After watching All About Eve, a film that takes place in the world of the theatre, it seemed natural to move on to Sunset Blvd., a film that takes place in Hollywood. It’s a great film, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of All About Eve.
Sunset Blvd. is the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden) and how he wound up being killed and left floating in a pool. The film is narrated by the recently deceased Joe, and he relates the tale of how he came to meet fading silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
A down on his luck screenwriter, Joe stumbles upon the crumbling mansion of Norma Desmond while trying to escape some men trying to repossess his car. When Norma finds out that Joe is a writer, she demands that he look at a script she has written. She’s ready to return to pictures, and wants Joe to help her. We already know how this is going to end for Joe.
The most interesting thing about the movie is the fact that even after 60 years, little has changed in Hollywood. Norma was a famous actress in silent films, but talking pictures basically put her out of business. She’s forgotten by the public and cast aside by the industry. The only time anyone takes an interest in her is when Joe is found dead in her pool. Suddenly her house is swarmed with reporters. This leads to her unforgettable walk down the stairs and her famous line “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” You could easily see this happening right now. Stars come and go faster than ever before, and there are some that we only hear about when something terrible has happened. I’m sure this has a lot to do with the classic status of the film. It’s still relevant 60 years later.
The majority of the film focuses on Joe (Holden), Norma (Swanson), and her butler/chauffeur Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Since Joe is so down on his luck, he sees an opportunity to leech off the very rich Norma. Max, the only person still around in the mansion, doesn’t seem to be bothered by this fact. His job is to keep the illusion going for Norma, and letting Joe work on her script seems like the best idea. Each actor does a superb job in their role.
William Holden takes Joe from a conniving, smug jerk to a character that actually cares about Norma. It feels very natural and is completely convincing. The same can be said for Gloria Swanson as Norma. Her performance may seem over the top, but she’s playing a silent film star, where the entire career was based on exaggerated motions and expressions. Norma hasn’t left that life behind, taking her screen persona with her into her every day life. Her sanity slowly starts to slip away as it becomes more apparent that her return to movies isn’t going to actually happen. When the reporters and police arrive at her house after Joe’s death, Norma has lost it. Max directs her down the stairs, as she believes this is a scene in a movie. It’s both sad and disturbing, her face contorted as she announces she’s ready for her close-up.
Sunset Blvd. is an interesting look at Hollywood and apparently ruffled up Louis B. Mayer, MGM studio head at the time, at a preview screening. It’s said that he let director Billy Wilder know exactly how he felt about his portrayal of their industry. It didn’t seem to bother Paramount though, as the studio is featured prominently in the film. At the time, these things may have been a bit surprising. There had certainly been some scandals by this point in the history of Hollywood, but it still would have been a very fresh idea. A film like this wouldn’t be a shock to anyone now. Entire business’ are run on the notion of seedy celebrity scandals, and it seems the only interesting news now, is bad news.
Watching the relationship between Joe and Norma, as well as Norma starting to fall apart, is the real draw of the movie. We all know how Hollywood works, dropping stars left and right for the smallest thing. There isn’t anything new there. It’s seeing the natural progression of the two main characters that will continue to draw people to this film, an absolute classic.
Under the marquee – Will