired motif for Desmond, at times mixes together some older musical styles, and provides plenty of eerie ambience to reflect Desmond’s state of mind (it remains one of his best scores ever). Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a beloved, Oscar-winning classic that remains one of the best films made about Hollywood and features virtuoso performances from its core cast.